In Ayurveda, daily oil massage, also called abhyanga, is an important part of a person’s daily self care routine.
The practice helps to prevent the accumulation of physiological imbalances and promotes flexibility of the muscles, tissues, and joints. The classical texts of Ayurveda indicate that daily self-massage promotes softness and luster of the skin as well as youthfulness.
An oil massage is also said to calm vata, or to calm the nervous system. And now, we have modern science to show that when you massage your skin with oil with care, respect, and love, the body also produces oxytocin! (1)
Oxytocin is a naturally-secreted hormone in the body that supports optimal levels of physical health as well as love, kindness, empathy, and bonding. Research has shown that without having loving relationships, even if all of their other basic needs are being met, humans do not flourish. (2)
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone secreted by the mother, baby and even dad during childbirth, and 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 rejuvenativing, rebuilding hormone—which means the more oxytocin you produce, the more of it you make.
Oxytocin is released in response to touch, including massage, low-intensity stimulation of the skin, and warm temperature. (3-4) Massage helps the body cope with stress as well. It has been found to increase oxytocin and decrease stress hormones such as adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), nitric oxide (NO), and beta-endorphin (BE). (1)
In a recent study published in the professional peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 95 subjects had their blood levels evaluated for various amounts of chemicals before and after a 15-minute massage. Oxytocin levels increased by 17% for the group that received massage. The control group who just rested showed a 9% decrease in oxytocin. ACTH (adrenocorticotropin), which increases with stress, increased by 30% for the group who rested without receiving massage. Interestingly, it decreased by 20% for those who were in the massage group. (1)
One of the ways that oxytocin works is by altering the microbiology on the skin during the massage. A loving touch will increase oxytocin which, in turn, alters the microbes in a way that supports measurable health gains.
For instance, to measure the microbial impact of oxytocin, in one study subjects were given probiotics and their oxytocin levels increased. The increase of oxytocin showed quantifiable changes in skin and hair quality and general “glow of health,” immune and hormonal balance, enhanced fitness and reproductive factors, the capacity for skin wound healing, and was even shown to impact attitude and social behavior. (5-6)
What’s more is that microbes that are responsive to the oxytocin are concentrated on healthy, moist skin, which provides nutrients for the microbes in the form of water, amino acids, and fatty acids. (7) When the skin becomes dry, stressed, or chemically-altered with lotions and creams, the environment for a healthy skin microbiome can become compromised. (8) A certain species of microbes—and perhaps all microbes that are part of the normal skin flora—feed on sebum secreted by the skin, suggesting that the ancient practice of an oil massage supports the health of the skin in ways we are just now beginning to understand. (9)
Applying high-quality oils to your skin not only reinforces your all-important skin barrier, but also:
- Creates a nurturing environment for your microbes.
- Balances vata and the nervous system.
- Soothes more that 1.8 billion sensory nerves on the body’s skin.
- Increases the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with love, optimal health and bonding.
- Proliferates beneficial microbes that support mood, mental and physical health.
The Outer Skin’s Response to Massage Oil
Everywhere you touch your body, there are nerve endings. The sensory nerves on the skin are exposed to constant tactile, circadian, microbial, emotional, and environmental stressors 24/7. In fact, just one arm has over a million nerve endings which you can calm by lovingly applying oil. (5)
I remember years ago, when I used to work 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 practically for survival: as soon as I would arrive 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 and relax, and instantly stop buzzing from the travel.
Keep Your 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 lots of existing research showing that microbes do not thrive in stressful environments.
For instance, research has found that mice sharing a cage with more aggressive mice showed 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 the Inner Skin!
As the skin wraps into the mouth and through the oral cavity, respiratory system, digestive tract, and gut, Ayurveda also has practices for sharing the love with our inner skin.
For instance, oil pulling is a time-honored Ayurvedic practice involving swishing oil around in the mouth for 10-20 minutes on an empty stomach. Modern science shows that while swishing with high-quality coconut oil, the enzyme modification that takes place in your mouth boosts the effectiveness of the coconut oil. Doing so 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 the inner skin is through tongue scraping, which also has a host of health benefits, including boosting digestive enzymes, decreasing undesirable bacterial load, decreasing volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) contributing to bad breath, and decreasing strep mutans, which is known to cause decay. (17-20) Traditionally, according to one of the Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka Samhita, tongue scrapers should be made of gold, silver, copper, tin, or brass. (21)
Boost your health and well-being by loving and caring for your skin—inner and outer!
Learn a basic Ayurvedic Abhyanga (self-massage) routine here: http://lifespa.com/ayurvedic-daily-home-oil-massage-abhyanga/
- Massage increases oxytocin and reduces adrenocorticotropin hormone in humans. Altern Ther Health Med. 2012 Nov-Dec;18(6):11-8.
- The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis EMBO Rep. 2013 Jan; 14(1): 12–16. Published online 2012 Nov 27. doi: 10.1038/embor.2012.191 PMCID: PMC3537144 Science and Society
- Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Front Psychol. 2015 Jan 12;5:1529. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01529. eCollection 2014.
- [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing].
Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2005;51(1):57-80.
- Probiotic ‘glow of health’: it’s more than skin deep
Benef Microbes. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 Mar 10.
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Benef Microbes. 2014 Jun 1; 5(2): 109–119.
- Microbial Symbionts Accelerate Wound Healing via the Neuropeptide Hormone Oxytocin
PLoS One. 2013; 8(10): e78898.
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- Study finds 1,000 species of bacteria on healthy humans
May 29, 2009|Karen Kaplan
- The regulation of epidermal lipid synthesis by permeability barrier requirements.
Crit Rev Ther Drug Carrier Syst. 1991;8(3):193-210.
- The skin microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 Apr; 9(4): 244–253.doi: 10.1038/nrmicro2537
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- Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity
Volume 25, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 397–407
- Investigating the role of perceived stress on bacterial flora activity and salivary cortisol secretion: A possible mechanism underlying susceptibility to illness Biological Psychology
Volume 77, Issue 2, February 2008, Pages 132–137
- AIT researchers show coconut oil could combat tooth decay
Posted 3 September 2012
- Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study.
Indian J Dent Res. 2009 Jan-Mar;20(1):47-51.
- Effect of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans count in plaque and saliva using Dentocult SM Strip mutans test: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study.
J Indian Soc Pedod Prev Dent. 2008 Mar;26(1):12-7.
- Mechanism of oil-pulling therapy – in vitro study.
Indian J Dent Res. 2011 Jan-Feb;22(1):34-7. doi: 10.4103/0970-9290.79971.
- Charaka samhita Ch V -78 to 80.
- The effect of tongue scraper on mutans streptococci and lactobacilli in patients with caries and periodontal disease.
Odontostomatol Trop. 2005 Mar;28(109):5-10.
- Tongue-cleaning methods: a comparative clinical trial employing a toothbrush and a tongue scraper.
J Periodontol. 2004 Jul;75(7):1009-12.
- Impact of tongue cleansers on microbial load and taste.
J Clin Periodontol. 2004 Jul;31(7):506-10.
- Effect of tongue cleaning methods and oral mutans streptococci level.
J Contemp Dent Pract. 2013 Jan 1;14(1):119-22.
- Charaka Samhita. Sutrasthana. Ch 5. Verse 71-75
It’s Saturday: Oil Me Up.
The Truth about Oil Pulling.
Make Every Day a Spa Day with Ayurveda.
Author: Dr. John Douillard
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Therme Loipersdorf at Flickr
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