Have you ever had the experience of drifting off to dreamland while getting a professional massage? Maybe you’ve found that having your shoulders kneaded or your feet rubbed before bed makes you heavy-lidded and drowsy. You are not alone: Many of us find that massage helps us feel relaxed and sleepy.
There is a reason behind this — your muscles are being coaxed into a looser state — but if you’re in a darkened, quiet room, with your eyes closed, your brain is also experiencing the spa-like break from a day of to-do lists.
Here are some of the fascinating reasons why massage has the power to do this, whether massage can help with sleep disorders like insomnia, and some expert tips for including more massage in your bedtime routine.
How massages relax your body
The human touch and the application of gentle pressure can release hormones that help with sleep, says Dorothy Wong, a massage therapist, licensed acupuncturist, and clinical supervisor at Pacific College of Health Sciences. “Research demonstrates that therapeutic massage releases certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, to help stabilize emotions and stress,” Wong shares.
Massage also has positive effects on the nervous system, which can aid in sleep, explains Dana Davis, massage therapist and owner of Midnight Sun Massage. “Massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the body's rest-and-relaxation response,” she says. “At the same time, massage calms your sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight and stress-response system) that is running on overload for many of us.”
Additionally, a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that back massage helped cancer patients sleep better, improving anxiety levels, decreasing cortisol (stress hormones), stabilizing blood pressure and heart rate, and allowing for better-quality sleep. Massage doesn’t just benefit adults, either. A study published in Sleep Medicine found that babies who were massaged before bed had improvements in night waking — and parents reported improved sleep quality as well.
Massage is a natural nighttime stress reducer
Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and author of "The Sleep Solution" and “The Rested Child,” says that the impact that massage has on sleep might be as straightforward as the fact that it takes your mind off of everything else in your life. “Anything that not only relaxes your body, but also distracts you, can be sleep-promoting,” he explains.
Adding to this is the fact that the environment you’re often in during a massage — a dark, quiet room — can be naturally calming. There is a forced break from the sensory stimulation of a regular day, with information overload to stimulate your brain. It’s very hard to think about that email that you have to write, or stressful world news, when your eyes are closed and you are being calmed by someone you trust, Winter says.
Further, massage can channel your focus from to-do lists into your own body, helping you regulate breathing and pinpoint areas of your body to relax. Similar to the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, you can use massage to feel calming touch, smell soothing oil, hear calming music or silence, and travel through the sensory technique.
Massage may also accomplish many of the same things that progressive relaxation techniques do to relax your body and induce sleep. “Rather than simply trying to mentally let go of your tension in your shoulders, and the back of your neck, having somebody sort of do that for you, is probably really promising,” Winter says.
Is massage good for sleep disorders?
Millions of Americans suffer from sleep disorders, with insomnia being the most common one, affecting as many as 1 in 4 Americans. Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you reach for your favorite caffeinated beverage; it can also have negative impacts on your overall health. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to develop diabetes, depression, and heart disease, according to the CDC.
Massage is a wonderful way to manage sleep disorders, says Davis. “It can help with insomnia, falling asleep, and getting deeper sleep,” she describes. “Many of my clients report greatly improved sleep after receiving massage, and I often use it to help my husband sleep, since he suffers from insomnia.”
Research backs this up, too. For example, a study published in Sleep Science, found massage to be particularly helpful in helping postmenopausal people, who experience high rates of insomnia. Respondents who added massage into their routines self-reported fewer insomnia symptoms as well as overall better life satisfaction. Other studies have found that massage can reduce symptoms among people who experience sleep disorders like narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome. Though many of the studies are small, there is growing evidence to support the physical and psychological benefits of massage for promoting better-quality sleep.
Tips for using massage for sleep
Professional massage can be helpful to your self-care routine in many ways, including alleviating muscle aches, encouraging relaxation, and giving you dedicated self-care time away from normal routines. The right treatment could also positively impact your overall sleep. But adding massage into your bedtime routine is also a great way to reap the benefits of massage. Our experts shared some tips that even a beginner can follow. These routines can be used among spouses or can be used for parents and their kids.
Try downward strokes
Wong says that stroking downward, away from the heart, can be calming. You can start on the upper back, on either side of the spine, and gently press your palms down. Proceed down to the lower back, continuing to press gently down. Eventually, you can use your palms to massage in a circular motion, also going from the upper back down to the lower back. Repeat these motions as desired along the arms or legs.
Apply only moderate pressure
When it comes to massage for sleep, you aren’t aiming for a deep-tissue massage or treatment for injuries or pain. You really want to focus on relaxing the body. To this end, Davis recommends keeping the pressure moderate, and going slow.
Use massage oil or moisturizer
Massage oil or body lotion is optional, but it can be relaxing and enjoyable. If you want to use it, Wong recommends hypo-allergenic massage oil; body or baby lotions are options too, but be mindful about transferring oily or greasy products into your bedding.
Keep it simple
A nighttime massage for sleep doesn’t have to be too much of a production, says Davis. You don’t have to remove your clothes, use lotion or oil, or put on music. “A short massage session for sleep can be done through pajamas,” she describes. “Just use your non-dominant hand to gently hold the end of the pajama pants or sleeves against their body at the ankles or wrists, while you massage with your other hand.”
Try this 5-minute full-body massage routine for sleep
Davis shared her favorite full body massage — one that can be done in five minutes or less.
- Start with the person lying on their belly, face down.
- Spend one minute gliding your hand up and down their back, paying attention to their shoulder muscles; then spend 30 seconds on the back of each leg, pressing gently with a flat palm.
- Have them roll over onto their back, and sit behind them.
- Massage their scalp with your fingertips for 30 seconds; spend another 30 seconds gliding your finger up from the bottom of their neck to the back of their skull.
- Next, spend 30 seconds gliding up and down each arm, ensuring that you include their hands and fingers.
- Finally, repeat this gliding down each leg for 30 seconds, ending with a few extra seconds on each foot; this can have a stabilizing and grounding effect.
Getting a massage — whether from a professional, a spouse, or a parent — is more than just a “feel good” activity. There’s good evidence that it is quite effective in inducing sleep. But perhaps the best thing about the use of massage for sleep is how simple and wholesome it is. Almost anyone can do it, it’s natural and harmless, and it’s a great way to bring people together.