After many years of studying the effects of massage, many medical professionals now agree, that massage is beneficial. It’s been shown that massage may lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, dampen harmful stress hormones, raise elevating mood chemicals in the brain, decrease pain, facilitate weight gain in preterm infants, enhance attentiveness in children and adults, alleviate depression, increase blood flow which improves joint mobility, encourage sleep, which then increases levels of growth hormone, which in turn promotes cell division, tissue repair, regeneration and healing. Consistent massage adds to an overall health regime (Field, 2005).
One key benefit of massage is the reduction of stress. Scientists have found that cortisol levels and arginine vasopressin (ADH) in the blood and saliva decrease after receiving a single massage. Secretion of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone, is controlled by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands (Rappaport, 2012).
Cortisol has many functions within the body. However, sustained levels produce higher amounts of glucose in the blood. A key function of this hormone is to diminish the effect of insulin upon the cells. Cortisol makes cells insulin resistant. Being in a constant state of insulin resistance and having chronic high levels of cortisol, in some instances, puts an added burden on the pancreas. A major role of the pancreas is to regulate blood sugar. However, with high cortisol levels creating insulin resistant cells, the cells cannot get the sugar they need and the cells cry out for energy or food, which leads to an increase in appetite. If this cycle continues, it can lead to a variety of problems within the blood, which may lead to diabetes (Aronson, 2009).
Long term elevated cortisol levels can also lead to weight gain by the blood sugar’s imbalance. Also cortisol can mobilize fat from storage and redistributes it to visceral fat (deep abdominal, fat around organs). This process is controlled by enzymes and converts cortisone into cortisol in adipose tissue and more cortisol in fat cells may mean more cortisol at the deep abdominal tissue level. Visceral fat cells have more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat (Aronson, 2009).Visceral fat is known to be more detrimental to health, particularly heart health, than subcutaneous fat.
To further compound the weight gain issues of cortisol, studies have demonstrated a direct association between high cortisol levels and calorie intake in women. Cortisol can indirectly influence appetite by regulating stress responses known to stimulate appetite (Vicinatti, 2009).
Cortisol levels also constrict blood vessels, which cause high blood pressure. Over time, this elevation can lead to damage to the vessels and increased plaque, which can lead to heart disease or heart attack.
Another effect of elevated cortisol is its impact upon erectile dysfunction for men (Kobori, 2009). It can also disrupt normal ovulation and menstrual cycles in women (Nepomnaschy, 2011). Sex hormones are produced in the same glands as where cortisol is produced, so having an excess of cortisol production can hinder the optimal production of sex hormones.
Other issues that have been linked to high cortisol levels is insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia and depression. Regular massage can help with each of the conditions previously noted by decreasing the level of cortisol.
In a study published in the Journal of Complementary Medicine, conducted by the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), have found a decrease in the hormones mentioned above(arginine vassopressin and cortisol), occurred after a single massage session.
Additional, long term, weekly massage resulted in more profound effects on the immune system. Twice weekly massages remained the same for immune function, but increased dramatically larger effects, by increasing oxytocin, the hormone associated with elevated moods, feelings of affiliation with people and overall feelings of bonding to others (Rapapport, 2012).
Studies such as these, allow medical providers to accept the many ways in which their patients can benefit by incorporating massage into their regular health regime. Many physicians are now, referring their patients to qualified massage therapists, to reduce their overall stress and gain better health.
How to find a qualified, compassionate, medically respected massage therapist is important, and will be discussed in a future article.
Aronson, D. (2009). Cortisol- Its Role In Stress, Inflammation and Indication For Diet Therapy. Today’s Dietician,Vol. 11, (11) November:38.
Field, T., Hernandez-Rief,M., Diego, M., Shanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol Decreases Serotonin and Dopamine Increases Following Massage Therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience,Vol. 115, (10) October:1397-413.
Kobori.,Y., Koh, E., Sugimoto, K., Izumi, K., Narimoto, K., Maeda, Y., Konaka, H., Mizokami, A., Matsushita, T., Iwamoto, T., & Namiki, M. (2009). The Relationship of Serum and Salivary Cortisol Levels to Male Sexual Dysfunction As Measured by the International Index of Erectile Function. International Journal of Impotent Research,Vol. 21, (4) July:207-212.
Nepomnaschy, P.A., Altman, R.M., Watterson, R., Co, C., McConnell, D.S., & England, B.G. (2011). Is Cortisol Excretion Independent of Menstrual Cycle Day? A Longitunal Evaluation Of First Morning Urinary Specimens. PloS One,Vol. 6, (3) March.
Rappaport, M.H., Shettler,P., & Breese, C. (2012). A Preliminary Study of the Effects of Repeated Massage on Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal and Immune Function in Healthy Individuals: A Study of Mechanisms of Action and Dosage. The Journal of Alternative and Complemetary Medicine, Vol. 18, (8) August:789-797.
Vicenatti, V., et al. (2009). Stress -Related Development of Obesity and Cortisol in Women. Obesity, Vol. 17 (9) September: 1678-83.