Massage is often viewed as a luxury, a pampering or self-indulgent extravagance. Research shows that while massage is definitely a “feel good” experience, it has numerous mental and emotional benefits linked to neurotransmitters and hormones released through therapeutic touch. Yes, we all know massage can increase muscle flexibility, blood circulation and our joints’ range of motion. But massage can do more than that. Massage can reduce stress, elevate our mood, help with depression and anxiety, improve our sleep and increase our sociability.
Five Neurochemical Benefits of Massage, all Improving Your Mental-Emotional Well-Being
Seratonin and Dopamine
While anyone who has experienced massage knows that it is a relaxing experience, few understand the neurochemical changes produced by therapeutic touch, all of which can increase our feelings of emotional well-being. One study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that massage recipients measure a 28% averaged increase of serotonin and a 31% averaged increase in of dopamine in the bloodstream, following massage therapy. Serotonin helps to regulate mood, appetite and digestion. Synthesized in the brain and intestines, it is theorized that low serotonin levels contribute to depression and anxiety. Its close relative, dopamine, is associated with the reward centers of the brain. Low dopamine levels are associated with lack of motivation, low energy and the inability to focus, all symptoms linked to depression. The increased levels of these neurotransmitters produced by massage can regulate, even elevate your mood, energy, motivation and mental focus, all improving your emotional state.
Research also shows an increase in endorphins resulting from massage, as much as 16% more found in volunteers tested after connective tissue massage. Endorphins are the neurotransmitters produced to relieve pain and improve mood. They are your body’s natural narcotic. In fact, the chemical structure of endorphins resembles that of opiate pain-relieving drugs that are derived from the poppy plant. Most people associate elevated endorphins with exercise, such as the “runner’s high,” but endorphins are also produced by laughter, dark chocolate (yes!) and of course, massage.
Additionally, massage and other forms of touch, such as a hug or embrace, have been shown through numerous studies to increase the neurotransmitter and hormone of oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone.” It increases feelings of bonding and belonging, a sense of stability and trust, and enhances our sociability. Research has shown that this hormone can relieve social anxiety, depression and stress, while increasing empathy, generosity, self-esteem, and optimism.
Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous System
While we see that massage can increase our “feel good” neurotransmitters and hormones, it also helps to reduce those that produce unpleasant experiences associated with the stress hormones. Understand that the autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The latter activates the “fight or flight” response. It can help you respond to a perceived threat and will accelerate the heart rate, contract muscles and increase the rate of your breath, readying your body for action. The parasympathetic, by contrast, is seen as the “rest and digest” mode, characterized by relaxed breathing.
Humans are complex beings. Our sympathetic nervous system isn’t just activated by life-threatening events, but also memories of past traumas or threats, and daily stressors, such as work demands, family dysfunctions or traffic congestion. We can get thrown into, or even stuck in, flight-or-flight mode, resulting in feelings of stress, worry or overwhelm. Any time the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we see an increase in the hormones of adrenaline and norepinephrine, the hormones that enable the body to spring into action. This may have been helpful to our ancestors who perceived the threat of tiger hunting the village. But if your brain is constantly interpreting chronic financial or relationship distress, the physiological response will probably result in continual stress and anxiety.
Massage can be an antidote to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. It can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, thus reducing levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine, and helping the body to return to it “rest and digest” state.
Stress produces another hormone called cortisol. If chronic stressors in life result in cortisol release over a long amount of time, immune system suppression, increased blood pressure and weight gain can be the results. Research again shows massage as a potential antidote. A study in 2010 found that Swedish massage recipients had lower levels of cortisol and higher counts in white blood cells, after receiving massage.
Human contact, or the touch therapies, are clearly critical to maintaining mental-emotional wellness in our often pace-paced, stressful lives. Not only does massage provide the much-needed relaxation throughout the treatment process, but its neurochemical effects can enhance your mood, relationships, and engagement in life. Schedule a massage today to experience the profound healing massage can provide if you are feeling down, anxious, having difficulty sleeping, feel isolated or just stressed-out.
Osmosis Vital Health Club
As we move into 2019, and you set your goals for better health and self-care, massage can be a profound addition to your regime. Consider the many benefits already proven by neuroscientific medical research on the deep impact massage has on our body-mind connection and health. Sign up for our Vital Health Club membership to build massage into your ongoing health care regime.
Raizelah Bayen is the Spa Services Manager at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. She has 25 years in the field of massage, 15 years as a massage and yoga instructor, and is additionally certified in acupressure, herbology and aromatherapy. Her teaching specialties include Eastern Massage Modalities and Acupressure, Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers, and Integrative Wellness workshops, weaving herbs, aromatherapy, self-massage and yoga into a cohesive themed workshop, such as the one above. If you are interested in hosting a workshop, please contact Raizelah at email@example.com. For more information, connect with Raizelah Bayen on LinkedIn.
While massage is becoming more recognized for its therapeutic benefits, any kind of touch including a simple handshake, congratulatory pat on the back, or a warm-hearted hug has the power to transform you both physically and emotionally. Touch triggers the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, both released into the bloodstream and stored in the brain. This hormone has a range of physiological functions, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, increasing pain tolerance and boosting your mood. There have been a range of studies, each with a different population including infants, cancer patients, mental health patients, the elderly, and pregnant women, all of which point to the same conclusion:
Touch not only makes you feel better, it is vital to our emotional and physical health.
Science-Based Benefits of Touch
Edmond Ross found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, linked to feelings of reward and compassion. His studies show that simple touch triggers the release of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone.” This fosters greater trust between individuals and builds stronger teams of people working together. Touch is the foundation for connection and community.
Studies at the Touch Research Institute found that prenatal massage lowers stress hormones and increases serotonin and dopamine, in pregnant women, reducing the incidence of intra-uterine artery resistance, making it easier to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the baby. This means less premature deliveries, and with healthier birth weights. The women in this study also experienced shorter delivery times, and with fewer complications.
Infants and Touch
And how does loving touch affect the babies? A study carried out by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Children’s Hospital measured the brain responses of 125 infants and showed that a baby’s earliest experiences of touch have lasting effects on the way the young brains respond to gentle touch. Preemies that spent more time in gentle contact with their parents and healthcare providers, had a stronger brain response to touch than those who were in incubators. Preterm babies who receive positive supportive touch, such as skin-to-skin care by parents, have brain response to touch similar to those babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside mother’s womb.
Dr. Ruth Feldman carried out a 10-year study which shows the lifetime impacts of physical contact with preterm babies. “In this decade-long study, we showed for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children’s functioning 10 years later…” said Dr. Feldman. Compared against standard incubator care, the baby held skin-to-skin against the chest of an adult, showed better cognitive and executive skills in repeated testing from 6 months to 10 years of age, such as more regular sleep patterns, better neuroendocrine response to stress, a mature functioning of the nervous system, and better overall cognitive performance.
Hospice Patients and Touch
Kutner’s research on the effects of touch on 380 hospice patients, half of which received regularly scheduled massage and half of which received a simple untrained touch from hospice volunteers, gave us evidence that while massage is extremely beneficial, untrained touch is also helpful. Both the patients who received massage and those who received untrained touch all reported decrease in pain, and elevated mood and quality of life. The patients who received massage reported those results more immediately than those who received untrained touch, showing us that all is helpful.
Dr. Tiffany Field, Director of Research at the University of Miami Medical School says,”Moderate pressure massage has a huge variety of benefits because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which has branches all over your body, so for example, it slows the heart rate and relaxes your nervous system.” This is huge. The vagus nerve interfaces with our parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract, so can lower blood pressure and reduce digestive or respiratory stress.
Mental Health and Touch
Several studies show that touch therapy can be helpful to people who suffer from mental health issues such as eating disorders, anxiety or depression, or physical pain. Why? Massage can reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol while simultaneously increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that fights depression and pain. Serotonin is a natural way to reduce physical discomfort and uplift the mood.
Six Facts Why Simple Touch or Professional Massage will Benefit your Well-Being:
Neuroscientists now know that physical touch is processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, and is thus vital to your emotional health.
Psychologists explain that simple touch stimulates receptors under the skin that lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and lowering blood pressure.
The Thymus gland, which regulates your body’s production of white blood cells, strengthening the body’s immune system and helping to maintain optimal health is stimulated through touch.
The Hippocampus, an area of the brain that is central to memory, is also stimulated.
Touch can, of course, rub away tension, and when administered by a trained massage therapist, can increase the range of motion and circulation while reducing pain or spasm.
Finally, all touch including professional massage releases endorphins in the body to reduce pain and elevate mood.
Healing touch has become a widely respected way to prevent and ease health issues. Doctors of all kinds recommend massage to their patients to ease both emotional and physical symptoms of dis-ease.
Raizelah Bayen is a California Certified Massage Therapist, currently employed as the Spa Services Manager at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California. She has been practicing massage for over 25 years and teaching T’ui Na, Acupressure, Sports and Pregnancy Massage in massage certification programs for 15 years. Raizelah is an approved CEU Instructor by the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), offering training in Freestone, California and on-site training at your massage school or spa. For more information, connect with Raizelah Bayen on LinkedIn.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on upcoming training in T’ui Na, Shiatsu, Thai Massage, Foot Reflexology, and Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers scheduled in Sebastopol, California. Or book Raizelah for an on-site training in your massage school or spa in T’ui Na, Shiatsu, Thai Massage, Foot Reflexology or Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers.