Nope, I Don’t Know How To Remove Your Toxins

There are so, so many wonderful, researched ways massage therapy has been shown to enhance your general well-being. So many. And they are good ones.

  • Lower feelings of stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve your quality of sleep or sleep related disorders like narcolepsy
  • Provide comfort for those who are anxious or depressed
  • Encourage weight gain for prematurely born infants
  • Reduce the discomforts of pregnancy/post-partum period
  • Provide relief from a number of aches and pains from acute and chronic injuries
  • Multiple benefits for cardiac health
  • Complement treatment for headaches and migraines
  • (There are more, but that’s what I got on the top of my head. You get the idea. Look up some geeky support stuff here and here)

It’s a good list. A really good list. But whenever I go over these reasons with family, friends, potential clients, current clients, I am almost always met with “AND, massage flushes my body of toxins! That’s why I have to drink water after a massage.” Believe it or not, there have been a number of heated debates over this. A number.

Here’s What Was Taught And Thought

So, for years and years, massage therapists would end a massage session with their clients typically by saying something like, “Now remember to drink lots of water today because you need to flush out all of the toxins we released,” or some such similar phrase. I can vouch for this. Over the roughly 18 years of receiving massage, I was told this time and time again. And I believed it. Not sure why. But I did and sometimes I drank lots of water and sometimes I didn’t. (Because I hate water. It does not taste like coffee. Yuck.) I don’t remember if I felt different or not. Honest.

But I do remember thinking that was odd. I wasn’t sure what the toxins were and I don’t remember them being discussed in Gross Anatomy lecture/cadaver lab at Boston University (Go Terriers!) and I did wonder from time to time why I didn’t drop dead from these toxins floating around aimlessly in my being. A few times I was told that lactic acid was the culprit because it didn’t belong in muscles and got stuck there. Seemed plausible. Even in sports writings (way back when) I had read and learned that lactic acid was Enemy Number One for muscles and caused muscle soreness. Because that’s what was taught at the time.

Times Changed What We Know To Be So

So remember reading in school that common teachings included such gems as the world is flat, phrenology dictated the psychological mappings of the brain and the World Wide Web would never catch on? Yeah. (Millions upon millions of cat memes have shown that last one to be false.) Time and knowledge bring change. Yes, change is…change. Some view it as scary and some are fascinated by all that is new and shiny.

Let’s assume that the primary reason this toxin removal thought process thrived was due to the lactic acid theory. (As that’s the one I’m most familiar with. And because I’m a rocket scientist. Wait. That’s not true, and has no bearing on lactic acid. Moving on…) Evidence at the time led to that understanding, but new information has come to light. Lactic acid is not a waste product. Nope. It’s actually used as fuel by the heart and kidneys. Yup. And? Even if it was still muscle Enemy Number One, lactic acid is not in the muscles very long after exercise/activity. You’re sore the day after your workout? That’s delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS and is due to micro muscle tears. Yeah. Tears. Now those sound painful, right? Still don’t believe me? Check this out.

But What About…?

Frequently when toxin removal is discussed, there are three common points brought up as proof that toxin removal is valid as a massage benefit even beyond lactic acid:

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage
  • Drinking water flushes the body
  • Massage increases circulation and therefore promotes toxin removal

Let’s take a look at each of these individually.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

This is a bodywork modality directed specifically at stimulating the lymphatic system which is considered part of the immune system and yes, part of its function is to remove waste products from the body. And yes, research has even shown it to be effective at that.

“AH-HA!” you say! “There’s the proof!”

Well…no. Massage is bodywork directed specifically at the soft tissue of the body: muscles, fascia, tendons. Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) is bodywork that requires advanced training because it is directed to the lymphatic system specifically, not the soft tissues I listed above. Lymphatic work is much lighter than even Swedish massage because any pressure of significance actually crushes the lymph vessels one is trying to push the waste capturing lymph through, thus inhibiting the additional flow of lymph.  Really. So massage doesn’t help. MLD does and it’s supposed to, but it’s different from massage.

Drinking Water Flushes the Body of Toxins

This might be true. No Idea. Is staying hydrated important to the health of the human body in a multitude of ways? Yes. But I am not a nutritionist and as a massage therapist licensed in Massachusetts, I cannot give nutritional advice on a global scale. (Seriously.) So if an expert looked into this, I’d feel comfortable passing along that info. Like since a nephrologist can talk to how water might enhance what is considered the normal detoxification processes of kidneys and how water might help or even harm that process, I might share that info here in a geeky link.

Plus? Massage is not the same as drinking water so I’m not really sure of the connection to this. Massage doesn’t literally squeeze anything out of the muscles like a sponge to be flushed out and water doesn’t wash over the muscles to clear products away.

Massage Increases Circulation and Increased Circulation Promotes Toxin Removal so Massage Promotes Toxin Removal

This sounds like the Transitive Property in math: If A = B and B = C then A = C. But, um, I still have an issue with it. Partly because I still don’t know what toxin the increased circulation is supposed to be removing. Even those products considered metabolic waste products from the body serve a purpose. They may not serve that purpose where they were created, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are toxic. Your circulatory system makes sure some of that metabolic waste transport occurs, but it’s doing that regardless of massage.

You know what does remove/filter toxins waste products from/through the body? Your liver. Your kidneys. Your bladder. Your mucus. (Ew. But true.) Etc. Your whole body is in a constant state of regulation, striving for what’s called homeostasis. Equilibrium. Your body’s very own all-is-right-with-the-world state. Your body wants to be well and healthy. And it’s always in a state of trying to get there. Without you (or me) lifting a muscle.

Psst! Massage is still amazing without toxin claims

I’m sure there is more to say on this. I am sure I missed some interesting, amusing, noteworthy, mind blowing, life altering points. I touched upon some of this at a very high level.

Here’s the thing: I am one of massage’s biggest fans. Truly. I think about it A LOT. (Far more than is healthy.) I’ve made it my occupation. I’ve started down the path to being an instructor to help guide and advance the future and respect of the profession. I want everyone to love massage and for massage to truly have a positive impact on a myriad conditions and ailments.

I also know that even in just the tiny amount of structured massage therapy research that has been done thus far, massage can stand up in its own right to what has been shown to be significantly meaningful. It doesn’t need toxins to hold it up as an amazing addition to one’s well-being.

It just doesn’t.

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11 Responses to Nope, I Don’t Know How To Remove Your Toxins

  1. Great post. I had a massage instructor who sat us all down once and said, “look, you can talk about toxins to some of your clients if you really want, but *do not* say these things to doctors or nurses, whether they’re your clients or not.” The moment she said that was the moment I realized that the whole phrase and concept of toxins was pretty ridiculous. I still have trouble correcting my clients when they mention toxins without getting worked up.

    • Jenn says:

      Thank you so much, Natalie! It’s even harder when you consider how frequently we see “detox” and “toxin” in our day to day lives: TV, social media feeds, magazines, product shelves…it goes on and on. But keep up with client and public education of the topic! It’s almost easier to talk about the other benefits of massage anyway because those are more tangible to most folks (i.e., headache versus toxin). Thanks again!

  2. Dan says:

    I spent the past year completing a three-term undergraduate anatomy & physiology sequence. Our professor was a PhD, 20+ years teaching experience, mitochondria researcher by day, numerous scholarly publications, eats journals for breakfast. During lecture, he used the word “toxins.” Frequently. One time, he did list a few of the things he was referring to with this catch-all term, but I’m not sure I wrote them down or could even find them if I did. So “toxins” isn’t necessarily a bad word, though I agree that there is a difference in that this guy actually knew what he was referring to when he used the word, while your average massage therapist is just parroting a vague idea they heard with no idea to what extent it might actually be true. This points to a major shortcoming in massage schools: the emphasis on anatomy with very little (if any) attention to physiology. In university classes it’s the exact opposite. Being able to point at things and use big words might make you sound like you know what you’re talking about, but actually understanding the underlying processes (and glimpsing how little we actually know about them, still!) is a far more demanding, humbling, and empowering experience. I hope that massage schools will eventually make a shift toward current, science-based education.

    • Jenn says:

      Interesting, Dan. I really, REALLY would be interested in learning what were even a few of the items on the “toxin” list. (No sarcasm. Genuine interest.) I, and others, don’t view metabolic wastes the same as toxins because they are created within the body. I view toxins as those that entered from outside. But regardless, I am not sure massage is the means by which to remove them either.

      As far as massage education standards, I am proud to say that the school I attended, Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, MA is where I first heard that the whole toxin flushing was in fact a myth. So I can vouch for the teaching there. But I would agree, there are a number of disciplines where a bit more of a scientific approach would be beneficial and massage therapy/massage education is one of those disciplines. I think that organizations like the Massage Therapy Foundation (www.massagetherapyfoundation.org) and Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (www.afmte.org) are taking steps in the right direction for the educational, professional and research based advancement of the massage therapy field. All change takes time and no step in the right direction, no matter how small, should be dismissed as trivial. (I am not saying you are making light of it. That’s just my stance as a whole.)

      Thanks so much for your comment, Dan!

  3. Jan Seeley says:

    I read this article on Facebook this morning, and I thought it kind of amusing that the “similar” article they elected to post right after was this one….bad english and all..

    (link removed by Jenn)

    • Jenn says:

      Wow! And sorry, I didn’t want that link associated with my site or for it to get hits from here. Poor grammar is right…and poorly researched. (For those curious, it was a link on how to remove a boatload of toxins from your body. Very short, very poorly written, didn’t reference massage, but still. Just an all around weak piece.)

  4. Beth says:

    I attended massage school in the 1980s – ten years after becoming a RN. I was not a very popular student when the topic of toxins came up. I kept questioning the concept, countering the arguments, and frustrating the instructor. I am also a Certified Exercise Physiologist, and according to evidence-based research, the idea that massage increases circulation is also questionable. I know that it seems like it would, but according to the research using current imaging techniques, studies show that exercise increases circulation, even passive stretching increases circulation, but massage has very little direct effect. It has an indirect effect, though, through relaxation. Relaxation has a positive effect on cardiovascular health which translates (eventually) into improved circulation. Another bit of changing advice – thirst is once again recognized as a good regulator of hydration in normal, healthy people. (except in ultra-endurance activities.) I’m sure you’ve all heard that “you are already dehydrated by the time you’re thirsty” – Well, of course you are! Thirst is the body’s cue to increase fluids. It is a natural trigger, like hunger and sleepiness, that encourages the person to take an action to remedy the situation. It’s hard to make yourself fall asleep if you’re not tired and trying too hard to force the issue can contribute to chronic insomnia; obesity can result from eating when you’re not hungry; yet for decades, we blindly followed the advice to drink even if you’re not thirsty. There are some conditions that warrant this advice, but it is not applicable to normal, healthy people who exercise moderately or less. (Some exceptions, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, post anesthesia, high intensity endurance events lasting more than 2 hours.)

    • Jenn says:

      Ha! I’ll bet your popularity was in question, Beth. :) I was taught that “increased circulation” from massage is a stretch at best. I mentioned it here because I have seen it as an argument for justifying “toxin removal” but increased circulation is not something I mention to my clients, etc. in terms of massage benefits. What always intrigues me is why some of the most vague and intangible “benefits” are those that that catch on the most. Why would I want “increased circulation”? What does that mean to me in terms of everyday, practical health? Your background is fantastic to address these discussions. I want help with my headaches. I want to relax. I want to sleep better. Etc. Those are real, tangible benefits I can latch on to. I am psyched that research is playing a role in massage therapy now. It should be viewed as a fun and exciting time….not a time filled with fear of change.

      And water? I have it in my office because my office is dry. That’s about it.

      Thanks for your comment, Beth!

    • Cath Cox says:

      Doesn’t releasing restricted soft tissue improve capillary circulation, thus increasing oxygen delivery? I thought this was how massage heals soft tissue injuries.

      • Jenn says:

        I want to look into this more as I had heard that but also heard that the impact of the capillary circulation was not large enough for global impact. But, as I said, I want to look into that more. Even if that is true, I don’t think it equates to toxin removal. Increased oxygen to an area is one thing, but I don’t think that is the same as toxin removal. Make sense? (And sorry for my very delayed response to your comment!)

  5. Hamza says:

    Can’t agree more on that with you. Actually, recently I was searching for studies on massage benefits for my benefits of massage post. And I tried to found some which provide some proof that massage can remove toxins, and I had no luck.

    Although, I did found some unique studies like: massage cures hiccups and constipation.

    I managed to collect a total of 51 massage benefits. Can share the link if you like.

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