Massage: worthwhile investment or frivolous indulgence?

Massage is a funny thing. Most people who have partaken would generally agree that, overall, it is a positive experience. Yet we only really allow ourselves the privilege on rare occasions – a hen do spa retreat, a birthday pamper, or when we have actually injured ourselves. Any time outside these occasions is often deemed as an overindulgence.wellness-massage-relax-relaxing-56884.jpeg I mentioned previously about the need to stop feeling guilty about putting our health first, with regards to our fitness endeavours, and in doing so making ourselves more useful to those we love and our communities in general.

I would like to see the same attitude carried over to practices such as massage and bodywork.

Massage is often placed in the category of ‘alternative therapy’, which many people sadly view with some scepticism – that it is a bit ‘woo-woo’. While admittedly some massage practices can seem a little ‘out-there’ there is much evidence to show how beneficial massage can be.

One study observed changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels following massage therapy.

Cortisol (stress hormone) levels were observed to decrease by an average of 31%. Now cortisol is necessary for healthy function, but our increasingly chronic elevation of the stress hormone can be problematic. Disruption to other hormone systems, immunity, sleep patterns and fat loss are all possible outcomes. Balancing our cortisol levels is therefore vital for health.

The same study showed an increase in the levels of serotonin and dopamine by an average of 28% and 31% respectively.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, and in turn affects mood. Low levels of dopamine have been linked to greater incidents of addiction and a whole host of health issues, such as Parkinson’s Disease. One study suggests a link between blunted dopamine pathways, caused by access to modern hyper-palatable foods and obesity.

Seratonin, another neurotransmitter is vital for the regulation of things such as mood, body temperature, sleep, memory and appetite. Low levels are linked to increased anxiety levels, depression, insomnia, memory impairment and decreased empathy.

Any disruption to a natural sleep pattern can in turn increase cortisol levels thus compounding health issued and disruption fat metabolism.

Which brings us to Oxytocin. The Love Hormone.

Touch is hugely important to human beings, promoting a sense of security, increasing cooperative behaviours and sustaining social bonds. Much of this is now thought to be down to oxytocin.

This study conclusively shows that the use of massage therapy increases the body’s oxytocin levels.

And it’s not just massage that promotes this increase, the humble hug is a power aid in upping your oxytocin. To get the optimal effect, the hug should be for at least 20 seconds.

Be warned! If you happen to be hugging someone for the first time, this may be a bit weird for them, and whilst you may benefit from the oxytocin rush, they may be flush with cortisol.

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At this point I would like to apologise to the poor lady who, many years ago in a secondhand book shop in Hay-on-Wye, I mistook for my girlfriend (I was browsing the shelves and not concentrating). After embracing said lady, I dimly became aware of a frantic struggle to get away, only to look down and see sheer terror on a strangers face. I still wake in the night thinking about this. Evidence that there is an exception to every rule.

But I digress.

You don’t even need to be hugging a human to get the effects. Petting an animal also works, as does embracing a tree. Validation to us tree huggers at last. Even embracing yourself has been shown have positive beneficial affects. The self administered Butterfly Hug has become standard practice for clinicians working with victims and survivors of man-made and natural catastophies.

Oxytocin does a number things for us, including promoting wound healing, aiding digestion, reducing anxiety, and promoting sleep. It is the natural counter part to cortisol, helping to balance out the stress hormone levels.

So the take home from this is that the benefits of massage therapy can be significant, and not just those benefits that we usually associate with it. Physical prehab, maintenance, rehab, mental well-being, healthy hormone balance, improved digestion, and better sleep patterns are but a few.

And all for the price of your weekly take away coffee bill.

Go on, get one. We all deserve it.

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The dark days are over (well, in theory)

sunriseWhilst out walking at the weekend we spotted our first snowdrops (plúirín sneachta in Irish). This for me is the true indicator that Imbolc has arrived. This ancient festival signifying the start of Spring is the light at the end of the tunnel, leading us out of Winter and into the light half of the year. You can really see the stretch in the evenings now, the bird song is louder, and even the plants seem poised to make the most of the coming sun.

Why was this time so important for our ancestors? For one, it was simply the acknowledgement that they had made it through another winter. Sure, there may still be bad weather to come but they were surviving through it. Winter has always been seen as a time of death. The trees lie dormant, the animals are scarce, hunting is more difficult, we were reliant on what foods we had stored, and people were/are more prone to illness in the dark,colder months.

Living here, in Ireland, the coming of the sun feels as important now as ever. Some years it seems to forget that we exist at all and visits this island so infrequently that confusion and shock ensue…quickly followed by raging sunburn.

We all know that a drop of sunlight makes us feel uplifted and revitalised, but its benefits go far deeper. Whilst we don’t consume sunlight directly, our skin contains a substance, 7- dehydrocholesterol which manufactures Vitamin D when exposed to the UV-B rays of the sun.

Vitamin D is vital for sustaining a healthy human being. It is crucial for supporting the body’s immune system, where it activates the killer T-cells responsible for fighting off serious infection. It aids our bodies in maintaining the balance of phosphate and calcium in the blood, and promotes mineralisation and growth of bones, whilst working in conjunction with cofactor mineral and vitamins. It also helps to trigger the release of hormones such serotonin and beta-endorphins, which account for that feel good sensation.

Vitamin D is also known to activate the P53 or ‘spell-checker’ gene, so-called because it regulates healthy cell division and prevents cancer. In fact there is increasingly more research linking Vitamin D deficiency to many cancer forms.

The best source of Vitamin D? Sunlight. And were are perfectly evolved to obtain it, big hairless apes that we are. For our ancestors living around the equator, getting adequate sunlight (and therefore Vit D) was easy. But as our ancestors moved further north, away from the sun, they needed to become more adept at obtaining UV-B. The answer? Lighter skin.

And who, in general, has the fairest skin? Red-heads.

joe glor

This is Joe. My ginger brother from another mother.

So it should come as no surprise that Ireland, with all it’s glorious variety of rain, has the highest proportion of red-heads than anywhere else.

Whilst this is great for all those red-heads, what about the rest of us, especially those with darker skin? Vitamin D production from sunlight only really kicks off when the UV level gets to 3 or higher on the UV scale. For this kind of latitude, that means that we may only be getting enough sunlight for a quarter of the year if we are lucky, and for those with darker skin pigmentation, Vitamin D production may struggle.

For the darker months Vitamin D supplementation may be incredibly useful for maintaining a healthy level throughout the year. Over the counter  D3 supplements could go a long way to helping with this. The dosages vary from pot to pot, as does the recommended daily intake. The current UK recommendations are to take no more than 25 micrograms (1000I.U) per day, whilst other countries may have higher recommended doses. It is still much under debate, with some researchers suggesting massively higher doses needed to sustain optimal health. The Vitamin D we get from supplements sadly last for about half the time of sun-obtained Vit D.

Food is our other source of Vitamin D. Many cold water fish, cod liver oil, and eggs all contain Vit D, and are a good source of nutritional health. The amounts of Vitamin D vary from around 200-1000I.U. in a typical serving. Great to top up the levels but on their own is far from enough.

If you decide to go down the supplement route, then do your own background reading on dosages, and consult your own doctor as to their recommendations and opinions. As with everything, not everybody will react the same way, medication may have an effect on supplements and vice versa.

sheep

This is Dave. Don’t lick Dave!

Maybe the rural solution is to head up into the hills and find yourself a friendly sheep to lick. Much of the shop bought Vitamin D3 is actually derived from sheep’s wool.

Below is a great info-graphic from Information is Beautiful

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