Better nutrition for massage therapists is very important: hydrate, consume whole foods, and consider a few excellent supplements.

How important is it to practice good nutrition? For massage therapists, the answer is very important.

“When the fingers, forearms, shoulders and back contract with intensity and force, the energy requirements of the massage therapist become equal to the competitive athlete, endurance runner and bodybuilder,” says sports nutritionist Cory Holly. “Massage therapy creates unique nutritional demands that can only be sustained long term with optimum nutrition.”

Let’s take a look at how certain choices can make the difference in your daily work as a massage therapist and how to incorporate better nutritional choices into your lifestyle.

Essential Hydration

When we reflect on our nutritional habits, we generally consider the food we eat and the nutritional supplements that some of us include in our daily routine. An important component that many of us forget is water, to maintain hydration.

Did you know that if you are experiencing thirst, your body is already 10 percent dehydrated? Water makes up two-thirds of the body. If the body is not hydrated it will move water initially from joints and then from muscles to maintain normal blood pressure.

Often when we experience fatigue and joint pain, we think, “I need a rest and an anti-inflammatory.” Instead we should ask, “How much water have I consumed today?”

According to nutrition expert Elson Haas, M.D., author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (2006, Celestial Arts), appropriate hydration with water is also essential to support the immune system and flush toxins from the body. Such toxins are generated by the constant muscle contractions involved with providing massage therapy.

In a busy practice, developing a schedule will assist staying hydrated. Haas suggests that you drink two to three glasses of water when you rise in the morning, and then one to two glasses of water about 30 minutes before lunch and dinner. Including a water-dense fruit such as melon will also assist in maintaining your water needs—and add fiber to your diet.

“To hydrate, water is the best choice,” Haas says, “however, herbal teas, fresh juices, fruits and vegetables that are high in water content work well too. Since most of our body is water, drinking water—preferably spring or purified—should be like breathing, [meaning] we [would] do it without even thinking.

“Most of my patients tell me that the reason they don’t drink enough water is because they do not have the time,” Haas adds. “Well, I say make the time. It is a priority if you want to stay healthy.”

A story about hydration comes from Susie Hale, PhD, whose 20-year experience of living with chronic musculoskeletal pain eventually forced her to leave a thriving, full-time massage practice.

One of the significant lessons she learned during her journey was about hydration. “I learned that most people walk around mildly dehydrated,” she says. “One physician told me that practically every person who walked into an emergency room was dehydrated. Later, I attended a seminar by a chronic-pain specialist. He said that he found two common factors in every person he treated: one was that they were dehydrated. The other was that they were low in omega-3 [fatty acids].”

“Well,” says Hale, “I left that lecture hall and bought three bottles of water and multiple cans of tuna fish. I began drinking lots of water and eating tuna fish on a regular basis. This was about nine years ago, and I have been an avid water-drinker and fish eater ever since. It made a huge difference in my pain level.

“And, over the years, whenever my pain level seems to increase, I recognize that I am most likely behind on my water and better get back to my regular tuna salads for lunch,” she says.

Miraculous Omega-3s

The tuna that Hale found lessens her pain is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to reduce inflammation. Eating cold-water fish, such as salmon, halibut and tuna, three to six times a week can reach the therapeutic doses of fish oil.

However, supplement manufacturers have the ability to remove heavy metals, such as mercury, in the distillation process. This is one of the advantages of fish oil sold in capsules.

There are also omega-6 fatty acids in many of our foods—too many! Omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation when consumed in the diet in a ratio higher than four parts omega-6 to one part omega-3.

Many Americans consume a ratio of 10 to 1, sometimes up to 30 to 1. So, to improve the ratio, we can avoid corn, safflower and sunflower oils, and saturated fats. If you have inflamed joints, also consider avoiding dairy, corn and wheat, as these are high in omega-6s. Next, add zest to your diet with tumeric, a common Indian spice, or ginger. Both of these spices reduce inflammation.

Vegetarians may consume one tablespoon freshly ground, toasted flaxseeds plus one-quarter cup walnuts to obtain the recommended four grams of omega-3 daily in the diet, or take evening primrose oil or borage seed oil, although these are not as effective as fish oil. Olive oil also has low amounts of omega-3s.

Fabulous Fiber

Fiber, such as whole-grain products, apples, and legumes such as beans, lentils, peas and peanuts, has health benefits that include protecting the heart and maintaining stable blood sugar, and reducing risk of certain cancers.

Oats, according to the American Heart Association, have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain. Whole oats contain a large proportion of soluble beta-glucans that aid in hydration by absorbing liquids in the gut, slowing down the transit time. You could start the morning with some fiber-rich oatmeal topped with berries.

“The fiber content of the whole grains is probably the biggest difference between a natural diet and the industrialized diet,” Haas says. “This is the likely difference between poor health and good health.”

Fruits & Veggies

Multiple nutrition studies suggest that to maintain optimal health we require seven to nine daily servings of fruit and vegetables. Studies suggest that the nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, such as bioflavanoids, reduce the free radicals that are harmful to healthy tissues and organ systems.

“Free radicals inside the blood, mitochondrion and muscle fibers generate uncontrolled oxidation that must be quenched with copious amounts of antioxidants to prevent fatigue, inflammation and musculoskeletal damage” to the busy massage therapist, Holly says.

From Simple to Complex

“I have always found I feel much better not eating simple carbohydrates,” says June Greenburg, a myofascial-release therapist who works at the MFR treatment center Therapy on the Rocks, in Sedona, Arizona. “When I eat complex carbs I have more energy and less muscle soreness. I have also found that I can stretch much more easily when I am off simple carbs.”

In eating a diet with complex carbohydrates, Greenburg is getting more fiber and water, and avoiding high-fructose corn syrup—the most common sweetener found in processed food today. This processed sugar is metabolized in the liver very efficiently into fat (triglycerides).

Recent studies suggest that just one high- fat meal can damage the inside lining of blood vessels. Over the long haul, high-fructose corn syrup intake will result in elevated levels of blood triglycerides, resulting in increased risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

High-fructose corn syrup also decreases the sensitivity of the cells in your body to insulin, resulting in an increased risk of diabetes. Maintaining a full-time practice could be difficult with the complications of poorly controlled Type II diabetes mellitus, such as burning or stinging of the feet, legs and hands. Individuals with diabetes would also be at greater risk of dermatitis developing on their hands, as elevated blood sugars impair the immune system’s ability to fight infection.

Why Magnesium Matters

According to a USDA study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, magnesium deficiency may accelerate bone loss, which would increase risk for fractures, especially stress fractures that can occur without a huge exertion.

The majority of massage therapists are at risk for low magnesium levels, since this occurs in 50 to 60 percent of the population. USDA researchers have found that “marginal magnesium deficiency impairs exercise performance and magnifies oxidative stress.” This could result in an increased risk for muscle cramps, fatigue and high blood pressure.

To reduce the risks of becoming magnesium deficient, supplement your diet with 400 to 800 milligrams of magnesium per day, or consume the equivalent in foods high in magnesium. These include brown rice, artichokes, lima beans, broccoli, almonds, fish, chocolate and yogurt.

Vitamin C

Every massage therapist should consider consuming a diet high in vitamin C. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, it is required for: the synthesis of collagen; the formation of carnitine, a molecule required for the transportation of fat to the mitochondria (power house) of the cell; and production of the mood hormone norepinephrine. It also protects the body from pollutants and toxins.

Healthy adults should take around 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day. One-half cup chopped sweet red pepper has 141 mg. Other sources with 60-75 mg per serving are: 6 ounces of orange juice; one medium orange; one cup of strawberries; one medium tomato; and one-half cup cooked broccoli.

The Best & Worst Foods

We asked Haas his opinion about the three best and the three worst food choices for the active massage therapist who wants to stay healthy and maintain a strong body.

“[The best] would be veggies, such as salad greens and steamed or baked veggies; fresh juices; snacks of fresh fruits; and some raw nuts and seeds.” he said. “These are good for both quick and sustained fuel during work hours. Lunch can be a salad with some protein, either legumes or some fish or poultry.

“[The] worst would be sugar, as it can stress the body and energy/hormonal systems as well as weaken immunity, which makes a massage therapist more vulnerable to infection [from] close client contact,” Haas continued. “Second and third would be refined flour products and caffeine or stimulants.”

So, as we ask ourselves about how important good nutrition is for the massage therapist, remember, the answer should always be very important. Experts and experienced bodyworkers all agree: hydrate, consume whole foods, and consider a few excellent supplements.

About the Author:

Wendy Arthur, MD, has been an advanced myofascial release practitioner for 17 years, and incorporates this hands-on modality into her holistic medical practice.