Acupuncture and Massage as Healing Modalities for Longevity
While you may think acupuncture and massages are simply for self-care or loosening tight muscles, healing modalities like these are actually linked to better health outcomes as we age. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have known for centuries that acupuncture and massage reduce stress and promote calmness.
More recent research has verified these benefits, and we now also know that these practices can do much more than simply relieve stress. In this article, learn more about the ancient wisdom of acupuncture and massage and why you should incorporate them into your routine for increased healthspan.
Acupuncture and Massage 101
Your only experience with acupuncture may be seeing pictures of someone covered in scary-looking needles—but there’s a lot more to it. While it’s true that you do start to resemble a porcupine, it’s more nuanced than that. The thin needles are inserted into particular areas that are thought to improve energy flow when activated through gentle movements or with electrical stimulation.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe that the human body has over 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways called meridians, creating an energy flow known as Qi (or “chi”) that can be easily disrupted. By placing acupuncture needles into specific meridians or points, the flow of energy and Qi can be restored. This is thought to improve various aspects of health, ranging from painful symptoms and digestion to sleep and stress.
While many people regularly get massages at spa days or with their partner on a honeymoon, massage therapy is much more than a relaxing way to spend an hour. Massage offers a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional benefits due to the manipulation and kneading of your muscles and soft tissues. As most people are aware of what massages are, let’s take a look at how they can benefit your healthspan and lifespan.
Health and Longevity Benefits of Acupuncture and Massage Therapy
There are many aspects of acupuncture and massage that can benefit healthspan—the years of life lived disease-free. These areas, including stress, sleep, and immune functioning, are linked to healthier lives and longer lifespans.
While it’s not entirely understood why acupuncture relieves stress, there are some theories. First, the acupuncture session itself could promote relaxation with its calming environment, quiet space, and time away from work or commitments (although many people would disagree, stating that having needles poked in their forehead is highly stressful!).
Acupuncture is thought to influence the autonomic nervous system—made up of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches—by promoting a shift toward the parasympathetic system, leading to relaxation and stress reduction.
This healing modality may also reduce cortisol levels—our primary stress hormone—and lower heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Lastly, acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, our natural painkillers and mood enhancers.
Similarly, massage is known for its ability to promote relaxation and reduce stress. As anyone who has had a massage can attest, the physical manipulation of muscles and soft tissues can release tension and promote calmness—even when the kneading and pressure feel slightly painful at times.
One review of 25 studies found that 20 to 30-minute massages twice per week for a month or more led to consistent reductions in salivary cortisol levels and heart rate, which are physiological markers of stress.
One of the most common reasons people seek acupuncturists is to help with chronic painful symptoms—especially in the back, neck, knees, and joints.
A meta-analysis of over 20,000 participants found that acupuncture performed better than a placebo or no treatment in reducing painful symptoms related to the muscles, joints, head, and shoulders. They also found that the effects of acupuncture persisted over time—meaning it wasn’t just during the session that painful symptoms were reduced. One year later, there was only a 15% reduction in the beneficial effects.
Massage therapy has also shown profound benefits in this area—in fact, 67 studies demonstrated that massage therapy effectively reduced painful symptoms more than a placebo massage (whatever that may entail), no treatment, and conventional treatments.
Acupuncture has been shown to improve sleep quality in insomniacs better than pharmaceutical drugs. In one study, people with poor sleep who received acupuncture three times per week had improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, and mood within two weeks of treatment.
In research with ICU patients, a 10-minute back massage improved sleep quality, sleep duration, breathing, and anxious symptoms, indicating that even short massages can benefit sleep.
Immune System Support
An often overlooked benefit of acupuncture is its effects on immune system regulation. One acupuncture point, ST36, is used to improve immune-related conditions and supports healthier inflammatory responses. Research shows that this acupressure point increases the activity of several immune cells, including the percentage of CD3+ and CD4+ T cells and T-reg cells.
Similar results are seen with massage therapy. In a study of older women, a single light-pressure full-body massage led to short-term increases in NK (natural killer) cell activity as well as reductions in systolic blood pressure and heart rate.
Acupuncture and massage are not just for people with spa memberships to relax after a long day. These ancient bodywork practices have research-backed benefits that can improve your healthspan. As high stress, poor sleep, painful symptoms, and dysregulated immune functioning can significantly affect health outcomes, improving these areas with regular acupuncture or massage can be a great—and relaxing—way to support your longevity.
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