Epigenetics and the Healing Power of Touch

Earlier this year massage therapists around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.  A new scientific study confirmed that claims of massage as a “healing art” were not new age embellishments after all.  Not only did these scientists discover that massage speeds the physiological healing process, they also discovered how – through a biochemical process known as epigenetics.

The study, helmed by neurometabolic researcher Mark Tarnopolsky, showed that massage actually turns off genes that cause inflammation, and turns on genes involved in cellular repair.  In short, therapeutic touch encourages DNA to behave differently, effectively speeding the healing process.  This comes as no surprise to massage therapists and bodyworkers, who understand intuitively the benefits of their work, even if they can’t explain the mechanisms involved.  But science must be conservative in order to maintain its integrity, and from a scientific perspective these results are extraordinary.

A word is in order about the new field of epigenetics.  In traditional genetics, we understand that genes in our DNA give rise to physiological traits which make us who we are.  But epigenetics tells us that DNA is not a simple matter of a gene determining destiny – that gene also has to be expressed over the course of a lifetime.  Whether and to what degree a given gene is expressed is determined by environment and experience.  And, because humans in affluent societies often have considerable power in influencing their own environment and experience, it follows that we have the potential to influence our own gene expression.  DNA becomes less of a mandate defining who we are, and more of a set of potentials and possibilities about who we will become.

These changes in gene expression are very real.  Epigenetic biochemical markers accumulate over time and have been correlated with susceptibility to cancer and other diseases, changes in cognitive ability in learning and memory, and levels of anxiety and confidence.  In short, epigenetic activity appears to hold tremendous influence over both the quality and quantity of our lives.  And the research into this field is only just beginning.

Clean air and water, good nutrition, and an active lifestyle are all factors that can affect our epigenetics for the better.  But what about stress?

There is a large and growing consensus in the scientific community about the damaging effects of chronic stress.  Our bodies were designed for quick bursts of fight-or-flight arousal in an otherwise peaceful natural environment.  Our modern urban lifestyles replete with work deadlines, traffic jams, bombardment with sound, information, and advertising have the potential to over-tax the nervous system even when nothing seems overtly wrong.  There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that long-term stress throws the entire organism into disorder, causing wear and tear to multiple physiological systems and ultimately opening the door to disease.

Stress in mothers affects the epigenetics, and thus development, of infants with long-lasting consequences.  And, no surprise, general studies of epigenetic changes in stressed-out mammals indicate that maintaining high levels of stress is not good for our gene expression at any stage of life.  Most disturbing, chronic stress may leave us epigenetically predisposed for higher anxiety, which is likely to stress the system even further.

Long before we reach this point, the wise among us will stage an intervention on our own behalf, and break the cycle of stress.  We do this by recognizing it for what it is, and taking whatever steps necessary to remove it.  In drastic situations, the well-to-do might take a Mediterranean cruise, while those with depleted resources may stage a very real psychosomatic breakdown, putting themselves in the hands of others.  For the rest of us, a dedicated practice of meditation or prayer may do the trick, as might well-timed camping trips or other escapes.  For others, it’s regular strolls through a pleasant area, bike rides, or a good run or trip to the gym – although there’s some danger in these latter activities of pushing too hard instead of releasing.  I’m convinced the growing popularity of yoga in America is happening largely because a good yoga practice teaches intuitive self-regulation of the nervous system – it strengthens the mind-body connection, and leaves us less helpless to our own stress reaction.  These are all good resources, and there are many others.

Sometimes, we just need to be touched.  Sometimes we need a strong or soothing set of hands to intervene in our rigid tissues, to sink into our accumulated stress and break the pattern.  Anyone who has ever had a quality massage will tell you – no scientific studies necessary – that the release of stress in healing bodywork can be profound.  Quite literally, the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system winds down, and the “rest-and-restore” parasympathetic nervous system activates.  That’s why falling asleep on the bodywork table is such a good sign – sleep is a parasympathetic response, an indication that the body is finally letting go, that the threat is past, and healing can begin.

To sketch a complete picture of the relationship between epigenetics and healing touch, we must include the implications of stress reduction.  A gifted pair of healing hands is massaging not only our tissues, but our very DNA, the blueprint of our being.  If epigenetics interprets DNA as a set of potentials instead of a mandate, the role of the healer is to help draw forth the highest potential.  As poetic as that sounds, it has a basis in human physiology.  Nothing could be more natural.

Of course, the extent of this form of therapy has limits, and we mustn’t let out speculations run away with us.  Massage has been further vindicated as a healing method, but so too have quality sleep, nutrition, and fitness all been essentially linked to health and wellness. Like neuroscience, epigenetics is a science flush with the excitement of its own youth, and much more research has yet to be done.

In the meantime, it’s nice to know that touch actually does heal, on a physiological level.  It’s comforting to know that healing physical contact with our fellow humans is part of our design.  And whatever the physiological limits to bodywork, we have yet to consider the psychological healing that can be facilitated through therapeutic touch.  That’s another subject, for another day.