Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles measured hormone levels in the blood of 53 healthy adults as they enjoyed 45 minutes of massage. They were amazed to find a significant decrease in stress hormones and increase in the comforting hormone oxytocin.
We all know why stress hormones aren’t desirable, but the increase in oxytocin actually has implications for pregnant women. Oxytocin is an amazing hormone: Some call it the “bonding hormone” or the “love hormone” as it’s released during orgasm, when it’s dark, when you feel safe and, as this study confirmed, during massage. It’s also released in childbirth– it causes contractions–and helps with bonding and breastfeeding.
Massage in recommended in labor partly because it can help distract mom from the pain, refocus her and offer some relief but also because it can help the oxytocin flow. And that’s what you want. Oxytocin can be a little finicky: It doesn’t like bright lights, lack of intimacy and fearful situations. In fact, a strong blast of stress hormones can slow oxytocin (and, in turn, labor) down. (Not regular stress mind you, that’s normal.) So massage and darkness and trust can all help labor progress. Oxytocin isn’t a pain killer but it does have a very soft and fuzzy side which helps explain the great rush of euphoria after the hard work of labor is over. After the pain is gone, nothing is left but the endorphins and oxytocin. Not a bad cocktail.
In this experiment, the group was divided in two; about half were treated to deep tissue Swedish massage, the other half had a light massage. Interestingly, those who received a lighter massage experienced greater increases in oxytocin than those who had deep tissue Swedish massage. The Swedish massage group experienced a drop in stress hormones and a boost to the immune system but not an up-tick in oxytocin. In labor, a full-on Swedish deep tissue massage is probably not your best bet. In fact, massage in labor is meant to be very simple, even an “amateur” partner can pull it off.
If you’re worried that a prenatal massage will cause premature contractions, don’t. Oxytocin only causes contractions once everything else is in place for labor.
This study was sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers found the results, “very, very intriguing.” Could this mean that one day massage will be considered an insurable medical treatment for the reduction of stress and boosting of the immune system? I hope so. In the meantime, if you’re pregnant, put massage on your labor coping list and consider getting one now and/or closer to your due date. It turns out feeling relaxed and warm and happy is actually good for you.
photo: Nick J Webb