Getting a massage not only helps you relax, it might also benefit your immune system, a new study suggests.
People who received a 45-minute massage had an increased number of lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that play a large role in defending the body from disease, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles said in a statement.
"This research indicates that massage doesn't only feel good, it also may be good for you," said study researcher Dr. Mark Rapaport, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences, at Cedars-Sinai.
The massage brought other physical changes, too. Afterwards, participants had lower levels of cytokines, which are molecules that play a role in inflammation. Chronically high levels of inflammation are known to be associated with conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and depression.The massages also had an impact on participants' hormone levels. Receiving a massage decreased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and vasopressin, a hormone believed to play a role in aggressive behavior, according to the reserachers.
Massage Improves Our Ability to Fight Disease
Clinical research also suggests that regular massage naturally increases the healthy immune system’s ability to kill certain cells, while decreasing the number of T-cells, for an improvement of the body’s overall immune function.
In this study, 20 HIV-positive men received five 45-minute massages per week, for a month. The participants showed both an increase in serotonin and in the cells that comprise the immune system’s initial defense against infection and disease.
“Theoretically,” said Dye, “[massage] allows for faster recovery due to increased circulation of the lymph and blood vascular systems,” said Dye.
Pregnant Women Experience Immune Benefits
A randomized controlled trial involving 52 healthy pregnant women examined whether aromatherapy massage offered immune-boosting benefits.
The women were split into two groups: one receiving 70 minutes of aromatherapy massage with 2% lavender essential oil every other week, the other no massage at all.
Researchers found that the group receiving aromatherapy massage showed significantly reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and improved levels of other immune markers.
According to researchers, this study presents evidence that aromatherapy massage could significantly decrease stress and enhance immune function in pregnant women.
“The findings can guide clinicians or midwives in providing aromatherapy massage to women throughout the pregnancy,” the study’s authors wrote.
Even One Session Boosts Immune Function
Recent research from Cedars-Sinai finds that people who undergo even one session of massage experience significant changes in their immune and endocrine responses. The researchers compared the effects of either a 45-minute session of Swedish massage or light touch.
Participating massage therapists were trained in the delivery of Swedish and light touch using “specific and identical protocols.”
“Massage is popular in America, with almost 9% of adults receiving at least one massage within the past year,” said Mark Rapaport, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and lead study author, said in a statement.
He emphasized, “People often seek out massage as part of a healthy lifestyle but there hasn’t been much physiological proof of the body’s heightened immune response following massage until now.”
Blood samples were collected at various intervals before and after each session, and researchers found that those who received Swedish massage experienced observable changes in lymphocytes, which play an important role in a healthy immune system that protects us from disease.
The Swedish massage group also had decreased levels of arginine vasopressin (AVP), a hormone associated with increased stress hormone (cortisol) levels, and a decrease in inflammatory cytokines, which are produced by infection-fighting white blood cells.
Does Massage Help Fend Off Cold or Flu?
Does this mean a relaxing massage session can help reduce your risk of catching a cold or flu?
Massage offers relaxation and stress relief, and when people are less stressed, they’re much less likely to fall ill. This is because chronic stress impairs your body’s inflammatory immune response, increasing your susceptibility to infection, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Massage Has Immediate Benefits to a Healthy Immune System
Researchers recruited 34 post-surgery breast cancer patients, diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 breast cancer, to a massage therapy group receiving 30-minute massages three times per week for five weeks, or a control group.
On the first and last day of the study, participants were assessed for both their psychological state and levels of immune system markers in their urine samples.
According to the study findings, immediate effects of massage therapy included reduced anxiety levels, depression and anger, while longer-term benefits showed direct impact on the body’s immune markers — such as increased dopamine, improved serotonin values and better lymphocyte levels.
The researchers concluded that breast cancer patients experience significantly improved immune, NK-cell (natural killer cell) and neuroendocrine function after receiving massage therapy.
Massage and the COVID-19 Crisis
“There is still so much unknown about the coronavirus, but having a healthy, functioning immune system will always be helpful in reducing the effects of the virus, if contracted, and, could possibly be helpful in prevention of even contracting the virus at all,” said Vicky Karr, LMT, a CE provider and owner of Spa Success.
“Because massage therapy aids in improving the immune system, it is generally assumed that it could help reduce the risk of coronavirus infection,” she added.