These days, we frequently hear about the damage stress has on our bodies and various things we can do to manage and alleviate it. We witness the power stress has over us during our daily activities. What we may, or may not, be aware of is that our bodies undergo chemical changes during stressful times at the very foundation of our being—at the cellular level.
First, let’s discuss cortisol, otherwise known as the “stress hormone”. Our body releases it in response to stress and anxiety to get us through a “fight or flight” situation. However, with much of today’s society experiencing an enormous increase in stress, anxiety, and depression, there is no doubt that cortisol levels are also on the rise. If the cycle persists and cortisol levels stay elevated, the complications can be severe. In order to get our body through a stressful situation, cortisol raises blood pressure and blood sugar and counteracts insulin. It also stimulates gastric acid secretion and acts as an anti-diuretic hormone. It can weaken the activity of the immune system by preventing the proliferation of T-cells. Cortisol lowers bone formation, thus favoring the development of osteoporosis (long term), and also lowers the calcium absorption in the intestines. If these consequences continue due to an overload of cortisol from increased stress, extremely detrimental effects are inevitable.
Next, let’s introduce two important catecholamines, serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in sleep, mood, motor function and pleasure recognition.
Serotonin is a well-known contributor of feelings of well being, and helps regulate appetite and muscle contraction. Dopamine is involved in motivation, voluntary movement, working memory and learning. Deficiencies in serotonin have been linked to clinical depression, and dopamine deficiencies have been linked to the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.
The International Journal of Neuroscience reviewed a study of the positive effects of massage therapy on biochemistry. Their findings measured cortisol levels in either saliva or urine in the participants before and after their massage sessions. The study concluded that cortisol levels, on average, decreased an amazing 31%. Not only did the results show findings about cortisol, it also revealed a 28% increase in serotonin, and a 31% increase in dopamine.
So, massage was proven to decrease the “stress hormone” and increase two chemicals our bodies require to function optimally. The study showed that massage therapy counteracted the stress side effects in our bodies, and also raised two critical components that are responsible for our overall feelings of well-being. This research moves massage therapy from the realm of luxury, and places it in the scope of necessity. Massage will not replace the resources of the modern physician, nor should it seek to do so. However, it can offer us insight and awareness about our bodies that no lecturing, no medication prescription, and no surgery could ever impart. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if physicians would prescribe massage therapy for stress management? However, we wouldn’t receive pages of harmful side effects accompanied with that prescription, which would be one less thing to worry about.