SEROTONIN, DOPAMINE, & MASSAGE THERAPY
Given that Massage Therapy is my primary trade, and given how convinced I am of the "macro" direction of our society; trending towards ever increasing levels of stress, anxiety, & depression, I suppose that now would be an appropriate time to provide yet another abridgment on the positive effects that Massage Therapy can have on the brain, the immune system, & the gastrointestinal tract.
We've known for quite some time that Massage Therapy has alleviating effects on cortisol, & activating effects on serotonin & dopamine. This study from 2005 - through a review of research - demonstrated that Massage Therapy improves human biochemistry as it relates to a whole host of traumas & conditions, from sexual abuse, to chronic fatigue syndrome, to breast cancer.
With an average of a 31% decrease in cortisol, combined with increases of 28% & 31% for serotonin & dopamine respectively, the effects of Massage Therapy on stress & pain related conditions are manifestly not insignificant. But instead of giving you a bridge to nowhere and saying, "Serotonin good, Cortisol bad", I'd like to push just a bit further, and without getting too heavy science wise, explain some of the reasons why appropriate levels of both serotonin & dopamine are essential to human health & well-being.
1. It's well known that increases in serotonin may play a very important part in the alleviation of depression through its influence on cellular communication within the brain, but it can also improve the symptoms of gastrointestinal issues & conditions of intestinal motility such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, & severe constipation. Approximately 90% of the Serotonin within the human body is located throughout the G.I. tract - in the stomach, small intestine, & colon. Serotonin is responsible for a process called peristalsis - the G.I. muscular contractions required to move food through the system - as it responds to chemical & mechanical stimuli within the intestine. Given this, it's of little wonder that G.I. issues are highly correlated with stress, anxiety & increases in the production of cortisol.
It's also interesting to note that the quality of the food you consume is very important. If the cells in the G.I. which release Serotonin detect any irritants or noxious stimuli in your food - this could be anything from sugar, to gluten, to dairy, to various preservatives, to bacteria - those same cells will release even more Serotonin to cause increased peristalsis, causing diarrhea and the quick elimination of any potential harmful elements. As I've expressed many times before, the introduction of Paleolithic principles into your diet is one of the most powerful ways to prevent irritable & noxious foods from causing this to happen.
2. Dopamine is another important neurotransmitter for both physical & neurological function. Again here, it's more widely known that deficiencies of the dopamine system may lead to neurological conditions such as Parkinson's Disease & Schizophrenia.
The increased production of Dopamine however, with activities such as Massage Therapy, can produce very positive effects in the brain such as increases in concentration, as well as memory, learning & problem solving. Furthermore, appropriate levels of dopamine are also associated with gratification deferral and the ability to resist potentially dangerous behaviors such as gambling, high risk sexual encounters, & drug use.
But as we continue to look at the effects of a healthy increase in dopamine, we're once again whisked away to the neuroscience of the gut, as dopamine appears to play an important role in the brain-gut-axis. The degree to which we're beginning to unravel the connectivity between the brain and the gut is really quite profound. Not only are we discovering the implications of various microbiome deficiencies for human health, but we're also realizing that much like language acquisition, there appears to be a critical time period for children to develop a healthy microbiome.
In a study led by Sven Pettersson, it was found that the microbiome very likely portends the development of a healthy hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, leading to "long term modulation of synaptic transmission affecting motor control and anxiety like behavior in adult life".
It's interesting to note that this only occurred if the mice were exposed to the gut microbiota very early during their development; within 6 weeks of being born. In addition to this, dopamine will also exhibit a protective effect on various gastrointestinal lesions. This article demonstrated it's protection of the small intestine against the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and in a subsequent article we can see that dopamine will encourage the secretion of bicarbonate in the small intestine which also leads to protection from ulcerative lesions.
And finally, we can also observe the effects of dopamine on the immune system.
"Accumulating pharmacological and genetic evidence has indicated a crucial role of dopamine in the regulation of inflammatory responses involved in autoimmune disorders. Altered levels of dopamine in inflamed tissues and deregulated expression of the dopaminergic machinery in immune cells have been consistently associated with the physiopathology of autoimmune diseases in patients and in animal models."
Studies have shown that malfunctioning dopamine receptors, and an absence of dopamine itself, may even be involved in the pathophysiology of cancer. Furthermore, it may also have implications for multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a whole host of other autoimmune conditions.
In essence, when all of this information is taken into consideration, we can surmise that proper resting levels of these neurotransmitters - in conjunction with a reduction of stress hormones - will enable the body to generate adequate defenses in response to internally or externally generated insults, and should thus be regarded as absolutely essential for the pursuit of human health & well-being.
In my experience, people seldom seek or require additional reasons to get a massage, but there you have it, what I consider to be the most important scientific reasons to receive frequent massages, and keep your neurotransmitters in check!