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. 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.
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.