Massage therapy has many benefits, but detoxification is not one of them.
Some massage therapists and many clients still believe massage releases toxins—and massage therapists should avoid perpetuating this misinformation and instead educate clients on the truth when the topic arises.
If massage therapy is going to be respected as a valid health service, we cannot continue to perpetuate this misinformation.
What Are Toxins?
Another issue is that people use the words toxin and detoxification incorrectly. Here are the definitions of those words from Merriam-Webster:
Toxin: “a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”
Detoxification: “1a : to remove a harmful substance (such as a poison or toxin) or the effect of such from; b : to render (a harmful substance) harmless; 2: to free (someone, such as a drug user or an alcoholic) from an intoxicating or an addictive substance in the body or from dependence on or addiction to such a substance.”
Various types of toxic substances occur, and include those made in the body as part of physiologic processes and environmental toxins that are ingested, injected, inhaled or absorbed.
(Two great sources of information about toxicology are the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) ToxTutor, a self-paced tutorial covering key principles of toxicology, and the HHS specialized information services on environmental health and toxicology.)
Body-Produced Waste Products
Five organs process body-produced waste products: the skin, lungs, kidneys, liver and intestines. Our bodies’ organs know how to process such products.
Bio-transformation is the process by which a substance changes from one chemical to another by a chemical reaction within the body. Only when normal homeostatic processes break down do these types of substances accumulate and cause accumulation of toxins in the body.
There are three main types of body-produced wastes:
- Catabolic waste remains after the breaking down of large molecules into smaller ones for body processes and are removed from the body through the skin, kidneys, lungs and intestines. Urea, ammonia and uric acid are the three main wastes eliminated. Water is required to excrete these waste products. (This is why we need to stay hydrated.)
- Metabolic waste is produced when a cell uses oxygen and nutrients to create energy. Carbon dioxide is the main waste product exhaled through the lungs. (This why we need to exhale.)
- Digestive waste is what remains after the digestion and absorption of food. These solids are eliminated through the colon. (This is why we need to have regular bowel movements.)
Yet, the ongoing confusion and claims that massage can flush out toxins—especially lactic acid—persists. Massage does not flush lactic acid out of the muscles because there is no lactic acid left in the muscles after about an hour.
Let me explain.
Everything we do requires energy. This energy comes from glucose through a process called glycolysis. Glucose is broken down (metabolized) into a substance called pyruvate. When breathing does not supply sufficient oxygen, the body temporarily converts pyruvate into a substance called lactate, which allows glucose breakdown to continue.
The working muscle cells can continue this type of anaerobic energy production for a few minutes, but the lactate levels in the tissues increase. High lactate levels increase acidity in the tissues, resulting in the burning sensation experienced during heavy exertion.
Once the body slows down, oxygen becomes available and lactate reverts back to pyruvate and a shift back aerobic metabolism occurs.
The Cori cycle, or lactic acid cycle, is the physiological mechanism where lactate, produced by glycolysis of glucose in contracting muscle, is converted back to glucose in the liver and returned via the circulation to the muscles. This process can take a few minutes up to an hour.
We are surrounded by persistent organic chemical pollution.
Toxins from the environment are considered poisons and are more difficult for the body to process and eliminate than are body-produced toxins.
Persistent organic pollutants are chemicals that do not easily break down and can remain in the environment and the body.
These environmental toxins can be found in plants and venom, and produced by viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa, naturally occurring metals or synthetically manufactured substances such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, gasoline, fire retardants and more.
These toxic substances are found in the air, soil and water, as well as building materials, home furnishings, cleaning substances, cosmetics and personal care products. We breathe, eat and absorb some of these chemicals through the skin.
Once environmental toxins are in the body they can excreted, stored or bio-transformed.
Bio-transformation is the chemical change the body makes in chemical substances so the substance can be used or eliminated.
Digestion of food is a form of bio-transformation.
The liver is the primary bio-transforming organ due to its large size and high concentration of bio-transforming enzymes. The kidneys and lungs are next.
The issue with persistent organic pollutants is that biotransformation processes do not efficiently or effectively change these substances into other chemicals that can be eliminated by normal processes, and they become stored in the tissues.
The primary sites in the body for accumulation of persistent organic pollutants are adipose tissue, bone, and the liver and kidneys. This accumulation is implicated in many chronic health issues.
It would be fantastic if massage directly contributed to removal of these substances from the body—but it doesn’t.
Research does indicate that heavy perspiration can help the body eliminate some, but not all, persistent organic pollutants. Therefore, sweating can be considered a form of detoxification, when it comes to environmental toxins..
Fluid excreted by the sweat glands consists of water containing sodium chloride and phosphate, urea, ammonia, sulfates, creatinine, fats and other waste products. Regular sessions of induced perspiration can eliminate some of the environmental toxins stored in body tissue.
Activities that create sweating are exercise and sauna. Water lost during sweating needs to be replaced by drinking clean water.
When the opportunity arises, go ahead and explain that massage does not remove toxins stored in the body.
Educate clients about potential benefits of activities that cause sweating if they are attempting to remove these types of toxic substances. We can also recommend clients discuss the safe and beneficial use of exercise and sauna with their physician.
Massage certainly has value for supporting health and well-being. The environmental toxic exposure is a growing public health concern and creates additional strain on our bodies.
The body is going to be able to better maintain homeostasis when relaxed and rested.
Massage therapy can help people relax and rest. That is a good thing.
About the Author
Sandy Fritz is a founding member of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education, and owns and directs Health Enrichment Center massage school in Lapeer, Michigan. She is the author of massage textbooks including Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage; Mosby’s Essential Sciences for Therapeutic Massage: Anatomy, Physiology, Biomechanics, and Pathology; and Sports & Exercise Massage: Comprehensive Care for Athletics, Fitness, & Rehabilitation. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Borrow Franchises’ Marketing Practices For Your Massage Business.”
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