There are few things in life, that are as relaxing as a good massage. Be it the scented candles, the dim light, the act of going to a therapist for nothing else but the treat of being granted touch that is solely there for our relaxation and wellbeing. This is nothing new, Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines have been using massage for thousands of years. Be it a treatment for an acute muscle strain, chronic back pain, preventative stress management or as part of a holistic overall treatment, massage has prevailed the test of time as a powerful and very relevant medical tool.
Intro Massage and plants
From the beginning of its development to todays modern sports massage we have always used plants in massage to improve its effectiveness. So much so, that in some cases, massage is only used to deliver plant molecules deep into the soft tissue. Just like nearly any other aspect of medicine, plants (as holistic extracts or even pharmaceutical synthetics) are used to enhance and support the bodies natural processes.
So what is it about it that makes this pleasant experience such a valuable and therapeutic process?
Skin as an organ
Imagine you could reach inside your body, grab hold of anyone of your organs, and give it a nice gentle massage. Take the liver for example, you would hold this massive dark flesh, move it around and help it release toxins by pumping it. Scrape of the dead cells and waste from its surface, and rub in some relaxing lavender oil to improve its circulation. You can do exactly that; our skin is the largest organ in our body, by far! And its completely accessible to us. The skin has more nerves in it than the liver, it can hold up to 25% of our total blood volume, it takes up more space in our brain and it’s the only organ that we can actually consciously feel.
Our nervous system inhabits our skin in an enormous and vast web of neurons that act a constant and sophisticated high way of information, and is home to one of our basic senses, touch. The nerves in our skin are directly connected to our brains and constantly feed it with information about temperature, pressure, humidity in the air, and countless other measures about our surroundings.
The skin is one of our basic connections to the outside world. So naturally, that giving it a gentle, comforting experience like massage, tells our system wonderful things about our environment.
Pleasant skin stimulation activates the parasympathetic parts of our Autonomic nervous system, which induces relaxation of blood vessels, increasing circulation and cooling our blood, releases relaxation hormones and neurotransmitters into our system that can without any meditation or mindfulness effort, bring mental relaxation.
Lets go one level deep; because of the way we develop as fetuses, our skin shares similar nerves with other parts of our body. Special reflex pathways link the skin to almost every organ in our body, from our muscles, to our lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, stomach and literally every part in our body! Reflexology, chinies medicine, shiatsu, osteopathy and many other disciplines use the skin to access different part of our insides. Call it meridians, pressure points, reflex pathways or any other name, all these approaches us the skin to access our internal bodies.
Look even closer, and you will find that just underneath the skin, with just slightly more pressure you can reach muscles, tendons, joint capsules and even actual organs. All these structures are packed tight with nerves and constantly feed back information into our systems. A pleasant and firm massage can alter the pressure on mechanical receptors in muscles and cause kind of a restart of the nerve, leading to muscle relaxation. This also happens on the muscles surrounding the arteries in our cardiovascular and respiratory system, allowing for better circulation and oxygenation.
Perhaps is for a reason, that giving massage directly on the skin can be uncomfortable. Skin on skin lack the lubrication we look for in a soothing massage. Oils from plants are a third party in this intimate relationship we have between our selves or a masseuse. Combining specific plants with a massage can make it much more powerful. Generally speaking, all medication originates from plants, and our skin is a great way to get powerful molecules into our blood stream. There is so much blood in the skin, that its actually a great way to get things into the blood. Furthermore, when something enters the blood stream through the skin, it doesn’t go through the stomach or liver, so it works much faster on our cells. Nicotine patches are a great example for this.
So think about massage as a better, more efficient way to get that chamomile infusion into your blood, or even the anti inflammatory molecules you want for your knee.
Because the active compounds are absorbed into our blood, the plants we use can give us a double benefit, local healing, with general well being. Lower systemic local inflammation and increase over all circulation, reduce localized pain and combat anxiety. Generally this is the amazing thing about plants, they are smart and complex. Plants can work on many different things at the same time, addressing the system as a whole, and not a local injury. First of all, make sure you know what your putting on your skin, because remember, its going directly into your blood! Natural oils such as in chea butter or cocoa butter are great basics to use for lubrication. They are mostly solid at room temperature and liquid at body temperature. So they aren’t as messy as standard oils and allow for better grip of the skin for different massage techniques.
Second, address the issues! Sore muscles and joints are strongly related to inflammation and local swelling. because inflammation is a good thing, avoid using chemical creams based on NSAID’s or steroids. Yes they reduce pain fast, but they literally stop the healing process that inflammation is there to do. Because they get absorbed into the blood, they also interfere with this process all over the body.
Arnica is probably one of the most popular anti inflammatory plant in massage and pain relief topicals. You would be surprised to know that most arnica based products use very little of it. Sometimes, less than 0.01%! Another powerful plant that reduces inflammation and supports tissue repair is Common Rue (Rutta Graveolens). This Common rue can be found throughout Europe, middle east and North America as just a common “weed” most of us wouldn’t even look at. When compared with traditional anti inflammatory medication its proven to be as effective, with less side effects. Another emerging plant in the world of massage and pain relief, stress reduction and tissue repair is Hemp, specifically Cannabidiol (CBD). CBD work directly on our nervous system via the endocannabinoid (ECS) and reduces inflammation, induces cell regeneration and once in the blood circulation, relieves stress. At Kiara we take all these plants and more, combine them in a synergistic way and add plants that help with the absorption of these molecules. The beauty of a good massage salve is that it connects people to each other (or themselves) with and through plants, which enhance the medicinal effects of each other.
So how is this relevant to us?
These are stressful times, every knows that. COVID-19 has caused not only global mayhem and death, it has pushed us into isolation, distanced us from people and for many it has literally stopped all their physical contact with people. This incredible tool for health wellbeing and relaxation has never been less accessible, and so important.
The best most therapeutic aspect of massage, is self massage
Luckily, one of the best most therapeutic aspect of massage, is self massage. When we touch ourselves our nervous system is constantly rebuilding its image of itself. It’s a self awareness loop that tells your brain you are you, and that you are ok. When people suffer injury or physical trauma, the areas that are injured get distorted in the self image the body has of it. To avoid pain (emotional and physical) the body can blank the area out completely. Self massage reconnects these parts together and allows us to better know ourselves and our bodies. Its literally mindfulness in action.
Combine this with the effect it can have on your internal systems and organs? And you are becoming your own self healer.
Because of the spread of the connections between the skin and the rest of the body, where you choose to massage has an impact on the effect your going to get. Before you beggin, remember you your skin is constantly aware of your surroundings, so make sure you are comfortable and feeling safe for the maximum effect. The beauty of physiology is that even if cannot find that safe place right now, it will work. Trigger and reaction.
Generally speaking we are looking to reduce stress, and to increase self-awareness and connection. Specific deep muscle massages for stiff muscles are done differently.
As a general guide, lay down on your back on a relatively hard surface and bend your knees so your feet or flat on the floor. The movements are always circular and slow. The pressure can vary but a good rule of thumb is to go 10% less pressure than you would think.
The more gentle you are, the more sensitive your system will get, and over time the deeper effects more profound. The better the salve you use, the better the plants can work. For best absorption you can first have a warm shower, or place a hot towel over the area 10 minutes before.
Suboccipital massage; at the back of your head, at the base of the skull where it connects to top of the neck. In a slow circular motion start massaging both sides of that suboccipital area. Make sure your arms are relaxed and supported and your not stressing your self.
Alternate with deep and shallow strokes, focusing mostly on soft gentle touch. This holds the muscle with the most nerves in the body!!! The structures you have beneath your finger tips now are home to the roots of the trigeminal cranial nerve and the Vagus nerve. These nerves connect to your brain, stomach and every single organ in your body. Stimulating the suboccipital region has been proven to lower heart rate, reduce stress and even improve bowl movements! Do this for about 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a day, within 3 days you will notice you life is that much better.
Belly massage; in the same posture, place your hands with a good amount of salve and start massaging your belly in a clock wise manner. From about 4 fingers width bellow your belly bottom to the bottom of your chest bone or xiphoid (aka solar plexus). If you find a tendor spot, apply gentle pressure on to it and hold for 5-10 seconds, just before the uncomfortable level. Alternate with lighter and deeper touch. for women on their period, pay more attention to the lower abdomen and apply slightly more pressure over this area. The nerves that innervate the skin here are directly linked to the organs underneath. This will cause organ parasympathetic activity, lower stress hormones and allow for deeper breaths. Breath in through your nose, and out through your mouth with pursed lips, try to elongate the exhalation. Anther helpful tip here, as to look at your belly while you massage it. Try to pay attention visually to every area you touch and how it feels. Is it tender, soft, bogy? Make mental notes of this but pay no attention to the meaning of the feeling. Simply keep massaging. 5 minutes is a good start, 10 minutes every morning and your even start to feel better bowl movements!
A self foot massage
Last but not least! A self foot massage. The feet hold one of the highest concentrations of nerve per square centimeter in our somatic body. Its like touching a huge part of our brain. There more nerves in our feet than our entire legs and arms put together.
Feet are tough. So for those of you that enjoy deep tissue massage the feet is where you will really go crazy. Because the skin on the bottom of the feet is so thick and tough, Soaking your feet in hot water before will really help get the active ingredient deep into your tissues. Using your thumbs or knuckles, massage deep into the tissue, you can be very gentle or use a lot of pressure, just make sure you dot reach the point of pain or discomfort. The point here is relaxation and not pain management. In a circular motion massage 1 foot at a time, look at your foot, see how every area feels and make a note, them forget it and again move on. Every 5-10 rounds interlock your fingers and your toes, spread between your toes and push them back into extension.
Reflexology finds the entire organ map in the feet, imagine the effect your having on your system. Look at your feet, connect the feeling to the visual. Many people never see their feet, never pay any attention to them. Some even actively ignore their feet. Regardless of how you feel towards your feet, remember they are the key to a huge part of your brain and nervous system (plus they carry you everywhere), so acknowledge them, get to know then, get to know your self. Besides being an exercise in self-awareness and consciousness, this is a physiological process of improving your nervous system function and wellbeing.