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.