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The surprising benefits of gentle Swedish massage

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Swedish massage can change your chemistry

The benefits of massage are many. It relaxes your mind as well as improves circulation. It also increases flexibility, removes toxins and relieves muscle pain. But did you know it can change your chemistry? Research indicates that massage goes way past the outcome of relaxation. It has gone from Day Spa pampering to mainstream medical care.

This does not surprise me. In my previous job at Alternative Medicine Integration of Florida in 2004, I saw the results first hand. That program was a unique Medicaid pilot project in Florida that covered services such as wellness coaches, dieticians, acupuncturists and licensed massage therapists. The participants had chronic pain, fibromyalgia or neck/back pain. Overwhelmingly the primary choice for pain reduction was massage therapy and we had very positive outcomes. During yearly surveys 93% of our enrollees agreed that the program had helped reduce pain levels and 84% believed the care helped their quality of life.

A study conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has shown that even the very light massage known as a Swedish massage for only 45 minutes provides very positive effects. The participants experienced a decrease of the harmful hormone cortisol. At the same time it increased the “love” hormone oxytocin levels. Not only that, but Swedish massage also reduced the level of ADH (anti-diuretic hormone) and its precursor AVP (arginine vasopressin) release. (See explanation below).

During this study, the participants received 45 minutes of traditional Swedish massage. Blood samples were drawn both before and after the sessions. A clear improvement was shown including a boost of lymphocytes (“killer” white blood cells), a lowering of cytokine levels (increases inflammation), and other hormones.

Arginine Vasopressin
AVP is a gene that is instrumental in the production of (anti-diuretic hormone) ADH. ADH starts off as a molecule that is stored in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It is then sent to the pituitary gland, activated and stored until needed. It controls the retention and release of water through your kidneys.

Under normal circumstances, when your fluid intake is low or reduced through perspiration, the pituitary releases more ADH into your blood. The elevated levels of ADH direct your kidneys to reabsorb more water. This reduces urine production and you retain more fluid. When your fluid intake is normalized, the pituitary gland releases less ADH. A reduction of ADH will cause the kidneys to reabsorb less water and you produce more urine.

When AVP levels are elevated, so are ADH levels. This can lead to fluid retention, inflammation, hypertension and even emotional aggression.

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Another power-house hormone shown to be affected by Swedish massage is cortisol. It is produced and released by the adrenal gland. It is a useful hormone to give you the "adrenaline rush" during stressful moments. It however can be unhealthy when it is released into the body continuously by the stresses of modern day living. It can lead to adrenal fatigue. This can cause poor immunity, high blood pressure, insomnia and the dreaded weight gain. Those annoying commercials on TV may not be accurate as to what can reduce cortisol levels however they are dead on when it comes to the perils of it.

Elevated cortisol levels can also be a contributing factor in arthritis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
It has been long thought that only deep tissue massage can produce positive outcomes. This has caused individuals with painful fibromyalgia and arthritis to shy away from the practice. However it appears that softer Swedish massage can also produce excellent outcomes.

Studies now indicate you don't even have to massage the part of the body that hurts to receive benefits. This is because massage creates the chemical changes in general that reduces pain and stress throughout the body. Here is how.

In addition to the hormonal changes with AVP and cortisol, there is a reduction in substance P that is related to pain. This has been documented in research from the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine. In one study, individuals with fibromyalgia showed less substance P in their saliva after just one month of twice a week massages. This is great news for not only fibromyalgia patients, but chronic pain patients in general.

Take home message

Despite all of the benefits, massage isn't meant as a replacement for regular medical care. Notify your healthcare provider that you are trying massage and continue any standard treatment plans you are currently doing. Who knows? You might be able to have your doctor reduce pain medication, insomnia pills or anti hypertensive agents.



Mayo Clinic

Alternative Medicine Integration of Florida