Before I begin, I’d like to say that I personally have grown to hate the word toxin. It’s thrown around willy nilly with, generally, only the vaguest of definitions given. It’s like the word “natural” on food containers at the store, it can mean different things to different people and often refers to nothing in particular because it’s become a marketing buzzword. OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system it’s time to tackle the toxin myth.
More people than ever are looking for ways to improve their health by undoing some of the damage that poor diets, air pollutants, and bad habits have done to their bodies. With that, there’s also been an increase in the idea of “detoxing,” or removing toxins from the bodies with diets, cleanses, saunas, and even foot pads that pull the toxins out from the soles of the feet. All sorts of products and services are being marketed as “detoxing.”
Heck, some massage therapists still claim that massage can help flush toxins from your body. Sigh. I wish they’d stop saying that. While there are plenty of health benefits to massage, it’s not because of its ability to rid your body of toxins. Really.
But what exactly are these toxins? And do these detox methods really work? In truth, there’s little scientific evidence to prove that detoxes of any kind work, and that goes for massages as well. As someone with a biology degree who spent 10 years working as a chemist, scientific evidence is important to me. And don’t get me started on some of the detox claims… especially when they try to sound all scientific by throwing out words like ionic. The explanations don’t make scientific sense. Ugh.
Let’s take a look at what “toxins” really are. They sound scary— definitely like something that you should try to avoid or get rid of at all costs. But in reality, “toxins” are just a normal part of life, and, like anything else, in small doses they are perfectly fine.
Some people equate “toxins” with “poisons,” but they’re two very different things. (Warning: this links to a very long article geared toward massage therapists, but it’s got some good info in case this long-ass post doesn’t give you enough) A poison is any harmful substance, but it’s important to remember that many things can then be considered poison, even your daily multivitamin, if you take them in too-large doses.
Toxins are a kind of subset of poisons; they are poisons produced by living things. Technically, drinking whiskey, getting a massage, and exercising hard all produce toxins, but these toxins are just part of how our bodies metabolize, rebuild, and process things on a daily basis. In moderation and with careful attention, they’re all are completely harmless. Yes, I said, completely harmless. Yes, I also said that massage produces toxins. More on that later.
Your doctor certainly wouldn’t recommend that you give up your exercise routine to avoid toxins, my Irish ancestors and I certainly won’t recommend giving up the medicinal effects of whiskey (in moderation), and massage won’t be on anyone’s list of unhealthy habits to get rid of despite all of them causing us to produce toxins.
But what about pollutants? Well, that term covers anything from smog particles and other inhaled air pollutants, to lead and pesticides. They are definitely harmful to our bodies when we get too much exposure but you can’t “detox” them. However, there are many instances when they are avoidable.
So, back to the opening question… The truth is your body does a pretty great job of flushing toxins all on its own. If you’re in good health, your kidneys, liver, and intestines should already be doing a great job of removing toxins. Except in rare instances of things like over-indulgence of drugs or alcohol, your body doesn’t need extra help detoxing. It just needs time to do what it does best. This is actually good news.
Massage “detoxes,” like detox diets, and other detox treatments — don’t really do much to release toxins from your body. This is just a myth. In fact, some detox treatments, like juice cleanses, are actually just crash diets. It’s the major caloric deficit, as opposed to your body clearing toxins, that leave you feeling weak, sluggish, and tired.
Now, given what I’ve said about massage producing toxins, some people might fear that getting a massage, especially a deep tissue massage, might actually be toxic; that the toxins released can be harmful to your body. There is some truth to this – kinda sorta… But it’s a stretch.
If you’ve experienced an intense, deep-tissue massage that’s left you feeling sore, tired, or disoriented, what you’ve actually experienced is post-massage soreness and malaise (PMSM). Excessive pressure like this can cause rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo for short (because who wants to pronounce rhabdomyolysis), which is poisoning by the proteins liberated from an injured muscle. This is only dangerous for extremely vulnerable patients, like the elderly or those with other health issues, especially renal issues. It’s also unnecessary, because most people don’t need they type of massage that will cause rhabdo.
If you work with an experienced, knowledgeable massage therapist, this should never be an issue. PMSM should only cause slight discomfort as a mild side effect of a strong massage, but for most of us, there’s no need to fear these kinds of natural toxins leaving your muscles. Remember, your body is set up to deal with the toxins the body normally produces.
You’ve probably heard some (read: most) massage therapists claim that it’s necessary to drink water after a massage to flush out the toxins that were released into the bloodstream. It’s supposed to encourage your kidneys and the rest of your digestive system to process them and remove them from your body.
Now, it never hurts to drink plenty of water. After all, muscles function best when fully hydrated. But massage doesn’t flush toxins into the bloodstream, and water wouldn’t help if it did.
There are a lot of scientific reasons why this is the case, most of which are as boring to read about as you think they’d be. Just know that massage doesn’t liberate toxins, poisons, or environmental pollutants from cells or “squish” them into your bloodstream or excretory systems to be expelled. Besides, that’s what your kidneys and digestive system are designed to do.
We’ve finally made it to the lactic acid myth. No post on massage and toxins would be complete without it. In massage school I was taught that massage is a great way to release lactic acid that gets stuck in the muscles after a long run or hard workout. But… I was also taught in college (as a pre-physical therapy major) that lactic acid was a fuel created when your body started running low on oxygen. By the time your breathing returns to normal after heavy exercise, all that lactic acid has been converted back from whence it came. The soreness and stiffness you experience after heavy exercise isn’t from lactic acid building up in your muscles, it’s what’s called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
When you work out, it’s like pulling on a long rope – some of the fibers in your muscles may break during the workout, in what are essentially tiny microtears. Unlike a rope that loses some of its strength if fibers tear, your muscles rebuild themselves and become larger and stronger.
As I said, your muscles create lactic acid during exercise, but it’s also something they do even when your body is at rest. So the idea that your muscles are sore from lactic acid buildup is false. False false false.
Let me put it this way, when you exercise, your body needs fuel, and it breaks down some of its stored energy to get this fuel. Lactic acid is just a by-product of this process and is created all the time.
That doesn’t mean you should give up your post-run massage! There are still plenty of benefits to a good sports massage. Your massage therapist can reduce the pain and stiffness after a hard workout, which moves blood and fluid around your body, helping to heal microtrauma from your workout.
When you work out a muscle group heavily, it loses some of its flexibility and tenses up, making it easier to tear. A thorough sports massage eases this tension. It also reduces inflammation and swelling, and lessens fatigue, gearing you up to conquer your next race, conditioning class, or sweat session.
Don’t worry. There are still plenty of reasons to get regular massages. There are lots benefits from the occasional massage as well. Sure, each massage is a great way to reduce stress and pamper yourself, but there are major health perks as well. With massage, you can:
Massage has many health benefits, but flushing toxins isn’t one of them.
Now, go enjoy your next massage and relish in the many other benefits you’re receiving from your time on the table.