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.


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.




The hidden messages of physical tension

In my own life and in working with massage clients, I’ve noticed a pattern: When we don’t create and maintain healthy boundaries in our relationships, it seems that our bodies try to compensate by creating physical “boundaries,” which we then experience as tension, constriction, or illness.

Here are just a few examples:

  • We say yes to plans that we don’t want to do, and then we get sick and can’t go.
  • We don’t speak our truth, we agree to things we don’t actually agree with, say things we don’t mean, and we lose our voice or feel tension in our neck and jaw.
  • We feel like we have to do everything ourselves or it won’t get done, so we take on other people’s stuff and our back starts to hurt.
  • We repeatedly ignore our intuition and walk into situations we know aren’t good for us, and our knees and feet start acting up.

Our bodies are wonderfully unique, so the ways in which your body compensates could be quite different from this list, but the basic concept remains: We need healthy boundaries to exist in this world, and if we’re not setting them in our relationships, our bodies will pick up the slack.

This might sound bizarre, but you are likely familiar with a more extreme example of this: trauma. Whether it be in your own life or someone you know, it’s all too easy to see the link between a traumatic boundary violation and the body’s ability to remember and “record” this violation in the form of tension, illness, hypersensitivity to touch, and so forth.

While this is a massive topic, too wide ranging to completely cover here, let’s talk about a couple ways to explore this concept in your own life and in your own body.

Find the tension

For starters, get in touch with where in your body you feel tension or discomfort. Quite often, we’re so used to feeling, say, constriction in our jaw or a dull ache in our knees that we don’t even notice it anymore.

Take some time to sit, stand, or lay down, and do a body scan, slowly moving your awareness from your head to your toes, sensing any tension or pain. If this feels difficult, try tensing each part of your body individually, and notice what it feels like when you release this tension. Can you sense that your body isn’t fully releasing in any areas?

To see what hidden tension feels like, try this simple exercise. If you spend a good amount of time sitting (like most of us do these days), you might be surprised by what you find in this pose. Lay on the floor, either on carpet or some other cushioning, like a yoga mat. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, heels about a foot away from your butt. An easy way to measure this is to start with your feet directly below your knees, then scooch them another 3-4″ away from your hips.

Rest your hands on your belly or down by your sides, palms facing down (don’t bring your arms above your head or up by your shoulders as this changes the stretch). Take some time to get in touch with your breathing, slowing down the inhales and exhales for at least ten rounds of breath.

Now, shift your awareness to your hips. Do you notice any tension there, any sense that something is holding on to keep your legs locked in position?

Then, try this: move your awareness to your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs), noticing the length from the backs of your knees all the way to your glutes. If you imagine letting this length elongate or soften, like a wet noodle, do you feel any resistance, maybe tension kicking in to keep your knees from falling open or collapsing inward?

Play with this for a few more rounds of breath, and when you’re ready to come out, roll onto your side and rest in fetal position for a few breaths before slowly moving up to a seated position.

Bonus: In doing this exercise, you also gave your psoas muscle a chance to release.

Play with symbolism

Once you’ve located at least one area of tension, focus your awareness there. For example, if your shoulders are tense, you might choose to close your eyes and bring your attention to your shoulders. What does tension feel like in this area–how would you describe it? Do any phrases or images come to mind, even if they don’t make sense?

Start to play with any words or phrases, any images that arise in a more figurative way. For example, if you described your shoulder tension as “shrugging,” perhaps as you turn it over in your mind, you associate this with shrugging in indecision, which then leads you to the awareness that you’ve become disconnected from what you want, think, and feel because you’re overly focused on what other people want, think and feel.

You see yourself in a situation where someone is asking you to do something, and while you don’t feel excited about it you find yourself shrugging and agreeing: “Sure, why not?”

This leads you to the realization that you don’t feel like you have a right to assert your own wants and needs, that it’s rude or selfish to do so, and you start to see how every denial of your own experience creates a little more stress, a little more tension in your shoulders until you can’t remember what it felt like to have shoulders that weren’t creeping up towards your ears, aching for a massage.

Help a body out

Of course, finding the tension and uncovering the emotional and energetic layers is just the beginning. To release that tension, you’ll need to combine physical efforts, such as bodywork and stretching, with creating boundaries in healthier ways so your body doesn’t have to do that for you.

If you continue to rely on your body to create relationship boundaries, tension will persist, regardless of how many massages or yoga classes you’ve had this month. To deepen the healing, you might try reading books about boundary setting, codependence, and healthy communication. This is a great place to start.

But like any change, you have to actually practice it and live it, not just read and think about it. Therapy is an excellent tool for unlearning unhelpful boundary patterns and learning new ways of relating to yourself and others.

If you notice that trying to set boundaries feels uncomfortable–perhaps you feel guilty or selfish when you say no–therapy can help you uncover the “rules” you learned, likely as a child, that it feels like you’re violating by setting healthy boundaries. It can help you rewrite your life rules on your own terms in a way that allows you the space to express yourself authentically.

And the more space you create in your life through healthy boundaries, the more spaciousness you will feel in your body. It’s a win-win.

Aromatherapy and the Brain


The limbic sytem, which deals with the regulation of emotions, was once thought of as the rhinencephelon, or “nose-brain,” because it was first studied in rats for whom olfaction (sense of smell) and emotions are utterly entwined. The limbic system is comprised of different subareas, and these subareas send projections into other parts of the brain, especially the hypothalamus, and the connection between the limbic system and the hypothalamus is important for our understanding of aromatherapy.

But first, let’s back up and look at something called the automonic nervous system (ANS). There are all kinds of autonomic (automatic) functions in your body that are vital to keeping you alive and well, and these functions happen involuntarily; you don’t need to consciously control them. And this is a good thing, because we’re talking about functions like the beating of your heart, the amount of sugar you have in your blood, and so forth. You would spend your entire day and then some consumed by these processes if you had to think about them.

Three different layers of the brain have an influence over these autonomic functions, which are carried out by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the hypothalamus is the first layer of influence. If you were injured and your blood pressure started dropping, a blood pressure sensor would send a message up the spinal cord to your hypothalamus, and through a few more steps, your blood pressure and heart rate would increase, thereby bringing your body back into balance. Thank you, hypothalamus!

The second layer of influence on autonomic functions is the limbic system, and it is here where we start to see the possible mechanisms for aromatherapy’s powerful effects. A scent or an image can trigger an emotional response in the limbic system, which in turn sends a message to the hypothalamus, and again, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. It’s like pouring a double cocktail emotions and hormones.

Finally, the third layer of influence on autonomic functions is the cerebral cortex, another part of the brain and one that is involved in memory, learning, complex processing, decision making, and more. In this part of the brain, thought and memory are the triggers that can send messages to the limbic system and to the hypothalamus, again stimulating the ANS.

So, we’ve just looked at three ways that autonomic/involuntary processes in your body can be affected, processes like the beating of your heart, your rate of digestion, and the levels of hormones in your body. These three ways are the hypothalamus, the limbic system, and the cortex. Let’s grossly oversimplify these by relating each one to a key function: the hypothalamus produces hormones, which are powerful chemical messengers; the limbic system deals with emotions; and the cortex handles thoughts and memories.

In other words, the basic, involuntary functioning of our body can be influenced by hormones, emotions, and thoughts and memories. (Of course, it can be affected by other things as well, but these three are important for our purposes.)

Let’s connect this to aromatherapy. If you smell, say, lavender essential oil, your olfactory bulb sends a message to your limbic system, triggering an emotional response, and to your cortex, potentially triggering thoughts and memories (e.g you have a memory of being in the backyard while your grandma hangs lavender-scented laundry on the clothesline). Your limbic system, in turn, can send messages to your hypothalamus, causing hormones to be released, hormones that can have a multitude of effects on your body, such as lowering your heart rate and respiration. Thank to one little scent, you’re having an emotional response, you might be experiencing long-forgotten memories, and your body is likely producing hormones that are traveling throughout your body, causing any number of physiological effects.

This is all well and good, but let’s take it even further and talk about how aromatherapy can even change the expression of your DNA. In a lecture series called Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, Dr. Robert Sapolsky outlines different ways in which our environment, including scents, can influence the activity of our genes.

In a nutshell, DNA is like the blueprint, or set of instructions, for your cells. However, each strand of DNA contains instructions for all kinds of things, and your cells aren’t using all parts of these instructions at the same time. How does this work? Well, to oversimplify again, imagine that your DNA looks like a string of pearls. After every nine pearls on the string, there’s a blue bead, and this blue bead plays a special role. It’s like a switch that allows a particular stretch of nine pearls to activate. Unless the pearls are activated, they can’t have any effect in the cell; they’re essentially just sitting there doing nothing, so these blue beads are very important. If the blue beads turn the pearls “off,” nothing’s happening, but when the blue beads activate the pearls, things start to happen.

Okay, so what tells the blue beads (known as promoters) to switch on? There are proteins in your cells called transcription factors, and they have the power to flip the switch, turning on the blue beads, and thus allowing your DNA to spring into action. What’s interesting is that these transcription factors can be influenced by things in your external environment, like scents. Dr. Sapolsky gives the example of a male wildebeest who smells a rival male who has been scent marking in his territory. Sound the alarm! The scent of the rival works on the pathways we’ve just discussed and has the ability to turn on sections of the wildebeest’s DNA, perhaps causing a certain neurotransmitter to be produced, which in turn has a powerful effect on the brain, generating, perhaps, an aggressive response in our wildebeest friend: Off he goes, charging across the savannah to exact revenge!

An example that you might be familiar with in humans: Studies have shown that women in regular close contact will begin to sync their ovulatory cycles, typically matching the cycle of the socially dominant female in the group, and olfactory triggers (pheromones) are responsible. If you’ve ever lived in a dorm full of women PMSing at the same time, you know just how powerful this can be.

While many of us have had the experience of being energized by peppermint or soothed by lavender, it’s fun to peel back the layers and explore what’s going on in the brain and in the cells of our body while this is happening. Scents have the power to change our heart rate and other bodily functions, our mood, our thoughts, and the expression of our DNA. Ponder that during your next aromatherapy session!


Hot Stone and LaStone Massage


One of my favorite aspects of massage school is getting to try different massage modalities—and there are so many of them to choose from! Of course, the “downside” is that there are now roughly 15,000 modalities in which I want to pursue further training once I graduate. Too many modalities, too little time.

In recent weeks, we had the opportunity to test drive hot stone massage techniques, which employ smooth basalt stones warmed in a hot water bath (we used 130º water warmed in a roaster oven). The stones are placed on or under the body and are also held in the therapist’s hand(s) as tools to smooth over the client’s tissue.

As a total nature junkie, there was something immediately appealing to me about the stones–their smoothness, their varied colors (some of them looked like beautifully speckled dinosaur eggs), their heft. And I love the idea of integrating natural materials into bodywork; they’re such a nice antidote to all of the plastic-y tools and other synthetic junk everywhere.

Our instructor showed us how to choose appropriately sized stones for different applications: the back “layout” (i.e. the stones placed on either side of the spine while the client is lying on their back), the chakra layout, smaller stones to slip between the toes, pointier stones for more detailed trigger-point work, and “working stones,” which were more all-purpose stones used to glide over the body during the moving strokes.

Both giving and receiving hot stone massage is fantastic. On the giving end, it’s amazing to feel the client’s tissue melt as you slide the hot stones over their body, and I was amazed at how quickly they dropped into a deeper relaxed state. With regular Swedish massage, it sometimes takes people awhile to settle in, stop talking, and “get in the zone,” but not so with hot stone massage.

And on the receiving end, what can I say–it’s heavenly. I carry a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, and the hot stones delivered an amazing icy-hot sensation to my aching muscles, which soon melted into relaxation. After only a thirty-minute practice massage during class, I felt like I was floating.

So, what’s the difference between hot stone massage and LaStone massage? The primary difference is that LaStone uses both hot and cold stones as part of the treatment. LaStone Therapy was created by Mary Nelson, who practices and teaches in Arizona, and she has said that the inspiration for the therapy came to her from spirit guides, an idea that might sound impossibly woo-woo to some, but having experienced my own spirit guide contact (and, indeed, this is how I conduct my tarot readings), this is right in my wheelhouse. 😉

As the story goes, Nelson was sitting in a sauna with her niece, voicing her concerns over how she was going to continue practicing as a massage therapist after injuring her shoulder. Spirit responded with, “Pick up the stones,” a suggestion she didn’t understand at first. The message was repeated, and it dawned on her to pick up one of the stones from the broken wall of the sauna, and she rubbed it on her niece’s shoulder. The rest, as they say, is history.

If you’re interested in learning how to do LaStone Therapy, you can study through in-person classes or through a more limited selection of online courses. One online course in particular seems particularly useful for both LaStone and general hot stone massage therapists: the Health and Safety Course. This outlines how to handle different pathologies, how to sanitize the stones in between clients, and more.