Can massage alter your genes?

Mind Shift is a new blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


I offer a type of massage utilizing a technique known as myofascial release. “Myo” means muscle, but what the heck is fascia?

Fascia is a type of connective tissue in your body (other types include bone and, surprisingly, blood). If you’ve ever made chicken for dinner, the silvery white membrane covering the meat (muscle) is an example of fascia, but far from being just a covering for muscles, fascia is everywhere in your body. Fascia surrounds and interpenetrates all of your organs, your muscles, your bones, and even your nerves.

Let’s look more closely at fascia’s relationship with muscles to see just how amazing it is, and we’ll focus on one of your quadriceps muscles, the rectus femoris. For starters, fascia wraps around the entire¬† muscle like a wet suit, turning what would otherwise be just a pile of muscle fibers (aka muscles cells) into what we know as the rectus femoris. This “wet suit” is known as epimysium (“epi” = above, outer, over; “mysium” = muscle).

But the fascia doesn’t stop there: The muscle as a whole is organized into little bundles of muscle fibers, called fascicles, and each of these fascicles is wrapped up in–you guessed it–fascia. And then, like a Russian nesting doll, each of the muscle fibers (cells) contained within the fascicles is wrapped up in its own little fascial wet suit.

Source: Pearson Education

Check out the similarities between the above image and this diagram of a spinal nerve, which is also packaged in a series of fascial wet suits:

Unknown Source

Returning to the rectus femoris, this muscle is then anchored to your bones–specifically your pelvis (at a bony landmark called the AIIS) and one of your lower leg bones, the tibia–by tendons. The fascial wet suit surrounding your rectus femoris muscle extends beyond the ends of the muscle like the twisted ends of a Tootsie Roll wrapper and forms these tendons.

Source: orthopaedicsports.com

The key is that all of these fascial structures are continuous with each other. While science has divided them into separate structures and given them names, like tendons and epimysium, your entire bodywide network of fascia is continuous. The image above of a spinal nerve wrapped in fascia? That nerve fascia is connected, via this bodywide web, to the fascia forming your rectus femoris tendons, to the fascia surrounding your small intestines, and so on.

Even more interesting is recent research in the area of mechanotransduction. That’s quite a mouthful, but it refers to your cells’ ability to transform a mechanical input, like the pressure of the therapist’s hand during a massage, into electrical and chemical (electrochemical) signals within the cell. Hearing is another example of mechanotransduction, whereby the vibrational pressure of sound waves is relayed into signals that our brain interprets as sound.

What does this have to do with fascia? Well, more than we could cover in this post, but here’s one very cool example: Your cells have a special type of receptor called an integrin, and these integrins are anchored into the cell membrane. Think of the membrane as the little baggie containing all of the contents of the cell.

The integrins span across this cell membrane, and you can imagine them like a rubber band with one end dangling outside of the cell and the other end sticking into the inside of the cell. The end dangling outside of the cell is “plugged into” your fascia.

Let’s say you’re reaching to get a coffee mug from the cupboard, stretching your fascia as you move. As the fascia stretches, the “rubber band” of the integrin gets stretched, too, and it relays this mechanical information inside the cell, where it is then transformed into electrochemical signals. Why should you care? Well, these electrochemical signals have the ability to activate or deactivate your genes.¬†

This is huge, and it supports the growing field of research1 into the connections between faulty mechanotransduction and a host of diseases. It also begs the question: Is our sedentary culture leading to so many health issues, in part, because our cells aren’t getting the necessary stretching, squishing, vibration, and other movements that are vital to their–and our–health?

The next time you get a massage, think on this: So much more is happening than “just” the release of stress and muscle tension. You could be altering the very function of your genes.

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1Ingber, D. E. (2003). Mechanobiology and diseases of mechanotransduction. Annals of Medicine, 564-577. Retrieved January 22, 2018.

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Life Lessons From My Sewing Machine

I try to stay open to wisdom from a variety of sources, but it isn’t often that I receive it from inanimate objects. Last weekend, I was working on a sewing project when–bingo! Lightning bolt of clarity.

In machine sewing, you use your hands to guide the fabric through the machine, and when I first started sewing I was what I would call an “overly agro sewer” (if your bro-speak is rusty, agro=aggressive). With my leading hand, I would actively tug the fabric forward, and with my guiding hand, I would push the fabric toward the needle. (Accomplished sewers are probably shaking their heads as they read this.)

What’s the big deal? Well, my stitches looked like crap, because most fabrics will feed into the machine just fine by themselves, thank you very much; they just need a little guidance to ensure that they don’t go veering off to the left or right.

In a similar fashion, when we’re overly pushy or pull-y in life, the seams and stitches of our days start to feel (and possibly look) like crap. For me, this manifests most often in one of two ways:

  1. “Pulling on the fabric” equates to trying to drag other people along on my plans, overriding their natural direction and rhythm. I can also drag myself along, overriding my natural direction and rhythm. (If you hear yourself using the word “should” a lot, pause and check for fabric pulling.)
  2. “Pushing on the fabric” happens when I’m trying to force situations to unfold in a way or at a pace that doesn’t feel natural.

Does this mean I need to just sit back and do nothing? Not at all, but my role is more about guiding the fabric of my life than it is about pulling or pushing it through. If I completely removed my hands from the fabric, the seam would likely start swerving and eventually get completely off track, but through the choices I make, I can guide the fabric along.

When I’m trying to decide the next step, I can be wary of options characterized by “pulling on the fabric:” trying to bring people along who either don’t want to come or who wish to travel at their own pace, as well as subjecting myself to rigid timetables or to-dos that trigger procrastination or resentment.

I can also be on the lookout for options characterized by “pushing on the fabric”: forcing events in non-organic ways. Pushing is sometimes more tricky to detect than pulling, so what do I mean by “non-organic ways”? If you’ve taken action and it’s met with continual resistance, a slow-as-molasses pace, or a rising tension in your body-mind-soul, that’s often a red flag that fabric-pushing territory is up ahead. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to throw in the towel (fabric pun!), but it could mean that:

  1. The timing is off. This could refer to “not right now–try again later” or that the pace is going to move slower than you anticipated and trying to speed things up will only create bunched seams, aka suffering.
  2. The method is off. Maybe you’ve got the right idea but you’re approaching it in a way that isn’t working. Experiment; try a different angle. Still meeting resistance? Refer back to Point 1.

Of course, there is the third possibility: This just ain’t the way to go. Not now, maybe not ever, and pushing the fabric through will only leave you with a bunched up seam (can we draw a parallel with bunched up, tense muscles?).

Guiding, as opposed to pulling or pushing, requires a flexible, responsive approach. We might set out with an idea, but as the fabric of our days moves along and we meet resistance, we have the choice to start yanking, start pushing…or adjust.

Resistance can be a very helpful reminder to pause, check in, and see if we’re forcing things, people, or ourselves to do things that don’t feel organic. When we notice this, we always have the option to return to guiding the fabric through and allowing the natural flow of life to provide the momentum, a momentum that we can then shape with our choices.

When we try to create the force of Universal Momentum on our own, it’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed and exhausted. And more to the point, it isn’t necessary, nor does it help. It just leaves us with bunched seams.

So, leave the generation of Universal Momentum to, well, the Universe, and focus your precious energy on guiding that momentum with empowered choices–choices that don’t come from a place of pushing or pulling.