The other day, a long-time and trusted client asked me if massage was good for, or could improve, sexual function. While we typically avoid discussing sex in any way, shape or form in our practices, the fact is massage is excellent for overall health and, by extension, may improve sexual health and function.
Let’s break this down and examine the question further.
A common and significant factor that can disrupt the ability to have satisfying sexual experiences and inhibit sexual function is stress. Stress can trigger the stress response, or the fight-or-flight response, in which the central nervous system (CNS) increases hormonal activity that supports the ability to move or fight; blood flow to the limbs increases and is diverted from the core, digestion slows, breathing and heart rate increase. Adrenaline levels increase, and so too does anxiety, depression and stress levels.
Massage therapy has been shown to significantly reduce this stress response, lowering heart and respiration rates, balancing hormone activity, reducing adrenaline and cortisol levels and reducing or eliminating this fight-or-flight response.
In fact, massage has been shown to improve five other moods states:
Massage can be a powerful tool in the fight against stress, anxiety and depression. This, too, can offer significant improvement to sexual function when stress is a contributing factor in sexual dysfunction.
Massage has been long known to increase circulation through manual movement of lymph and blood flow throughout the body. In fact, it has been said that a 60-minute massage increases the circulation as much as a 6-mile walk. But massage also improves cardiovascular health because of its impact on the autonomic nervous system, which is tied to cardiovascular health. Significant decreases in heart rate are shown to follow a massage session, while circulation is improved as a result of dilation of blood vessels. This increase in circulation has a positive impact on almost every organ in the body from the liver and stomach to, you guessed it, the sexual organs. As a result, sexual health and function may be improved as a result of a therapeutic massage.
Studies have shown that massage therapy leads to a decrease in hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) activity and enhanced immune function and short-term decreases in urine, salivary, and serum cortisol levels as part of a decrease in the body’s stress responses. Massage has been shown to improve relaxation, allowing the endocrine system to self-correct and restore balance. While treatment may still be necessary for conditions such as diabetes and serious hormone imbalances (menopause), massage can reduce fluctuations from the stress response, allowing the body to return to equilibrium.
There is a great deal of fear, anger and controversy that is associated with discussing sex and massage therapy. It is critical that as massage therapists, we maintain a professional boundary around this issue. Most therapists typically limit their discussions with clients to the general health benefits of massage therapy, avoiding any discussion of massage’s benefits to sexual health. Nevertheless, while we never want to encourage, or allow for, any type of sexual misconduct with our clients, it may be time to begin to put aside the stereotypes and negative associations and acknowledge that massage therapy may contribute positively to sexual health and function in both men and women.