Last January, 2015 the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article on the rise of professional cuddlers who might charge $1/minute to spoon. Skin-to-skin contact is not involved. The cuddlers and their clients keep their clothes on. Their customers say that cuddling lessens anxiety and increases a sense of wellbeing.
There’s a biological reason for this lessening of anxiety and increase in wellbeing. Cuddling releases the hormone oxytocin. So do kissing, having sex, giving birth, and breast-feeding. It plays a significant role in pair bonding, both for sexual partners and for mother-child relationships. It’s a powerful feel-good hormone.
Oxytocin is sometimes confused with oxycodone, which is marketed under the name OxyContin. They share similar-ish chemical compositions:
Oxytocin: C43 H66 N12 O12 S2
Oxycodone: C18 H21 N04
(C= Carbon, H = Hydrogen, N=Nitrogen, O=Oxygen, S=Sulfur)
They have widely different uses. Oxytocin mediates positive social behavior. Oxycodone is a painkiller. OxyContin has created problems in the U.S. because it creates a great high and is very addictive.
In his 2003 book Pain Killer, Barry Meier describes how OxyContin was first sold in 1996 as a treatment for cancer patients and other chronic pain sufferers. Then thrill-seeking teenagers got their hands on it, and an epidemic in prescription drug abuse ensued.
In 2006 conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh got caught in an OxyContin abuse scandal but managed to avoid prosecution.
In TV’s House (2004-2012) Dr. House was a Vicodin addict. Vicodin is now the top-selling painkiller in the US. The chemical composition is:
Vicodin: C18 H21 N03
It sure looks a lot like oxycodone. However, only in 2014 did the Drug Enforcement Agency reassign Vicodin from a Schedule III drug (less addictive) to a Schedule II drug (more addictive), thereby putting stronger limits on its prescription.
These painkillers do, indeed, kill. In 2013, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, over 100 Americans died from overdose deaths each day. In 2013 drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death, greater than car accidents and homicide. In 2012 259 million pain killer prescriptions were written, enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills.
Comedian Russell Brand is 10 years in recovery from his heroin addiction. (Heroin is a Schedule I drug.) He writes eloquently on both his addiction and his recovery. Here’s an op-ed piece he published in The Guardian.)
What’s my point?
Brand sums it up when he writes, “I look to drugs and booze to fill a hole in me.”
In interviews he’s given on the topic of addiction, Brand acknowledges the hole is old and goes well back into his childhood. He opens his Guardian article by saying that a recent failed relationship sent him into a tailspin of emotional and psychological pain that triggered his old heroin craving. The hole is his lack of connection.
We all want and need connection. We do best when we have contact, cuddling, kissing, and all the things that stimulate the release of oxytocin. When we don’t have it, we seek to fill the hole created by the lack of this powerful hormone. Some of us turn to painkillers – to kill the pain of lack of connection and then end up in a spiral of addiction.
There are less addictive ways to get our needs met. I can’t prove what I’m about to say, but I hypothesize that reading a satisfying romance stimulates oxytocin.
I’m encouraged to make such a hypothesis based on the work of J. González, et al, who published the 2006 article “Reading Cinnamon Activates Olfactory Brain Regions” in NeuroImage. These neuroscientists measured the brain activity of subjects silently reading both odor-related words and neutral language items. They discovered that simply reading odor-related words like garlic, cinnamon, and jasmine caused increased blood flow in the part of the brain devoted to smell.
So, it stands to reason that reading a romance and vicariously experiencing the feeling of falling in love would stimulate the brain regions and hormonal benefits of all the physical, emotional, and psychological connections love creates.
Romances are available without prescription, reasonably priced, and non-habit-forming. When you’re feeling at loose ends, a little down, and disconnected, Dr. Julie recommends: cuddle up, read two romances, and call me in the morning.