Swedish Massage Could Lower Stress Hormone Cortisol: Study

11/25/2012 10:05 am ET

Regular massages don't just seem to melt away stress -- they may actually lower levels of the stress hormone in your body, a small new study suggests.

The research, first reported by the New York Times and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, shows that indulging in a massage is linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and amped-up levels of a vital player in the body's immune system, white blood cells.

The findings are "very, very intriguing and very, very exciting -- and I'm a skeptic," study researcher Dr. Mark Hyman Rapaport, the chairman of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told the Times.

The study included 53 adults, 29 of whom had a 45-minute Swedish massage either once a week or twice a week for a five-week period. The other 24 adults underwent a similar massage schedule, but with a light-touch massage instead.

Researchers found that compared to the light-touch massage, study participants who underwent the Swedish massage twice a week experienced decreases in cortisol levels, increased oxytocin levels (also known as the "trust hormone"), and slight evidence of increased white blood cell counts. They also experienced decreased levels of the hormone arginine vasopressin, which the Times pointed out is linked with cortisol rises.

Previously, researchers studied the effects of Swedish massage versus light-touch massage as published in a 2010 study in the same journal. But that study did not examine differences in hormone levels with different frequencies of massage.

The Mayo Clinic points out that other potential health benefits of massage include helping maintain a stable blood pressure, relieving stiffness and pain and even helping with anxiety and depression.

Want to reap the benefits of massage, but not sure where to start? Click through the slideshow to know what to expect at your first massage:

What To Expect At Your First Massage

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