Do You Touch with Love?
I remember watching a lecture of a sadhu (holy person) who lived in Gangotri, at the mouth of the Ganges river. While he talked, he gave 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 talked, he massaged his legs, knees, and thighs with oil. This was slightly out of the ordinary, but what really struck me was the way he was doing it. Instead of simply applying oil, he seemed to be loving his skin with each stroke, yet still be able to hold his thoughts and lecture.
His attention to his leg was so affectionate that if he wasn’t a lifelong celibate monk, I would have wondered about him. As I watched him talk, I realized the importance of loving touch. In fact, as I watched him, I noticed everything he did was with heightened awareness and from a loving heart.
The More You Give . . . The More You Get!
In this article, I discuss science behind daily oil massage and behind the love and affection of such a massage. Doing this daily to yourself (or another) is, as said in Ayurveda, “better for you than for who you are massaging.”
When we do something with full attention, it’s better for us than for the object of our actions. Watching this sadhu was the epitome of a process-oriented (rather than goal-oriented) activity. It seemed like he could have easily spent hours loving and massaging his leg.
Science of a Loving Touch
Research on massage shows it increases production of oxytocin, a naturally-secreted hormone that supports optimal physical health as well as love, kindness, empathy, and bonding. Research shows that without loving relationships, even if all of their other basic needs are met, humans do not flourish.9
We RecommendThe Chemistry of Love: Understanding Oxytocin
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone secreted by the mother, baby, and even dad during childbirth, which 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 you make.
Oxytocin is released in response to touch, including massage, low-intensity skin stimulation, and warm temperature.1,8 Massage helps us cope with stress in ways only 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). NO can be elevated in certain unhealthy states.2
In another study published in the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 95 subjects had their blood levels evaluated for various chemicals before and after a 15-minute massage. Oxytocin levels increased 17% for the group who received massage. The control group, who just rested, showed a 9% decrease in oxytocin. ACTH (adrenocorticotropin), which increases with stress, increased 30% for the group who rested. Interestingly, it decreased 20% for those in the massage group.2
One of the ways this works is by altering microbiology on the skin. Loving touch increases oxytocin, which, in turn, alters microbes in a way that supports measurable health gains.
For instance, to measure microbial impact of oxytocin, in one study, subjects were given probiotics and their oxytocin levels increased. Increased oxytocin showed quantifiable changes in skin and hair quality and general “glow of health,” immune and hormonal balance, enhanced fitness and reproductive factors, and was shown to impact attitude and social behavior.3,7
Oil Massage for Nervous System, Microbes + Oxytocin
Everywhere you touch your body, there are nerve endings. Sensory nerves on the skin are exposed to constant tactile, circadian, microbial, emotional, and environmental stressors. In fact, just one arm has over a million nerve endings, which you can calm by lovingly applying oil.3
I remember years ago, when I worked 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 arrived 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, relax, and instantly stop buzzing from the travel.
Name another way you can calm 20,000,000 nerve receptors in just a couple of minutes!
An oil massage is said to calm vata, part of which is the nervous system. Now, we have science to show when you put oil on your skin with care, respect, and love, you produce oxytocin.2
What’s more is that microbes responsive to oxytocin concentrate on healthy, moist skin, which provides nutrients 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 (perhaps all microbes part of normal skin flora) feed on sebum, suggesting that the ancient practice of oil massage supports skin health in ways we are just beginning to understand.6
Benefits of Applying High-Quality Oils to the Skin
- Reinforces the all-important skin barrier,
- Creates nurturing environment for your microbes.
- Balances vata and the nervous system.
- Soothes more than 1.8 billion sensory nerves.
- Increases oxytocin, the hormone associated with love, optimal health, and bonding.
- Proliferates beneficial microbes that support mood, mental, and physical health.
Keep 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 a lot of existing research showing that microbes do not thrive in stressful environments.
For instance, research finds mice sharing a cage with more aggressive mice show 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 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 love with our inner skin.
For instance, oil pulling is a time-honored Ayurvedic practice involving swishing oil in the mouth for 10-20 minutes on an empty stomach. Modern science shows that while swishing with high-quality coconut oil, enzyme modification in the mouth boosts its effectiveness. Oil pulling 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 inner skin is tongue scraping, which also has a host of health benefits, including boosting digestive enzymes, while decreasing undesirable bacterial load, volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) (contributing to bad breath), and Strep mutans (known to cause decay).17-20 According to a traditional Ayurvedic text, the Charaka Samhita, tongue scrapers should be made of gold, silver, copper, tin, or brass.21
The moral of the story is: boost health, wellbeing, and oxytocin by loving and caring for your skin—inner and outer!
What are ways you take care of your inner and outer skin?