How to Turn Back the Clock
by Marlaina Donato
It has been said that stress kills, and it often can be a slow and premature process, leading to common but avoidable symptoms of decline: impaired memory, loss of mobility, fatigue and decreased libido. Good nutrition, getting enough sleep and staying active contribute to vitality; however, fortifying the nervous system is critical to combating age-accelerating stress hormones like cortisol.
The key to keeping body and mind young may lie in the therapeutic modalities of bodywork, an umbrella term for up to 350 methods that include massage, energy work and meridian-based therapies like acupuncture, shiatsu and reflexology, which can improve quality of life and promote cellular integrity. Once considered a luxury confined to spas and private home sessions, bodywork is moving into the medical mainstream with reputable hospitals like the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, which offers reiki sessions and instruction for patients and caregivers.
According to a survey by the American Hospital Association, reiki and its close cousin Therapeutic Touch comprise one of three top complementary therapies in American hospitals, along with massage therapy and music. The Arthritis Foundation recommends massage for all types of arthritis and pain syndromes like fibromyalgia, as it can reduce discomfort and stress.
The Chemistry of Premature Aging
Busy lives without enough downtime can set up the body to be in a chronic state of “fight-or-flight”, which compromises cardiovascular health, nutrient absorption, waste elimination and immunity. Thanks to groundbreaking researchers like Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, it is now understood that prolonged daily stress weakens DNA structures by shortening chromosome-protecting telomeres, a major component in premature cell death and the trigger of genetic, predisposed markers for disease.
Studies by Dr. Owen Wolkowitz, of the University of California, San Francisco, demonstrate the link between shortened telomeres and insufficient response to free radicals, resulting in chronic inflammation, now believed to be the catalyst of most degenerative diseases. Psychological stress, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, changes how the body regulates inflammatory response.
“Stress and inflammation cause pain and disease,” says Certified Reflexologist and holistic practitioner Martha Garland, of CreativeSpirit Healing Arts, in Baltimore. “All of this that we carry in our bodies will make us feel much older than our years.”
Through application of pressure on specific reflex zones on the feet, hands and ears, reflexologists like Garland can help promote the natural flow of bodily functions. “Reflexology, a modality that is separate from massage therapy, reduces the tension, stress and pain that we hold in our feet and in the rest of our body, which can promote longevity and better quality of life,” she says. Certified craniosacral therapist Margaret Connolly, of Narberth, Pennsylvania, agrees that mental or emotional strain plays a key role in the aging process. “During stress, the body is primed to resist or escape a threat, and in that situation, it’s not going to prioritize restorative activities,” she says. Craniosacral therapy (CST) focuses on the cerebrospinal fluid and the meninges surrounding the brain, spinal cord and related connective tissue, and helps the body drop out of excessive fightor-flight mode.
Pain, Serotonin and Substance P
Bodywork and its ability to impact the chemistry of stress has far-reaching effects on most bodily systems. Studies in 2016 from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine have shown that massage therapy helps to regulate hormones, boost immunity, improve attentiveness and ease the symptoms of depression.
Licensed Massage Therapist Michele Duncan King, of Sea Spell Massage, in Cannon Beach, Oregon, knows firsthand how her work can assist in counteracting the energy-sapping effects of stress. “When the digestive system doesn’t go into the ‘rest-and-digest’ state via activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, it can affect muscles, joints, organs and hormones. This, along with elevated cortisol, can certainly make us function less optimally, making us feel older and less vibrant.”
Traditional massage modalities such as Swedish, deep tissue, Thai and Lomi Lomi help reduce blood pressure, boost immunity by augmenting natural killer cells, decrease symptoms of depression and support the cardiovascular system. It can also assist lymphatic movement, which can prevent cold hands and feet and achiness. Massage also raises serotonin and dopamine levels, neurotransmitters that play vital roles in memory, mood regulation and immunity.
Most significantly, higher serotonin levels are linked to lower levels of substance P, a neuropeptide that is central in pain perception. It soars during times of stress, anxiety and insufficient sleep, and has also been linked to tumor growth and inflammatory conditions.
Bodywork can assist the physical body, but it can also be a restorative balm for the emotions and psyche. “As human beings, touch is so important. Massage modalities invite safe, healing touch,” says Anita Bondi, licensed massage therapist and a founder of the Wellspring Holistic Center, in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. “A good therapist will also educate a client about other benefits of a more holistic lifestyle. I believe any time we give ourselves permission to listen to the body’s wisdom and follow its lead, we reduce stress and increase well-being.”
While women are more apt to include bodywork sessions in their health care, men can be hesitant. Connolly encourages both women and men to experience CST and other modalities. “Sometimes men are a bit nervous about being touched, whether the practitioner is male or female. Even when open to hands-on therapy, some men believe extremely deep pressure is needed in order to be effective.” Not so, says Connolly, who cites the experience of Mark Bertolini, CEO of the Aetna health insurance company, who credits CST with saving his life when he was contemplating suicide and suffering severe neuropathic pain from a skiing accident.
Menopause and Cognitive Function
CST can also have an impact on women’s hormonal changes. “Very slight movement of tissues near the pituitary gland can exert a subtle pumping motion on the master gland in a way that will facilitate its ability to produce and release hormones,” explains Connolly.
The therapy is sometimes used in conjunction with acupuncture, which also impacts hormones and works on the brain. A 2018 study by Chinese researchers published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows neuronal improvement through acupuncture in both cognitively impaired patients and healthy individuals.
Tools for Life
Most practitioners believe that deriving benefits from bodywork requires consistency, which can support longevity in unexpected ways. Garland says, “What really makes a difference in reducing chronic stress is consistent stress reduction. One session occasionally will feel good and reduce tension temporarily, but will not make a major difference in reducing stress in the long term.” King agrees: “A massage once a month is my recommendation for ideal overall maintenance, and more frequent sessions for specific conditions or goals.”
Research and results confirm that well-being is not a luxury, but a necessity, and puts to rest the idea that bodywork is a guilty pleasure. “The more we do to help ourselves, the better our lives will be as we age,” says Bondi.
Marlaina Donato is certified in massage and bodywork, and is the author of several books. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.