How 10-minute massages can boost the body’s stress-fighting system

The idea alone of a massage might do wonders for some people’s stress levels, but a new study has delved into the physiological details of how these short and sweet treatments can kick the body’s relaxation systems into gear. The researchers behind it say a 10-minute massage can be all it takes to engage the body’s stress-fighting mechanisms and restore some peace of mind, a finding they hope can lead to new treatments for stress-related conditions like depression.

The research was carried out at Germany’s University of Konstanz and the findings mightn’t come as too big a surprise to massage enthusiasts, though the physiological detail behind them is both interesting and significant. The researchers developed what they call the first standardized approach for testing how tactile stimulation, like that applied through a massage, can boost mental and physical relaxation.

More specifically, the team set out to explore the effects of massage on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), a major branch of the autonomic nervous system and one responsible for unconscious functions when the body is at rest, like breathing and digestion. The PNS is also responsible for helping us fight off stress when we experience threats, and therefore plays an important role in helping us enter relaxation mode.

At the heart of the research is the vagus nerve, the largest nerve found in the PNS, which runs from the abdomen up to the brain. This nerve has been linked to a range of cutting-edge medical treatments, including anti-aging and obesity therapies, and was central to a 2017 study where consciousness was triggered in a man who had spent 15 years in a vegetative state.

The authors of the new study drew up experiments where 63 healthy women were divided into three groups. The first group received a 10-minute head and neck massage to actively stimulate the vagus nerve and in turn the PNS. The second group received the same 10-minute massage but with soft stroking movements applied throughout, while the third group was asked to sit quietly at the table.

The team then measured physiological relaxation in the subjects by monitoring their heart rate and tracking their heart rate variability, which can be used as an indicator of how the PNS is responding to changes in the environment and, in turn, how relaxed the body is. The scientists also used questionnaires to survey the participants on how relaxed or stressed they felt on a psychological level.

All groups experienced reductions in psychological and physiological stress, including those simply resting at the table. Significant increases in heart rate variability, indicating the PNS was activated and the body was more physiologically relaxed, were observed in all participants, though the effect was greater for those who received a massage. Interestingly, whether the massage was soft or moderate appeared to make no difference.

“We are very encouraged by the findings that short periods of dis-engagement are enough to relax not just the mind but also the body,” says Maria Meier, first author on the study. “You don’t need a professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for 10 minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”

The researchers note this is early days for their work, with more validation of the techniques needed to truly enlighten our understanding of stress and relaxation. But they hope this standardized method can act as a springboard for exploring the effectiveness of other relaxation techniques, and maybe offer new forms of rehabilitation for people suffering from stress-related conditions such as depression.

“Massage, being such a commonly used relaxation therapy, was our first study,” says Meier. “Our next step is to test if other short interventions, like breathing exercises and meditation, show similar psychological and physiological relaxation results.”

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of Konstanz

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