The heart. Our dear, dear heart! The deepest center of our core, literally and physically speaking. In honor of the heart, let’s take a look at what massage therapy can do for one of our most important organs.
The heart is more than just the pump that keeps things running. It is more than a machine, keeping us alive by pushing blood through our trunk, limbs, and brain. It’s the epicenter of our being, the place where emotions like love, romance, compassion, joy, peacefulness, happiness, fear, anxiety, anger, and disgust dwell. Historically, its significance has varied among different cultures. Still, the heart is widely known as the symbol of love, truth, emotions and compassion.
Touch is known to provoke many reflexes and influences many mechanisms within the body. A relaxing massage will activate the “rest and digest” system and help counteract stress and stress-related health issues. We all know how stress and stress related habits can contribute to heart attacks, strokes etc. Studies show that massage therapy helps lower blood pressure and can improve heart health, heart rate, and inflammatory markers in people with hypertension.
It stimulates the release of feel-good hormones (Endorphins) which can evoke feelings of happiness, bliss, being loved and cared for, and can help fight depression. Endorphines are also a positive influence on our immune and lymphatic systems, they reduce stress, reduce pain, slow down the aging process, improve digestion, and increase blood flow through our organs that excrete waste and toxins. It activates the “rest and digest response” (or parasympathetic nervous system response) which lets our nervous system relax, it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and slows the heart rate. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure and heart rate can prevent heart attacks, blood clots, and arrhythmias.
As we all know, our heart’s physiological function is to pump blood through the circulatory system, which provides each of our 37.2 trillion cells in our body with nutrients, oxygen, and other goodies. Blood also transports CO2, unused compounds, and toxins from our cells to other organs like the lung, liver, kidney, and skin, where the metabolic waste can be excreted.
Interestingly, the heart has its own electrical conduction system and can work independently from the rest of the body. Physiological processes are highly complex, but to put it simply: a multitude of processes take place every second within the neurological and circulatory system. Some of these are regulating heart rate and help maintain proper blood pressure so that everything can function smoothly. It is a well-orchestrated symphony of hormones, endorphins, neurotransmitters, nerves, electric impulses, and muscles that can make the heart beat faster or slower and regulate blood flow as needed.
To put it simply: Our heart reacts to our nervous system mainly in two ways:
1. “The fight or flight response” (the sympathetic nervous system)
2. “The rest and digest mode” (the parasympathetic nervous system).
“The fight or flight response” is needed in order to be able to react to danger and urgent situations. In NYC this could be anything from an angry dog attack to fighting your way out of a subway car during rush hour. That’s when our hearts beat fast, our faces get red, and our blood rushes through our bodies to help our muscles prepare for sudden activity – like running away from the dog or pushing other subway commuters out of your way.
The problem in today’s western civilization is that we go into “fight or flight response” not only when there is real danger, but also when we get angry, or when our boss yells at us, or if we experience something disturbing; but because we are either not allowed to act out or we know we are not in real danger there is no way for all that energy to dissipate, since we are not actually running or fighting it off. That unused energy creates a lot of tension and is one of the main problems in today’s stress-related health issues, including high blood pressure and heart attacks. Of course, other stress-related habits are at play, like lack of sleep, over-stimulation, too little relaxation, not enough time outdoors, poor quality of food, and lack of exercise etc. But for now let’s focus on stress related to uncharged tension.
Physiologically, the antidote to the “fight or flight response” is the “rest and digest” mode. That is when our parasympathetic nervous system makes our bodies focus on relaxation, laying down, and diverting most of our blood supply to our internal organs. This allows us to refuel, metabolize the food we’ve eaten, and helps us sleep better. This is when the heart slows down, blood pressure drops, the heart takes a break so to speak and the body gets some down time.
So it seems that although in today’s society the “fight or flight response” is still needed, we should make sure that we get enough “rest and digest” during our daily lives. Massage is a great way of helping to reduce stress and keeping the heart healthy. Plus it makes us feel good all around and what’s better than that!
Written by Eliane Baggenstos, owner of bodono, Registered Nurse, and Certified Health Coach with certification in Plant-Based Nutrition by the Cornell University and Evidence-based Health Coaching for Healthcare Providers by the National Society of Health Coaches, Licensed Massage Therapist with certifications in Advanced Sports Massage and Medical Massage, and Personal Trainer NASM CPT.