• Chelsa Connolly

Massage for the (mental) Health of It

Massage therapy is widely acknowledged and regarded to encourage relaxation. It comes as no surprise that research supports its role in supporting and improving mental health and well-being. In our frenzied world, almost everyone can benefit from the slow down and recovery gained from an hour or two on the table. However, there are a few benefits and populations that see benefits you may have not expected.


W​hile there are challenges to research the benefits of professional quality massage therapy in the current models of research, there is still a reasonable body of evidence that supports massage to benefit mental health and well-being. The most well understood benefits are through:


Improved Sleep

Impact on Hormones and Neurotransmitters

D​ecrease in Pain

Regulation of Parasympathetic/Sympathetic Nervous System

I​mproved Body Awareness


I​n this blog, we will briefly dig into the mechanisms of each of these benefits.


I​mproved Sleep


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According to research (1) published in 2017, "To our knowledge, this is the largest randomized controlled trial of a psychological intervention for a mental health problem. It provides strong evidence that insomnia is a causal factor in the occurrence of psychotic experiences and other mental health problems." Besides to being linked to poor mental health, low quality sleep and insomnia is also linked to a myriad of other health conditions including: weakened immune system, high blood pressure, risk of diabetes and heart disease and fibromyalgia to name a few.


S​leep is vital to mental health because of the recovery of tissue that occurs only during the cycles of sleep. This is important to the nervous system. "It is probable that the purpose and function of sleep in the brain and CNS is much deeper than what we are currently aware of and, as sleep research continues to progress, we will continue to discover more about this field" (2)


M​assage therapy has long been linked to improved sleep in regular recipients. It is largely believed that massage improves sleep quality and quantity through its impact on hormones and neurotransmitters and by decreasing pain. Both of these are also major factors in improving mental health on their own.


I​mpact on Hormones and Neurotransmitters


The effect of massage therapy on the nervous and endocrine systems is best understood with three key players. That is neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and the hormone cortisol.


S​erotonin is most commonly known as a mood neurotransmitter. The regulation of serotonin is believed to be linked with happiness, as well as depression and anxiety.


D​opamine is also a neurotransmitter that is also known to impact mood. It is also related to many mental health disorders as well as decision-making abilities.


C​ortisol is regarded as the stress hormone. According to the Mayo Clinic "cortisol is the primary stress hormone, it increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation."


M​assage therapy has been documented to decrease cortisol levels and increase serotonin and dopamine.



D​ecrease in Pain


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​he second mechanism by which massage therapy improves sleep is due to its impact on pain reduction. Musculoskeletal pain, or the inability to get comfortable is a large factor in reducing the amount and quality of sleep. According to a large review of research around massage therapy (3) "Massage has resulted in reduced pain in all the studies we have conducted on chronic pain conditions from lower back pain during pregnancy to labor pain, migraine headaches, premenstrual syndrome, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis."


The best summary of massage therapy as a treatment for pain can be found on health.harvard.edu"Massage used to be considered an indulgence, but it's now recognized as a legitimate therapy for some painful conditions"


B​y decreasing pain and improving sleep massage therapy is reducing the stress on the Central Nervous System. It does this through what we refer to as an up regulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and down regulation of the Sympathetic Nervous System.


R​egulation of the Parasympathetic/Sympathetic Nervous System


T​he parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are more commonly known as the rest and digest and fight or flight responses.


The simplest explanation is that when you feel safe and you can relax, your body focuses on using its resources to digest food, and repair damaged tissues. We refer to that as the up regulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.


When you are anxious, frightened or otherwise feel threatened, the body focuses resources on the muscles that would be needed to fight off and attack or run away. This opposite state is the up regulation of the sympathetic nervous system.


These two opposite systems cannot be up regulated together. Massage therapy works to up regulate the parasympathetic and down regulate the sympathetic.


B​y up regulating the parasympathetic, the body is allowed to enter into a rest and recovery phase, which in turn lets the central nervous system calm. For more information on the neurological side of the stress response check out this article.


I​mproved Body Awareness


M​ultidisciplinary therapists have been using body awareness techniques to help combat mental health dysfunctions for years now. Some of the most common are tapping, and grounding. The premise being that helping someone to focus on specific things, feelings, sensations in a moment calm the nervous system from it's overwhelmed state. Massage therapy is unique to other forms of health care in its ability to be entirely sensory focused.


Clients who receive regular massage therapy as a form of wellness care find that they become more in tune with their bodies.


F​or more information on other forms of grounding techniques that may be helpful forms of self care click here.


T​o sum things up.


M​assage therapy has multiple benefits that in turn lead to improved mental health outcomes. Research is on going in an attempt to understand exactly why, and how we can improve massage for overall health. Things to discuss with your healthcare team are if massage could help you reach your health goals, as well as developing a plan for the type and frequency that massage therapy could be beneficial to you.


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References


(​1)The effects of improving sleep on mental health (OASIS): a randomised controlled trial with mediation analysis

(​2)Neuroscience of Sleep

(​3)Field T. Massage therapy research review. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2014;20(4):224-229. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2014.07.002




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