Paying a stranger to knead, rub, and karate chop your body may sound a little ridiculous. And yeah, the whole rub-and-tug phenomenon lends massage a seedy air. But the list of science-backed benefits linked with massage therapy just keeps on growing.
From stress and anxiety reduction to calming attention disorders and pain syndromes, there are major perks associated with a good rubdown, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. “It’s the stimulation of pressure receptors under the skin that produces these benefits,” she says.
Firing up those pressure receptors through human touch increases activity in your vagus nerve, which is housed in your brain but has branches reaching to your heart, lungs, digestive tract, and other organs, Field explains. This is an oversimplification, but think of the vagus nerve as a kind of self-soothing system. Increase its activity, and there are all sorts of brain and body benefits, she says.
Here are seven of them.
FEWER AND WEAKER HEADACHES
Whether you have tension headaches—the kind that feels like a belt has been cinched around your noggin—or you suffer migraines, a weekly massage can cut down the frequency and intensity of your headaches, research shows. A massage that targets tight muscles in your neck, shoulders and along your spine seems to be the most beneficial, shows research from the American Journal of Public Health.
Massage lowers your body’s circulating levels of stress hormones like cortisol, which stokes the kind of systemic inflammation linked to higher rates of heart disease and cancer, Field’s research has shown. At the same time, massage ups your body’s levels of serotonin and dopamine—feel-good chemicals that lower rates of depression and anxiety.
BETTER IMMUNE FUNCTION
The increased vagal activity that results from massage boosts your body’s levels of natural killer cells. These are your immune system’s warriors—the ones that seek out and attack viruses, diseased cells, and other threats to your health, Field says. Get a regular massage, and you may be less likely to get sick.
Stress hormones drive mood disorders like depression. Because a massage knocks down your cortisol levels, it can significantly boost your mood, Field says. Her research has linked massage therapy to calmer, more-relaxed temperaments among people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Massage also improved the moods of patients suffering from advanced stages of cancer, according to a study from the University of Colorado, Denver.
Whether your pain is the result of an injury or a disease like arthritis, massage therapy helps, Field says. Her research has shown massage lowers you levels of a peptide called “substance P,” which facilitates the transmission of pain. You don’t have to target your massage on the site of your pain. So if your knee is killing you, a good back massage will help.
A HEALTHIER HEART
Massage lowers both your heart rate and your blood pressure, finds research from Louisiana State University. Again, Field credits these benefits with lower levels of cortisol and a boost in your body’s vagal activity.
Just as stress can upset your stomach, lowering stress and its related hormones can calm an angry stomach and improve digestive function, Field says. Whether your dealing with constipation or an achy belly, a massage may help.
Schedule a weekly rubdown—ideally around those times when you tend to feel the most stress—and you’ll be amazed at the results.