More and more people are not getting enough sleep. If you are one of them, then you know the toll that it can take on your health, your livelihood, and how you handle life’s curveballs. If that isn’t enough, the United States alone loses up to $411 billion dollars every year because people are missing work due to their lack of sleep.
While there are medical interventions that will help some people sleep better, these often have significant side effects. If they are the only way to sleep, they are worth a try, but there are some other things to try first.
One of these “others” is massage. Most people love getting massages. They leave feeling relaxed and like the body moves better than it did when they came in. In addition to these benefits, massage can also help you sleep better.
Who Does Massage Help?
While there is some evidence that massage can help almost anyone sleep better, it has been shown to help people in specific populations.
For instance, massage helps postpartum women sleep better. The postpartum period can be extremely stressful for a new mom. Not only is she learning to care for her baby, but her own hormones can be all over the place. This causes her to be emotional, to have high stress levels, and to feel generally unlike herself. All of this can combine to cause her to struggle with sleep. However, when women in this situation received massages for 20 minutes a day on five consecutive days, they slept better.
Massage also helps fibromyalgia patients improve their sleep. Many people with this debilitating disease struggle to sleep because they are in so much pain. Massage helped them to that point that they had fewer tender spots on their bodies and lower levels of a neurotransmitter associated with pain. These people also slept more. They also moved less in the night, which indicates a higher quality of sleep.
Massage also helps hospitalized cancer patients to rest well. It’s always hard to get good sleep in the hospital because people check on you throughout the night. When you add the stress of cancer and any pain or anxiety that can come with being in the hospital, sleep can be extremely elusive. However, patients who received massages at night reported better sleep, despite all of these other factors.
Acupressure is a type of self-massage, and studies have shown that it can help menopausal women sleep better. Women in this stage of life notoriously struggle with sleep, so this technique could bring a lot of relief to many women, and they don’t even have to leave the house! Women who massaged 4 pressure points over 10 minutes before they went to bed slept better than women given sham acupressure techniques and women given no massage techniques at all.
Massage also helps with insomnia in general, whether it is tied to pain or anxiety or not. While the majority of these studies have taken place in the hospital setting, the fact that massage can help there should bring hope that it can help anywhere. People tend to feel more pain and anxiety when they’re in the hospital than they do when they’re out. If it can help there, it should be able to help with insomnia at home, too.
How Does Massage Help With Sleep?
There are a few ways that massage can help lead to better sleep. While science may not understand the details of each one, researchers have shown that massage can do the following things.
Massage and Serotonin
Serotonin is essential for good sleep, though researchers have not yet pinpointed exactly what it does to facilitate falling asleep and/or staying asleep. However, when serotonin production is halted using medication, subjects cannot sleep at all.
Scientists do know that an area of the brain called the raphe nuclei somehow mediates sleep. The neurons in this area specifically use serotonin to communicate with each other, so they hypothesize that serotonin somehow helps the brain communicate that it’s time to sleep.
Serotonin is also a precursor to the production of melatonin. This chemical helps regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycles, or its circadian rhythms. The body produces melatonin when it’s time to fall asleep and reduces it when it’s time to wake up. Thus, having more serotonin could help your body produce the melatonin it needs in order to fall asleep at the right time.
All of this ties into massage because massage can lead to higher levels of serotonin. Again, science has not discovered the exact mechanism by which this happens. For the insomniac, though, HOW massage helps them sleep is likely less important than the fact that it DOES help them sleep.
Massage and the Vagus Nerve
In addition to the serotonin-melatonin connection, massage also stimulates the vagus nerve. This is the major parasympathetic nerve in the body. When it is stimulated, it tells the entire body to relax. This can lead to lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, relaxed facial muscles, and increased gut function.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve also leads to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is the major stress hormone. When its levels are too high in the body, the body is stressed out. Over time, this leads to fatigue. However, if the cortisol levels aren’t lowered, the body can’t rest well. Stimulating the vagus nerve reduces the cortisol, allowing the body to rest as it should.
Massage and Hyperarousal
There is some evidence that insomnia is tied to hyperarousal. This is basically the state of being “always on.” If you feel like you can never relax, if you lie down and think about all the things that went wrong today and all that could go on tomorrow, you may suffer from this condition. It can lead to long-term health problems, of which insomnia is one.
Hyperarousal is a bad cycle for the body. It often starts with a stressful event, one that truly requires the system to be aroused. However, it continues when we worry, when we can’t relax after something bad happens, or when our bodies continue to struggle with low levels of pain because of an accident or an illness. Pain can also come when we can’t relax. We continue the cycle of arousal, which makes us more stressed out, etc.
Massage can help break this cycle. It can actually force the body to relax, pulling muscles smooth and long again and causing an increase in blood circulation. These send signals to the brain that tell it to relax. Over time, massage can intervene in this cycle and end hyperarousal, allowing us to sleep well again.
How to Use Massage to Improve Sleep
It’s helpful to know that massage can help improve your sleep, but it can be hard to put this into practice. Here are some ideas. At least one should work for you.
Get Some Massages
Get on the phone, call up a local massage center or chiropractor’s office, and find someone who can fit you in. However, note that it doesn’t say “Get a Massage.” That’s because most of the studies that have been done use more than one massage. While one would likely be beneficial, the truth is that your body has some long patterns of not sleeping well. It may take regular massages for quite a while to get you sleeping well again.
There are several different types of massage to choose from. Swedish is the most popular in the western world. It is gentle and involves using techniques like long strokes, kneading, and circular motion to help your body relax. Sports massage is similar but tailored toward people who work out regularly or practice a certain sport. Deep tissue massage is a bit rougher and utilizes techniques to get down into layers of muscles that might not otherwise benefit. Trigger point massage focuses on releasing muscles on specific sore spots.
The upside to all of this is that you will feel more relaxed and sleep better. However, getting regular massages can be expensive and inconvenient, too.
If you can’t make it out to a massage therapist a few times a week or you don’t want to pay for it, there are some massage techniques you can do at home. These can offer you the same benefits as getting a massage, for a much lower price.
Foot reflexology. The bottom of the foot has up to 15,000 nerve endings, and massaging these has been shown to improve health all over the body. While different parts of the foot seem to be connected to particular parts of the body, massaging the bottom of the foot as a whole can also help with relaxation.
- Start your foot massage by squeezing or pushing your foot in a way that feels good to you. You can even roll the bottom of your foot with a lacrosse ball or a golf ball if that feels good. Spend some extra time pushing on your foot right below the ball of your big toe. Push and hold this for 5-10 seconds at a time.
- Spend some extra time rubbing the outside of your big toe, which can stimulate melatonin production. Rubbing the ridge of your toes can help relax your neck and shoulders and pressure on the ball of your foot can relax your breathing. Overall, spend 5-10 minutes massaging each foot before bedtime.
Head massage. It can be hard to massage certain parts of your own body, but you should be able to rub your head. Your head has some acupressure points that can be helpful for sleep.
- Start by rubbing the middle of the top of your head. If you drew two lines up your skull from the top of both ears, this point is right where they would meet. Push straight down about 100 ties or rub around in 100 circles here.
- Move to the points where your eyebrows end near your nose. Again, you can apply direct pressure here or move your fingers in tiny circular motions. Try to push at least 30 ties or make 30 circles.
- Finally, rub along your eyebrows and just under your eyes. Use longer, sweeping motions here, rubbing the whole eyebrow in one movement. Try to do both eyes at the same time, at least 20 times.
Face massage. If you carry stress in your muscles, you may carry more of it in your face than you had thought. Rubbing your face can release this tension, helping you rest better.
- You can begin this massage wherever your face feels tight. Start with the large muscles at the back of your jaw. Press gently into them and make small circles with your fingers. Explore these muscles for hidden tension, massaging it out as you can.
- Move to your temples. Don’t put too much pressure here, but explore for places that are tender and make gentle circles on top of them. As the pressure releases, you can press harder.
- End by massaging your forehead. You can go straight up and down from the bridge of your nose, or follow the pattern of your eyebrows in bigger and bigger arcs until you have covered your whole forehead.
Use whatever specific technique of self-massage helps you the most. Learn them all, as some may help some days and others on other days. Before long, you should be getting more sleep.
Types of Massage
Massages to Relieve Stress and Relax
Some forms of massage therapy are better at promoting a relaxed mind-body state than others. These types of massage are great for helping to ease mental and physical stress that might be hindering your sleep.
Swedish massage: This form of massage is relaxation-focused, using a sequence of long, gliding kneads, strokes, and circular motions to erase shallow tensions in your muscles. Swedish massage helps to reduce superficial muscle tension, while boosting circulation throughout the body.
Hot stone massage: A masseuse uses hot, smooth stones typically placed on your back to relax and invigorate your body. The heat helps to release tension built up in your shoulders and back, allowing the therapist to more easily reach areas of muscle ache.
Massage for Pain and Specific Conditions
Other forms of massage are designed to relieve specific types of pain. The cause of the pain isn’t important. As long as you feel certain that the pain is caused by soft tissue damage or inflammation (as opposed to joint or bone problems), these types of massage can help.
Deep-tissue massage: The practitioner utilizes techniques designed to get beyond the superficial layers of the muscle. If your pain is longstanding or comes back even after repeated Swedish massages, this can help get at its core. These massages can be more painful than relaxation massages, but they can also bring more relief.
Trigger point massage: This type of massage utilizes trigger points to release tension in the muscles. By placing pressure on the point, the muscle is triggered to relax and lengthen, rather than remain short and tight.
Rejuvenating Massage and General Health
Finally, some forms of massage work to relieve specific ailments or help the body find or retain health. These practitioners usually focus on pressure points believed to run along the body’s energy meridians. Massaging these points can help relieve pain and enable the body to become healthier.
Shiatsu massage: A Shiatsu practitioner uses his or her hands, elbow, feet, etc. to place pressure on traditional Japanese pressure points throughout the body. The practitioner also focuses on stretching and rotating limbs in order to free blocked energy so that the body can function as it was designed to.
Reflexology: This form of massage focuses on trigger points in the hands and feet. Each point corresponds to a part of the body or a specific organ. Regular massage of the points associated with a part of the body is said to bring healing and health to that part.
Guided Self-Massage Videos:
- Do you struggle with neck and shoulder pain? Here are some solid self-massage techniques for relieving it.
- If you want to do a full body self-massage, try these Ayurvedic techniques.
- Learn more self-massage practices and many other massage techniques from Massage Nerd’s videos.
Find a Local Massage Therapist:
- Search here for people near you who are certified by the American Massage Therapy Association.
- The Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals organization also has a database of local massage practitioners.
- Find a massage therapist, check pricing and availability, and book appointments through Massage Book.
- Learn how to give a proper massage to help others relax.
- Understand how acupressure treatments can heal common body pains
- Interested in learning more about acupressure? Here are some charts of hand and foot points that you can try.