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