Massage and Serotonin
Serotonin is essential for good sleep, though researchers have not yet pinpointed exactly what it does to facilitate falling asleep and/or staying asleep. However, when serotonin production is halted using medication, subjects cannot sleep at all.
Scientists do know that an area of the brain called the raphe nuclei somehow mediates sleep. The neurons in this area specifically use serotonin to communicate with each other, so they hypothesize that serotonin somehow helps the brain communicate that it’s time to sleep.
Serotonin is also a precursor to the production of melatonin. This chemical helps regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycles, or its circadian rhythms. The body produces melatonin when it’s time to fall asleep and reduces it when it’s time to wake up. Thus, having more serotonin could help your body produce the melatonin it needs in order to fall asleep at the right time.
All of this ties into massage because massage can lead to higher levels of serotonin. Again, science has not discovered the exact mechanism by which this happens. For the insomniac, though, HOW massage helps them sleep is likely less important than the fact that it DOES help them sleep.
Massage and the Vagus Nerve
In addition to the serotonin-melatonin connection, massage also stimulates the vagus nerve. This is the major parasympathetic nerve in the body. When it is stimulated, it tells the entire body to relax. This can lead to lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, relaxed facial muscles, and increased gut function.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve also leads to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is the major stress hormone. When its levels are too high in the body, the body is stressed out. Over time, this leads to fatigue. However, if the cortisol levels aren’t lowered, the body can’t rest well. Stimulating the vagus nerve reduces the cortisol, allowing the body to rest as it should.
Massage and Hyperarousal
There is some evidence that insomnia is tied to hyperarousal. This is basically the state of being “always on.” If you feel like you can never relax, if you lie down and think about all the things that went wrong today and all that could go on tomorrow, you may suffer from this condition. It can lead to long-term health problems, of which insomnia is one.
Hyperarousal is a bad cycle for the body. It often starts with a stressful event, one that truly requires the system to be aroused. However, it continues when we worry, when we can’t relax after something bad happens, or when our bodies continue to struggle with low levels of pain because of an accident or an illness. Pain can also come when we can’t relax. We continue the cycle of arousal, which makes us more stressed out, etc.
Massage can help break this cycle. It can actually force the body to relax, pulling muscles smooth and long again and causing an increase in blood circulation. These send signals to the brain that tell it to relax. Over time, massage can intervene in this cycle and end hyperarousal, allowing us to sleep well again.