Many of the health benefits of massage therapy, such as decreased pain and stiffness and reduced stress and anxiety, are very well known. But did you know that receiving regular massage therapy is an effective way to boost your immune system? “Researchers working with patients with compromised immune systems have found massage therapy can improve how the immune system functions,” says Jeff Smoot, former President of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). “Those same benefits can translate to people seeking to fight off the common cold, flu, and other seasonal illnesses.” Clinical studies have demonstrated that in addition to alleviating stress and anxiety, massage therapy naturally strengthens the immune system.
Increase White Blood Cells through Massage
As we know, stress has a negative impact on our physical and mental health—when we are stressed our bodies produce the stress hormone cortisol, which attacks white blood cells and leaves us vulnerable to infection and disease. A 45-minute massage can reduce the production of cortisol, thereby increasing white blood cell count—which is extremely important, since these cells enable our bodies to fight infection and diseases more quickly. Our immune system is designed to detect foreign cells—when a foreign cell is detected, the body sends out white blood cells to combat and kill the foreign cell. This is how our immune system protects us.
A type of white blood cell called lymphocytes occur specifically in the lymphatic system, a subtype of which are called natural killer cells, which defend your body from viruses. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues that helps to eliminate toxins and remove waste from the body via lymph fluid. Movement of lymph is largely dependent on muscle contraction. Massage therapy facilitates lymph movement by compressing and releasing congested areas of the body, stimulating circulation that carries waste and toxins away from your muscles and internal organs.
According to a study published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers in Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences in Los Angeles reported that receiving a single massage produced measurable changes in the immune and endocrine systems of healthy adults. Volunteers received 45 minutes of Swedish massage. Blood samples were collected before and after the massage sessions, and the results were significant: in addition to decreasing levels of cortisol, the scientists concluded that massage therapy significantly increased the activity level of the body’s white blood cells. According to Mark Rapaport, MD, chairman of the department, “People often seek out massage as part of a healthy lifestyle, but there hasn’t been much physiological proof of the body’s heightened immune response following massage until now.” This demonstrates that massages can do much more for our physical health than we ever thought possible.
The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine conducted a study to determine how the increased activity level of lymphocytes could affect women with breast cancer. The subjects who received a 30-minute massage three times per week for five weeks noted fewer depressive thoughts, anxiety, pain, and anger as well as a progressive increase in energy. On a more physiological level, dopamine levels, natural killer cells, and lymphocytes greatly increased as the experiment progressed, helping the participants fight their cancers and respond better to their chemotherapy treatments.
Rest and Digest
Another key component to maintaining a healthy immune system is getting enough sleep. Most of us need around eight hours of sleep to function properly and fight off illness; if our bodies don’t get enough sleep, we are more susceptible to getting sick. Massage improves sleep by activating the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, calming heart rate and breathing and increasing intestinal and gland activity. While in the rest and digest state, your body decreases the production of cortisol and increases melatonin production, which directly influences the state of deep, restorative sleep. When your body spends more time in this state of rest, it is much more able to protect you from illness.
It is important to note that if you are in the initial, acute stage of illness and are experiencing symptoms, it’s best to cancel your massage session to rest. Not only can massage make your symptoms feel more significant, but staying home is also being considerate of your massage therapist and other clients.
Many people see massage as simply an occasional self-care “treat.” Perhaps that perception will change now that recent research provides concrete evidence that immune function can be improved by receiving regular massage.
Kristina Mozzicato is a Licensed Massage Therapist and Board Certified in Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork by the NCBTMB. A 2009 graduate of the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy, she is also certified in Cupping and ACE MediCupping™. The owner of Abundant Health Massage Therapy & Wellness in Farmington, CT, Kristina is currently pursuing a certificate in Holistic Nutrition and was named a Natural Nutmeg Magazine 10Best Massage Therapy Practitioner for 2020 and 2021.
For more information and convenient online booking, please visit: www.abundanthealthct.com.