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Recently, I was watching a lecture of a sadhu (a holy person) in the Himalayas who lived in Gangotri, at the mouth of the Ganges River. While he was talking, he was giving himself an oil massage. This, of course, is a daily practice in India, called abhyanga, but the way he did it took me by surprise.
As he was talking, he was massaging his legs, knees and thighs with oil, but what struck me was the way he was doing it. Instead of simply applying the oil, he seemed to be loving his skin with each stroke, yet still able to hold his thoughts and lecture.
His love and attention to his leg massage was so affectionate that if he wasn’t a lifelong celibate monk, I would have wondered about him. As I watched him talk while he massaged himself, I realized the importance of a loving touch. In fact, as I watched him, I noticed everything he did was with a sense of heightened awareness.
In this article, I want to discuss the science behind a daily oil massage and the science behind the love and affection of such a massage. Doing this daily to yourself – or to another – is, as said in Ayurveda, “better for you than for who you are massaging.”
This is the idea that when we do something with our full attention, it is better for us as we are doing it than it is for the object of our actions. Watching this sadhu was the epitome of a process-oriented (rather than goal-oriented) massage. It seemed like he could have easily spent hours loving and massaging his leg.
The Science of a Loving Touch
Research on massage has shown that it increases the production of oxytocin, which is a naturally-secreted hormone in the body that supports optimal levels of physical health as well as love, kindness, empathy, and bonding. Research has shown that without having loving relationships, even if all of their other basic needs are being met, humans do not flourish. (9) >>> Read the article I recently wrote on this topic.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone secreted by the mother, baby and even dad during childbirth, and connects the family for life. Oxytocin is produced when you give, love, bond, touch and care for others. The catch is that you must do it unconditionally, without need or expectation. It is a naturally rejuvenative, rebuilding hormone – which means the more oxytocin you produce, the more of it you make.
Oxytocin is released in response to touch, including massage, low-intensity stimulation of the skin, and warm temperature. (1,8) Massage helps the body cope with stress in ways that are only just beginning to be understood. Also, massage has been found to increase oxytocin and decrease stress hormones such as adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), nitric oxide (NO), and beta-endorphin (BE). (2)
In another recent study published in the professional peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 95 subjects had their blood levels evaluated for various amounts of chemicals before and after a 15-minute massage. Oxytocin levels increased by 17% for the group that received massage. The control group who just rested showed a 9% decrease in oxytocin. ACTH (adrenocorticotropin), which increases with stress, increased by 30% for the group who rested without receiving massage. Interestingly, it decreased by 20% for those who were in the massage group. (2)
One of the ways that oxytocin works is by altering the microbiology on the skin during the massage. A loving touch will increase oxytocin which, in turn, alters the microbes in a way that supports measurable health gains.
For instance, to measure the microbial impact of oxytocin, in one study subjects were given probiotics and their oxytocin levels increased. The increase of oxytocin showed quantifiable changes in skin and hair quality and general “glow of health,” immune and hormonal balance, enhanced fitness and reproductive factors, the capacity for skin wound healing, and was shown to impact attitude and social behavior. (3,7)
The Outer Skin’s Response to Massage Oil
Everywhere you touch your body, there are nerve endings. The sensory nerves on the skin are exposed to constant tactile, circadian, microbial, emotional, and environmental stressors 24/7. In fact, just one arm has over a million nerve endings of which you can calm by lovingly applying oil. (3)
I remember years ago, when I used to work with Deepak Chopra, I was in a different city every weekend for weeks, lecturing and teaching with Deepak. I am quite sure I crossed way too many time zones for my poor circadian clock.
I remember getting into this habit out of survival: as soon as I would arrive in our new destination, I would take a shower and give myself an oil massage. The results were astounding. I could feel my entire body settle down and relax, and instantly stop buzzing from the travel.
Name another way you can calm the 20,000,000 nerve receptors in the body’s skin in just a couple of minutes?!
An oil massage is said to calm vata, to calm the nervous system. And now, we have modern science to show that when you put oil on your skin with care, respect, and love, the body also produces oxytocin. (2)
What’s more is that microbes that are responsive to the oxytocin are concentrated on healthy, moist skin, which provides nutrients for the microbes in the form of water, amino acids, and fatty acids. (4) When the skin becomes dry, stressed, or chemically-altered with lotions and creams, the environment for a healthy skin microbiome can become compromised. (5) A certain species of microbes – and perhaps all microbes that are part of the normal skin flora – feed on sebum secreted by the skin, suggesting that the ancient practice of an oil massage supports the health of the skin in ways we are just now beginning to understand. (6)
Applying high-quality oils to your skin not only reinforces your all-important skin barrier, but also:
- Creates a nurturing environment for your microbes.
- Balances vata and the nervous system.
- Soothes more that 1.8 billion sensory nerves on the body’s skin.
- Increases the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with love, optimal health and bonding.
- Proliferates beneficial microbes that support mood, mental and physical health.
Keep Your Microbes Stress-Free
There is more research to be done to illustrate the effect of positive emotions (like love) on microbes, and why it is important to not just apply oil to your skin during abhyanga, but to do it lovingly. However, there is lots of existing research showing that microbes do not thrive in stressful environments.
For instance, research has found that mice sharing a cage with more aggressive mice showed significantly decreased beneficial bacteria, lower overall diversity of the gut microbiome, and an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, making them more susceptible to infection and gut inflammation. (10)
In another study, during a stressful exam week, researchers found that university students’ stools contained fewer good bacteria than they had during the relatively untroubled first days of the semester. (11)
Let’s Not Forget the Inner Skin!
As the outer skin wraps into the mouth and through the oral cavity, respiratory system, digestive tract, and gut, Ayurveda also has practices for sharing the love with our inner skin.
For instance, oil pulling is a time-honored Ayurvedic practice involving swishing oil around in the mouth for 10-20 minutes on an empty stomach. Modern science shows that while swishing with high-quality coconut oil, the enzyme modification that takes place in your mouth boosts the effectiveness of the coconut oil. Doing so chelates or “pulls” fat-soluble toxins out from the oral cavity, supporting a healthy mouth and fresh breath. (12-16)
Another Ayurvedic practice to take care of the inner skin is through tongue scraping, which also has a host of health benefits, including boosting digestive enzymes, decreasing undesirable bacterial load, decreasing volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) contributing to bad breath, and decreasing strep mutans, which is known to cause decay. (17-20) Traditionally, according to one of the Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka Samhita, tongue scrapers should be made of gold, silver, copper, tin, or brass. (21)
Boost your health and well-being by loving and caring for your skin – inner and outer!
What are ways that you take care of your inner and outer skin?