Ahhhh—it feels heavenly, eases tense muscles, and increases blood flow to the skin (welcome back, rosy glow). But the perks of massage go way deeper than you might think. One-touch. That’s all it takes to get things going. As soon as your skin’s nerve cells sense firm pressure, they shoot a split-second “chill out” signal to the brain, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Long name, simple purpose: The system combats stress by essentially hitting a giant reset button for you…
Lungs and Belly
The vagus nerve, the main parasympathetic highway between your brain and major organs, send a message to your lungs to breathe more slowly and deeply, and to your digestive system to pick up the pace. (The reverse happens when you’re frazzled: Your lungs go on overdrive, and your stomach takes its sweet time processing food.)
During a back, neck, or chest massage, your heart rate can slow by more than 10 beats per minute. Your blood pressure drops by as much as 8 percent.
Stimulated by the soothing pressure of kneading, your infection-fighting white blood cells amp up their activity. In particular, natural “killer cells” go on vigilant patrol, hunting down and helping to slay viral, bacterial, and cancerous cells.
Those hands running over your body—even self-massage can work—do wonders for your anxiety: The vagus nerve instructs the adrenal glands to cut back the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and vasopressin.
Your brain waves start to change, moving further into their current state. So if it’s morning and you’re wide awake, you may feel more alert after a massage. If you’re getting an evening treatment, however, your brain waves may shift into a sleep pattern, leading to solid shut-eye that night. Provoked by parasympathetic nerves, the brain also steps up the production of the good-mood neurotransmitter serotonin.
Aches and Pains
You may be able to skip the aspirin because massage can trigger powerful natural pain relief: On the way to your brain, those pressure signals from your skin’s nerve cells go through the spinal cord, one of your body’s pain centers. And pressure signals travel faster than pain signals, temporarily blocking any ouches. (This may be why your instinct is to press on a painful spot after you hurt yourself.)