Massage and Immunity by Lolly Als

Autumn brings with it such beauty – nature’s colours are quite spectacular at this time of year. However, with this comes the season of colds and coughs. I’ve been trying to stay as healthy as possible by eating well and getting a good dose of exercise. I also like to try natural immune boosters like vitamin C, garlic, and Echinacea when I’m feeling a bit run down, even though I know the evidence base for this has been mixed! So, it was with great interest that I heard about one of the recent episodes of “Trust me, I’m a Doctor”, which included a segment on the potential immune benefits of massage.

They conducted an in-house study where one healthy group of participants were put through two conditions: 1) resting on a massage couch for an hour and 2) receiving a one-hour full body massage. They took blood at baseline, immediately following the one-hour of rest, and immediately following the one-hour treatment. They were particularly interested in the participants white blood cell (WBC) count. WBCs are a vital part of the immune system and help to fight off infections. They found that after the massage, there was a 70% increase in the participants WBC count (in comparison to the baseline measure). This was not replicated in the “at rest” condition, indicating it was the act of receiving a massage as opposed to lying and relaxing for an hour that was key. There was discussion as to whether there was really any benefit in increasing WBC count in healthy individuals, with the consensus being, there probably wasn’t. However, for people that have autoimmune conditions or are feeling “run down”, there may well be some use in booking in for a treatment.

I found this all really interesting, but the inner academic (I used to work as a research psychologist) wanted to know more about the background research that inspired this in-house study. Anyway, I decided to do a quick check on PubMed, one of the key academic search engines, and I was intrigued to see there had been a number of studies looking at this. My review of the literature was by no means exhaustive, but the gist of it was that receiving massage did seem to result in immune improvement and some studies found that there was something specific and unique in using touch (as opposed to a tool). This is really refreshing to see, as we often speak to our clients about the wide-ranging benefits of massage, but at times it is hard to back this up with robust evidence, as it is a difficult practice to study under experimental conditions.

So, if you’re feeling a bit run down or suffer with a condition that negatively affects your immune function, a massage may be exactly what you need! Of course, if your body has already succumbed to the cold or flu and you are feeling decidedly un-peaky, it’s probably best to wait until the worse is over before you pop in for a treatment!

Check out the episode here:

Lolly Als works at Natural Balance Therapies on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and one Saturday a month. To read more about her work and check availability click here.