Massages are considered one of the most luxurious ways of practicing self-care. Depending on your lifestyle, they can hurt so good, or relax you into a state of peaceful slumber.
Although massage used to exist primarily within upscale spas and health clubs, massage therapy has gained traction as a valuable tool in every day well-being, especially in integrative medicine and holistic care.
There are many types of massages, but “massage” is generally (and loosely) defined as “strategically manipulating the tissues, by rubbing, or kneading the muscles, joints and skin with the hands, to alleviate pain, or release tension.”
If you have had a professional massage before (and enjoyed it enough to schedule another one), you will be pleased to know that massage therapy is far more than just a feel good splurge, it actually has health benefits.
Therapeutic massage aims to enhance blood flow and move stagnant lymph, which when left stagnant, can cause water retention, low energy and other uncomfortable health conditions.
Regular massage can not only help to improve circulation, but also aid the body in the natural detoxification process and strengthen the immune system.
The strategic manipulation of human tissue increases blood circulation— the body’s network of blood vessels, along with the heart and other muscles, responsible for carrying blood, nutrients and oxygen, throughout the body. When circulation is poor, whether from sitting too long and often, inactivity, pregnancy, or any number of medical conditions, the body cannot get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, weakening the immune system and essentially starving the cells.
Oxygen, nutrients and immune support, oh my! If that is not enough of a reason to start texting your favorite massage therapist, there is more: The number one reason people seek out massage therapy is for stress-relief and relaxation. While it may seem like a pricey way to relax, massage actually does more to the body, biochemically speaking, than just coax us into a state of pleasure and it has to do with cortisol.
Cortisol is created by the adrenal glands and it often referred to as the “stress hormone” because of its role in the body’s stress response– Think: “Fight, or Flight.” However, cortisol also plays a vital role in blood sugar regulation, metabolism, inflammation and brain cognition.
Elevated cortisol can present itself as stubborn weight gain, (generally around the mid section), easily bruising, anxiety, insomnia, headache and elevated blood pressure, to name but a few of its inconveniences.
When the body is in a heightened state of stress, be it a real danger, or “fear,” the body releases cortisol and adrenaline, elevating the heart rate and energy levels. That is all fine and dandy until our cortisol levels become elevated chronically, putting the body at risk for depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity and more. While massage may not directly lower cortisol levels, studies show that a boost in serotonin and dopamine (our feel good chemicals) may increase following a massage, lowering stress and therefore triggering a lower cortisol response (1).
In addition to temporarily decreasing stress, massage therapy can also help relieve constipation, especially when the abdomen is massaged, quite simply because waste can become trapped in our 25-foot long intestines and any gentle manipulation of these muscles can stimulate the peristalsis muscle, which is responsible for moving waste throughout the intestines.
Think your cortisol is out of balance? Check out this article on cardio and cortisol.
Other benefits of massage include pain relief, relief from tension headache, improved mood, better sleep and quicker recovery times, post exercise.
Note: If you are someone that can often feel more rundown after a massage, or less than stellar, it is not uncommon. This is a symptom of detox. I have had many clients over the years feel exhausted, or even sick after a massage and I have encouraged them to continue to improve their nutrition and not steer away from massage therapy. Massage is not the problem. Lifestyle is.
Massage is like exercise: It forces blood into your muscles, improving nutrient and oxygen circulation and it also aids the body in natural detoxification. In other words, unwanted “toxins” (aka: anything the body has not neutralized and does not want running rampant in the bloodstream) can be stored in the human tissue, especially, fatty tissue. This is why it can be so hard to lose stubborn weight— Unwanted “toxins” are being stored away (in women: often the arms, legs, buttocks and hips) from essential organs to protect our overall well-being.
Not only can massage temporarily increase inflammation (a natural healing response) to areas that the body feels need attention, but massage also breaks up stored “toxins” allowing them to enter back into the bloodstream. This is why if you have had a rough weekend indulging in alcoholic beverages, or even landed yourself into a cupcake coma, you might feel “drunk,” or groggy after a deep massage.
Massage therapists do not offer you a glass of water post massage because they think you are thirsty and want to hydrate you (not really, that is), water is necessary to flush out toxins that have reentered the bloodstream (so try to pass on the bubbles pre and post massage).
All that said, massage therapy does not need to be uncomfortable. Let your therapist know exactly what you need and trust me, when you find a therapist that intuitively picks up on your body’s needs… keep them.