Overfed and Touch Starved

By Gill Tree

Looking around me wherever I am out, people are walking about with food and sugary drinks in their hands and an awful lot more extra weight than 20- 30 years ago.

The fast pace society we are quickly becoming seems to also mean constant grazing, constant grazing and eating on the go.

One hundred years ago the average person consumed 4 lbs of sugar a year. Now it is 80 lbs. Apart from being more readily available and cheaper, why are we consuming so much sugary food and in reality sadly for many, literally killing ourselves with our teeth?

The answer of course is complex, but there is no doubt that sugar is much more widely available, addictive and is filling a gaping hole of need in people’s lives.

Data compiled by the Health and Social Care Information Centre in the UK in 2011 have produced statistics that paint an alarming picture of an obesity epidemic in England that is showing no signs of abating.

What were the key findings?


  • The proportion of adults with a healthy body mass index (BMI) – defined as being between 18.5 and 25 – fell to just 34% in men and 39% in women during 2011.
  • There has been a marked increase in obesity rates over the past eight years – in 1993 13% of men and 16% of women were obese – in 2011 this rose to 24% for men and 26% for women.
  • For children attending reception class (aged 4-5 years) during 2011-12, 9.5% were obese.

Health outcomes

  • In 2011, 53% of obese men and 44% of obese women were found to have high blood pressure.
  • During 2011-12 there were 11,736 hospital admissions due to obesity – this over 11 times higher than during 2001-02.

If we fed our pets what we feed our children, there would be a public outcry!

Could this need for comfort eating and constant drinking be that we are touch starved? Are we perhaps stuffing down our emotions with food?

Why is touch so important to our physical and mental wellbeing? 

In infants there is a condition known as marasmus where without loving touch babies can wither away and die. Adults who do not receive loving touch may become withdrawn and anxious.  We can see extremes of this in those with mental illness who may rock themselves for comfort.

In every day life we can all benefit from massage or loving touch to help us cope with the everyday strains and stresses of the twentieth century.

When one person touches another in a loving way, there is a release in both, of the hormone oxytocin. Well known to be found in abundance in breast feeding mothers, it is the hormone that ensures the bond with, and love for the child is secured. When released through touch in both men and women, it gives us a feeling of well-being and of being nurtured.

Loving touch has other powerful effects on the endocrine (hormone) system. It increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. In a study on massage therapy by the Touch Research Institute at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine, serotonin levels in the test subjects increased by 28 percent, dopamine by 31 percent. (1)

Serotonin – This hormone positively affects emotions and thoughts. It is a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain and body functions, producing a general sense of well-being. The ‘happy hormone’.

Dopamine – This neurotransmitter helps regulate mood, attention, learning and sleep and is vital in the body’s control of movement. It is also believed to release endorphins, chemicals that allow us to feel pleasure. The ‘feel good hormone’.

Whilst massage causes an increase in these neurotransmitters, it also decreases the levels of less desirable chemicals; cortisol (2) and substance P.

Cortisol – Stress affects the brain by releasing cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone”, which negatively affects many systems throughout the body. It is secreted into the bloodstream during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations. Long term exposure to cortisol can result in sleep problems, depression, increased heart rate, affecting heart, lungs, circulatory and digestive systems and is also associated with a weakened immune system.

Substance P – This is a protein found in the brain and spinal cord that transmits pain signals from sensory nerve ending to the central nervous system, i.e. its function is to cause pain. It has been implicated in inflammatory conditions and is believed to be involved in the regulation of pain, stress and anxiety. Massage has been shown to decrease substance P levels (3), contributing to reduced pain, stress and anxiety..

Insufficient loving touch for all of us, can lead to withdrawal, depression, a lack of appetite or overeating. Scientists are now acknowledging that if babies do not receive adequate, loving, tactile stimulation, they can be adversely affected, psychologically.

Eating chocolate also causes a release of some of the same hormones: seratonin and dopamine. Is there a link?

Research by Sidney Jourard in the 1960’s showed how people from differing cultures differed in their levels of touch by observing pairs of people for one hour out in cafes:

In San Juan in Puerto Rico an average of 180 times an hour
In Paris in France an average of 100 times an hour
In Gainsville Florida an average of twice an hour
In London, England  they didn’t touch each other at all!

I think we have moved on since then but certainly not enough!

In my travels around the world, particularly in Asian countries, it is common to see people freely holding hands, including men and mothers sitting in the sun massaging their babies in their laps. Watching this natural, effortless and loving gift that is so obviously a pleasure for both mother and babe, really brings home that we in the west have much to relearn and remember to become more attuned to a more natural, more peaceful, more tactile and more loving way of being.

Start touching today! 

Essentials for Health provide free massage e-courses;


  1. Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Diego M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy.  International Journal of  Neuroscience. 2005 Oct;115(10):1397-413. Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Florida 33101, USA.
  2. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapy. 2011 Jan;15(1):3-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2010.06.001. Epub 2010 Jul 2. Does massage therapy reduce cortisol? A comprehensive quantitative review. Moyer CA, Seefeldt L, Mann ES, Jackley LM.
  3. Touch Research Institute. Authors: Tiffany Field, Ph.D., Miguel Diego, Christy Cullen, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., William Sunshine and Steven Douglas. Originally published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, April 2002, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 72-76.

Gill Tree is the founder and owner of Essentials for Health, one of the UK’s leading Schools of Massage and Sports Massage, established in 1992. Gill acts as an ambassador for massage and is campaigning to make the UK a more pro-touch society. She has pioneered bringing programmes to the UK such as the IAIM Infant Massage Instructors certificate in 1996 and Massage in Schools in 2000 and is an award winning entrepreneur and therapy business expert.

Contact Gill via Facebook and Linked In or email

01628 476100.

Essentials for Health offer Introductory Massage Workshops around the UK

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