Can Massage Help with Insomnia?

“I can’t sleep!”
“I’m exhausted, I didn’t sleep last night.”

Is that you?

Sleep is vital for good health. Unfortunately, 35% of American adults suffer from insomnia. Insomnia is defined as a month of chronic lack of sleep. Therefore, the occasional sleepless night should not be confused with insomnia.

A continued period of lack of sleep can compromise concentration, memory and other cognitive functions and can contribute to relying too heavily on stimulants like coffee or energy drinks.

We rely on the hormone serotonin for regulating our sleeping pattern. When we are healthy, serotonin works on autopilot and is produced in our digestive system. Serotonin is not only responsible for regulating our sleep but also our appetite and our mood.

When we are stressed and fatigued, our hormone functions can become irregular.

Main Causes of Insomnia

Causes of insomnia can be both physical and psychological: it is best to speak to your doctor to find out what is making you lie awake at night. Most common causes of insomnia are anxiety, stress and abuse of caffeine, recreational drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.

Shift work can also cause disruption in sleep as night workers cannot stick to a regular sleep routine. Hormonal factors like the menopause and hormone fluctuations in women can cause insomnia. Chronic pain can severely disrupt sleep as conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia make it difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep at night. Neurological conditions like depression, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder are also severely debilitating.

However, people don’t necessarily need to be ill to have insomnia: frequent travelling for work can disrupt sleep and so can a sedentary lifestyle where many waking hours are spent in front of a computer or smartphone.

Medical studies are looking at how to improve sleep in people suffering from insomnia and what natural remedies can be effective.

Massage as a Way to Improve Sleep

Studies on cats revealed that lack of serotonin causes insomnia (Shepherd, Gordon M., MD, D.Phil., Neurobiology, Oxford University Press, 1988. (pp 517-528). Administration of serotonin returned the cats’ sleeping patterns to normal levels.

A study from the Miami Touch Research Institute in January 2000 found that people suffering from back pain who received regular massage treatments not only experienced less discomfort but also witnessed an increase in the quality of their sleep. This was because massage had helped increase the levels of serotonin in their bodies. In this study, the subjects received 30 minute massage sessions twice a week for five weeks.

Both qualitative and quantitative assessment methods were used in this study: a sleep quality questionnaire measured if receiving massage made any change to the participants’ sleep, while urine samples were taken to measure serotonin levels.

Overall, massage was showing to be effective in inducing sleep.

Menopause can also trigger insomnia in women, as night time hot flushes disrupt sleep: in a 2002 study  (Newton KM, Buist DSM, Keenan NL, Anderson LA, LaCroix AZ. Use of alternative therapies for menopause symptoms: Results of a population-based survey. Obstet Gynecol. 2002;100:18–25. 10.1016/S0029-7844(02)02005-7) post-menopausal women reported that they chose massage therapy to help them sleep better and manage their menopausal symptoms better.

A pilot study from 2011 (Clinics Sao Paulo. 2011 February; 66(2): 343–346) looked at a sample of seven post-menopausal women with insomnia (which is a very small sample) who received 16 hourly massage treatments twice a week. Participants had to fill out a sleep diary describing how many hours of sleep they got, the quality of the sleep, what they ate and drank and how many times they had to wake up at night.

Participants in the study also had their breathing, brain activity and digestion measured with a series of electrodes.

The results of the study showed that subjects were reporting they were sleeping better at night in their sleep diaries after receiving a massage treatment. The electrodes reading also showed that sleep quality had improved after massage.

Another beneficial side effect of the massage treatments was a reduction in feelings of anxiety in the participants.

A study from 2006 compared results across different clinics and found that regular massage improved people’s insomnia in 96% of the cases (Zhou YF, Wei YL, Zhang PL, Gao S, Ning GL, Zhang ZQ, et al. Multi-central controlled study on three-part massage therapy for treatment of insomnia of deficiency of both the heart and spleen. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu. 2006;26:385–8.).

It is not just adults who can suffer from insomnia, as adolescents can find it difficult to sleep at night too (anxiety due to exams or bullying can be among the reasons).

In a study looking at 25 teenagers suffering from insomnia, acupressure was applied with the aid of a specially designed wrist band every night for six month. Using a device like a wrist band applying pressure is similar to applying an acupressure massage. The results after six months showed an improvement in the quality of the sleep in the participants.

Research from the Department of Nursing, College of Medicine, Catholic Fu-Jen University, Taiwan looked at 60 women’s sleep patterns after they gave birth – these women were suffering from lack of sleep. Post-partum women were given a 20 minutes massage session every day for five days. The results showed that the quality of the sleep in these women had improved.

According to medical studies, a frequency of two massage treatments a week is proving to be effective and show promising results on the quantity and quality of sleep.

You are now armed with information. Let your clients know how massage can be helpful for sleep!

More sources of information:
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/