Science says massage relieves stress!

Researchers assigned healthy adults to receive 45 minutes of Swedish massage while the control group received light touch “using highly specified and identical protocols.”

(This is from a New York Times article, Regimens: Massage Benefits Are More Than Skin Deep. Here’s the abstract.)

The researchers took blood samples immediately before and for up to an hour after the massage.

Those who received Swedish massage had significant decreases in stress hormones. Their white blood cell counts went up as well, indicating the immune system was stimulated.

If replicated, these findings may have implications for managing inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Those who received light touch showed higher levels of oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, and greater decreases in a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol.

So basically, massage relieves stress and light touch increases bonding.

Now that science says so, the skeptics can come get on the table and experience it for themselves!

Several things pop out. One is that the research was sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. I’m pretty sure the NIH is heavily biased toward MDs and western medicine, and that NCCAM fields like massage and acupuncture are considered flaky and suspect.

But if 75 or 90% of illness is stress-related, shouldn’t the NIH be emphasizing research on stress relief to prevent illness? That would be a great use of my tax money!

I would like to see more studies done on massage.

  • I’d like to see the blood tested to see how long these changes last, because my strong hunch is that if a massage recipient can avoid stress afterwards, the massage keeps working on the body for hours. Maybe 24 or 48 hours, but no one knows, because no one has studied it. Yet.
  • Could a control group be added of people who don’t receive massage or light touch?
  • Scientific study of prenatal massage and its effect on the women — and their childbirth and babies — would be wonderful.
  • I’d also like to see recipients’ brain waves tested, before, during, and after massage.
  • Does massage work equally well on everyone? Are there people who don’t benefit and “super beneficiaries”?
  • This study was on the effects of a single massage. I’d like to see longitudinal studies done of the long-term effect of regular massage: people who receive massage weekly, biweekly, and monthly for at least a year, five years, and ten years. All we have now is anecdotal evidence that people who receive regular massage are healthier into their senior years, falling and getting sick less often and recovering faster when they do.

The other thing that popped out was that the researchers were surprised by the results! They must have never received a massage. I wonder if they do now.

When I read the abstract, I saw that the authors did a follow-up study in 2012 on the effects of repeated massage. So I did get one wish, but these subjects received Swedish massage or light touch either weekly or twice a week for just five weeks. Otherwise, it was the same as the first study, which means they looked for changes for up to an hour after each massage.

Those receiving weekly Swedish massage sustained a higher level of white blood cells like those receiving a single massage, with minimal effect on stress hormones. Come on, not even the first massage changed stress hormone levels? That contradicts the first study!

Those receiving twice-weekly massage had increased oxytocin levels and lower stress hormone levels. So people getting more frequent massage bond more easily. I wonder if they used the same massage therapist each time.

The abstract says nothing about the light touch group. (And by the way, I have a hard time reading scientific research and understanding the findings and implications in plain English. This is the best I can do. If you know better, please comment!)

The authors conclude:

There are sustained cumulative biologic actions for the massage and touch interventions that persist for several days or a week, and these differ profoundly depending on the dosage (frequency) of sessions. Confirmatory studies in larger samples are needed.

Yes. And I am very glad that this research is happening and raising more questions.

The dancing genes, sociability, transcendence, and genetic flexibility

A recent article published online says that dancers are genetically different. Some Israeli researchers found that dancers show consistent differences from the general population in two genes.

The researchers said this did not surprise them, because studies have found that athletes and musicians have genetic differences.

I can only speak for myself, but my dance is very connected to music — my movement is a way to participate musically, as if I were playing an instrument. It’s also very physical.

I did a little Googling to see if I could find which specific genes differ in athletes and musicians, but I didn’t find anything that was very clear. Race seems to be the biggest issue in the media when it comes to genetics, athletes, and musicians.

The researchers studied dancers and advanced dance students and found they had variants in two genes, those affecting serotonin transport and arginine vasopressin reception.

Serotonin (“the happiness molecule”) is a neurotransmitter that contributes to spiritual experience — the capacity for transcendence and a proclivity to spiritual acceptance. (See this Psychology Today article for more about that.) It also affects optimism, the healing of wounds, resilience from stress, metabolism, sleep, and more.

“Serotonin transport” sounds like a dance inside the body!

Interestingly, exercise can raise serotonin levels in the body, so dancing itself reinforces dancers’ high serotonin levels!

I admit — I get into an altered state from ecstatic dance. That’s why they call it ecstatic dance, I suspect. 😉

The vasopressin receptor modulates social communication and affiliative bonding. Wikipedia says “…accumulating evidence suggests it plays an important role in social behavior, bonding, and maternal responses to stress.” It has a very similar structure to oxytocin (“the love hormone”), and the two can cross-react.

When the results were combined and analyzed, it was clearly shown that the dancers exhibited particular genetic and personality characteristics that were not found in the other two groups.

The dancer “type,” says Ebstein, clearly demonstrates qualities that are not necessarily lacking but are not expressed as strongly in other people: a heightened sense of communication, often of a symbolic and ceremonial nature, and a strong spiritual personality trait.

I know this is controversial, but I want to weigh in on the side of flexibility when it comes to genetics. For much of my life, genes were thought to be destiny, unalterable. Now it is known that the expression of genes is much more dynamic than previously believed. They can switch on and off.

I don’t know that much about it, except that stress tends to switch on the bad genes. I don’t know which or how many genes truly create destiny and therefore cannot be influenced, except that there probably are some. We just don’t know enough about this in our current level of understanding.

I want to encourage people who believe they don’t have the dancing genes to give dancing a try.

Two left feet? That’s a myth. If you can walk, you have rhythm and coordination.

If you think you can’t dance, try just moving to some music alone in your own home if you feel self-conscious. Play something catchy, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Start simple, just swaying your hips to the beat, keeping your feet in place. Do you like it? Do you feel any sense of pleasure? Play with it. Add your arms. Walk to it. Make it fun and goofy!

Those dancing genes may be just sitting there waiting to be activated, for all we know, and they might help you become happier.

Altucher on oxytocin and polyvagal theory, with humor

10 Unusual Ways to Release Oxytocin Into Your Life Altucher Confidential.

I love this guy. He’s so real. I can only wish I was as good a writer as James Altucher.

He tells about being caught shoplifting as a kid, his disgust for going to the bathroom, cortisol, stress, the vagus nerve, a photo of a woman’s tattoo of “Fight or Flight”, and oxytocin.

There’s another photo of a foot with the chemical formula for oxytocin tattooed on it.

Then he lists 10 ways to increase your oxytocin levels.

One of the ways happens to be shooting guns. I don’t think that one would work for me. Loud sudden noises like gunshots make me really jumpy. That’s cortisol, not oxytocin. Maybe that’s a guy thing?

I would replace that one with getting a massage. I notice that with almost everyone, receiving massage decreases their cortisol. I can tell from feeling their energy before and after, gauged by how they move and their voices.

For others, especially those who are accustomed to regular massage, an hour or so of good bodywork vastly increases their oxytocin. They are all soft and mellow and receptive and happy afterwards.

I would also add rocking a sleeping baby, but you might have had to nurse your own baby first to get that feeling.

The rest of Altucher’s recommendations for increasing oxytocin work. Even using Facebook! And I especially like his strategy for dating.

I will tell you my pre-date secret. In the brief period when I was single in between separation and re-marriage I had a technique before every date. I would watch either Michael Cera doing comedy or Louis CK doing standup. This would get me laughing, make my oxytocin hormones go on fire, and then I’d go right into the date, with all my sex hormones raging. Plus. I would be temporarily funnier, with a half-life of about two hours. I knew after four hours I would be boring again so the date would have to be over by then. I do this before talks also.