Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Healthy eating and exercise are often the advice given for good health, but research shows that quality sleep should also be a part of your healthy lifestyle. Anyone who sleeps for less than 8 hours a night is experiencing a ‘sleep debt’, which is not reversed by having a lie in at the weekend.
Nothing is more stressful than going to bed at night only to find yourself staring at the ceiling for hours on end. But it gets worse as the sun rises; tired and sleep deprived, your productivity is at an all-time low, and your chances of falling asleep while driving increases dramatically.
Why science says massage is agreeable for sleep
The National Institute of Health has advised that massage therapy can reduce fatigue and improve sleep and, based on research gathered by the American Massage Therapy Association, massage has been shown to improve sleep in infants, children, adults, and the elderly alike. It's also beneficial for individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, lower back pain, cerebral palsy, and breast disease.
Sleep deprivation is usually a sign of an increased level of pain in the body, and in order to reduce the pain, your brain needs to release your body’s natural painkillers (endorphins). Oh, and here comes the best part: You don’t need to take pain medication to get a regular dose of these feel-good chemicals. In a study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 30 middle-aged adults with chronic back pain each received a 30-minute massage twice a week within a 5-week period. During the evaluation, all the respondents who received massage reported improved sleep as well as reduced pain, anxiety, and depression–all of which are linked to insomnia.
Massage is so effective that the American College of Physicians recently included it as one of their first-line recommendations for low back pain. But thanks to our busy schedules, most of us don’t have the time nor the money to get a regular massage.
It helps you relax; If you’re kept up at night worrying about financial problems, a difficult relationship, or other stressful events, a massage may be the key to better sleep. Regular massage sessions have been found to decrease depression and anxiety levels and improve sleep quality, perhaps because they trigger the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can help you feel calm.
Can massage manipulate your sleep hormones?
Beata Aleksandrowicz, a massage expert and the creator of the Pure Massage Spa Training Method, says “research has shown that the chemistry of sleep is relevant to massage therapy because massage can directly influence the body's production of serotonin and the creation of melatonin”, and concludes that these two hormones, plus cortisol, play a vital role in our sleep patterns.
“Levels of the hormone cortisol are often elevated in people who are stressed (yes – that’s most of us) which can lead to insomnia,” she explains. “Massage helps to balance the hormonal system and it's proven that massage can reduce the level of cortisol by an average of 30 per cent.”
When it comes to serotonin – our happy hormone which influences our wellbeing, appetite, memory, and sleep – Aleksandrowicz explains that “Whilst it needs light and exercise to thrive, studies have also shown that massage can help to boost serotonin levels up to up 28 per cent.” In addition, melatonin, “the sleep-inducing hormone which increases with the darkness of the night,” as Aleksandrowicz puts it, can be triggered by the pressure applied during a massage.
And if you needed any more excuses to book in a massage, let Maciejewska provide one. “While improving the sleep experience, simply one hour of massage provides the body with benefits that are equivalent to a power nap,” she says.
With as much as 15,000 nerves, our feet are the most sensitive parts of our body. By using relaxation techniques like massage, you can stimulate these nerves and experience a calming effect that extends to other parts of the body. And the research agrees; a 2014 study published in the Journal of Acupuncture and Tuina Science involved patients with liver cirrhosis who received foot massage for 14 days. At the end of the study, those in the massage group experienced significant improvement in their sleep quality compared to the control group. Foot reflexology, a type of massage originating from ancient Chinese medicine, also has scientific research to back it up. In 2008, Kunz and Kunz collated 168 research studies about foot reflexology from all over the world, most of which are from journals published in Korea and China. Based on their analysis, foot reflexology can induce deep relaxation, decrease blood pressure, and prevent anxiety attacks.
Self-massage tips for improving sleep
6 Wellness tips to help balance your sleep hormones for a night of naturally better sleep.
Note: There are many factors that might contribute to your sleep problems. It can range from the type of mattress you’re sleeping in, to more serious medical conditions that should be addressed with the help of your GP. The following massage techniques are meant to complement, not replace, conventional therapies for insomnia.
1. Take a bath: Add some soothing essential oils like lavender, ylang ylang or frankincense. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breath slowly, consciously and deeply from the diaphragm, counting each breath to 100. The warmth of the bath will boost melatonin.
2. Massage your feet: Sit on the edge of the bed and rest your left feet on your right knee. Use foot cream or body lotion and slowly massage your feet. Take your time. Breathe …
Step 1: Apply relaxing strokes on the foot. Squeeze, knead, press, or whatever feels good to you. Locate the solar plexus at the centre of the sole, just below the ball of the foot. Press it with your thumb for 5 to 10 seconds. The solar plexus is a reflex point which offers profound relaxation when stimulated.
Step 2: “Walk” your thumb along the inner side of the foot, from the base of the heel to the top of the big toe, pausing occasionally to press specific reflex points with the tip of your thumb or forefinger.
Step 3: Re-apply the relaxation technique you used in Step 1. Finish it up by pressing the solar plexus for another 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat on the other foot.
3. Massage your hands: You can sit on the edge of the bed or in the bed supporting your back with pillows. Using some hand or body lotion, massage the top of your hand and then turn your palm up and using the thumb circle your palm along different points and stretch your palm slightly at the same time. Make sure that you do it slowly while breathing all the time.
4. Massage your face: Relax; these simple passages performed on the face using your fingers will aid in slowing your nervous system to induce calm, relaxation and sleep when necessary. Repeat each step 10-50 times as often as required. If it’s safe to do so, close your eyes and breath deep.
Step 1: Using knuckles or fingertips massage back and forth on the midline of your forehead above each eyebrow
Step 2: Travel along each eyebrow root to tip then return
Step 3: Use circular motions in the centre between your eyebrows
Step 4: Apply downward strokes in front of each ear
6. Now go to bed: Switch off the light, close your eyes and take deep breaths. Visualise a place that is close to your heart, maybe the coast, mountains, or a beach. Breathe into it and let it soothe you like a lullaby.