Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in brain health and research has shown that massage can improve our brain function.
Massage can play a major role when aiming to reduce stress and its damaging effects on the brain. Research has shown that by applying pressure to the muscles, massage has a direct impact on our brain. Our body is a complex balancing act between systems, which are working together to keep us alive and well. Any change threatening this balance can be referred as stress. When it happens our brain will produce different hormones such as cortisol to help us deal with stress. Small increase of cortisol has many positive effects and allows us to maintain our state of balance, however large amounts of this hormone negatively impacts the brain in various ways.
Sustained exposure to higher than normal levels of cortisol can result in the pruning back of the number of brain cell connections involved in the formation of new memories. Furthermore, these conditions can also increase the rate of neuronal cell death while decreasing the rate of new cell growth. Thus, in order to keep a healthy brain, it is important for us to minimise our level of cortisol.
Massage decreases the level of cortisol in our bodies as well as increasing the level of others neurotransmitters which have many benefits for our brain health. It boosts the production of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Healthy, balanced levels of serotonin produce a calm, general sense of well-being. Oxytocin, also called the “hugging hormone,” produces feelings of calm and contentment. Dopamine assists the human body with mood, attention, learning and sleep.
Sleep plays an important part in keeping our brain balanced. Sleep deprivation has been to shown to sensitise the brain regions responsible for our reacting to situations via fight/flight. During sleep cortisol levels drop. People who do not get enough sleep not only get more exposure to cortisol during the night, but also have higher resting levels of this stress hormone during the day. When having a massage we are increasing our chances to have a good night sleep our brain needs.
Having a massage gives us the opportunity to stay in the present. One way to protect the brain from the damaging effects of high level of cortisol is to minimise its triggers in the first place. Engaging one’s senses of hearing through music, smell with aromatherapy and touch, roots us in the present. By dropping into the moment we are flooding our brains with sensory information. Since our conscious awareness is only able to take and process a finite amount of information at a time, fully engaging our senses limits the amount of (often stress generating) mental chatter our brains are able to entertain. Having a massage as well as practicing meditation or other activities requiring sustained focused attention is a good way to ground oneself in the present, thereby reducing our tendency to over-react and over-think our way into anxiety creating high level of cortisol.