Massage Therapy for Unicorns – Toxin Myth
I used to be a pathology teacher at a massage therapy school. Without fail I would have students talk about how they were learning that massage would help flush toxins from peoples tissues. I heard it in just about every context. People should drink water after a massage because it would help flush the toxins. Massage was good for you because it would get the toxins out of your muscles. Toxins… Toxins… Toxins.
So I started asking my students, since I was teaching pathology (the study of disease), which toxins they were massaging out of people. I got a variety of answers. The most common response was lactic acid. I even had one student tell me she could massage out heavy metals like mercury and lead. Here is the thing… none of this is actually true. The concept that massage therapist are wringing the toxins from your muscles is a total unicorn: seems magical and pretty, but it just doesn’t exist.
Let’s start with lactic acid. This is the most common of the mythical toxic offenders. Whenever you do strenuous exercise the level of lactic acid in muscle tissue rises. This doesn’t last for long though. The cells will absorb the lactic acid and use it to produce more energy. It produces MORE energy (not really a trait of a toxic substance)! How fast this process happens depends on how strenuous the activity was and the fitness level of the individual. However, would it surprise you to know that lactic acid is clear from muscle tissue in just minutes? A person in poor physical shape can clear lactic acid from muscles within an hour. Again, something that can be used to produce fresh energy doesn’t sound to poisonous to me. So, is lactic acid a tissue toxin that massage flushes out? Nope.
What about when your massage therapist tells you to drink plenty of water to flush out the toxins after a massage? Sometimes when people get a massage they feel light-headed, woozy or a little nausea afterward. This isn’t a surge of toxic chemicals that are threatening your well-being. If that is how massage really worked I would never recommend it. Massage isn’t dangerous though. It’s actually a very safe method for treating many different problems. Assuming toxins were to blame do you really think that swigging 8-16 oz. of water after a massage would be enough to “flush out toxins?” The answer is: no!
We don’t fully understand why people sometimes have that strange reaction to massage. The theory that makes the most sense to me is that deep tissue massage can affect blood and lymphatic flow. All that liquid is being moved from muscle tissues into the circulation and back again. This may cause some of the wooziness or changes in blood pressure. Also we know for a fact that massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that handles all of the “house keeping” functions of the body such as digestion, tissue repair, resting heart rate, etc. Going from a totally relaxed state to standing and walking again shifts control from this parasympathetic nervous system and this reaction may be the lag time as your body gets switched back over to a less passive state.
Maybe the closest this toxin theory gets to being correct is this: Massage can help improve body function. Whether this is the flow of fluids in your lymphatic system or the activation of your house keeping portion of your nervous system, massage can help improve body function. Your liver and your kidneys and your skin and your respiration are constantly eliminating toxins from your body. They do a pretty darn good job too. How can massage help? Well, if you can improve breathing and encourage deeper breathing then maybe you are helping with that part of elimination. If you are bringing blood flow to the skin then maybe that helps.
It’s time to ditch this misconception that a massage therapist is squeezing out poisonous chemicals from your muscles (who wants that?) and that a simple cup of water can counteract this. I wish more massage therapists would take the time to educate themselves about real reasons that somebody needs to hydrate after a massage or why they might feel a little off at first. I wish fewer massage instructors perpetuated this myth simply because it was what they were taught by somebody who also didn’t know what they were talking about. In my practice I love working with massage therapists who are not only interested in the art of massage but also the science. This allows us to deliver a value in our massages that you can’t get other places.
We don’t actually do any unicorn massage (sorry if the title made you think we did) because they don’t exist. Similarly, the idea that massage is moving toxins from tissues and then into your bloodstream is also (thankfully) a myth. Fortunately, massage does enough wonderful things for your body that we don’t even need to make anything up. The massage is already valuable enough!
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