Does Massage Equal Sleep?

Tackling the “massage is like 8 hours of sleep” myth.

Does massage equal sleep? Sometimes, I see a lovely graphic someone made of the benefits of massage, and I think “Oh wow! I want to share this with my clients!” Then, I read the list of benefits… and inevitably I scrap the idea. There are a few massage myths that turn up on these lists, and I plan to talk about some of them. This is the big one that makes me the craziest. So, go ahead, ask it:

Is an Hour of Massage Really the Same as 8 Hours of Sleep?

No.

What’s the Deal, Then?

Does massage equal sleep? Essentially, the answer to the question has become sort of over-simplified and exaggerated. Try skipping a couple of nights of sleep and replacing them with a massage. That makes me tired just thinking about it!

What I learned in massage school was that an hour of massage has similar benefits to the body as about 3 hours of restorative rest. That’s kind of like a nice long nap. But, let’s break it down a little bit.

What Happens When We Sleep?

There are stages to sleep that you’re just not going to get from a massage. While I love to have a client fall asleep on the table, you aren’t going to reach all – if any – of these stages during a massage. These stages include:

  • Non-REM Sleep
    • “Twilight State” – the stage between being awake and falling asleep. (This is probably most commonly what you feel during a massage.)
    • Light sleep – heart rate and breathing regulate, body temperature drops.
    • Third and fourth stages are deep sleep.
  • REM Sleep
  • The cycle repeats itself four or five times through the night.

What Do Brainy People Say About Sleep?

The National Sleep Foundation has renamed these stages N1-3 and REM. During N3, or stages 3 and 4, blood pressure drops, breathing slows, muscles relax, and blood supply to muscles increase. Metabolically, tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored, and growth hormones are released. REM sleep supports daytime performance, dreams occur, and the body becomes immobile and released – the muscles are turned off!

According to the National Institutes for Health, “Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood.” Sleep affects growth and stress hormones, appetite, breathing, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health.

In an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine, sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu, M.D. says that a healthy amount of sleep is vital for “brain plasticity”, or the brain’s ability to adapt to input. Too little sleep can affect our ability process what we’ve learned during the day, as well as give us trouble remembering it in the future.

What Happens When We Get a Massage?

Some people are pretty quick to hit the light sleep stage (Stage 1-2 or N1-2) during a massage. However, most of the time you’re either just really relaxed, or you’ve reached that “Twilight State” where you’re kind of asleep, kind of awake. A massage becomes more like a nap than a full night’s sleep. This is all still good for you, though! During a massage:

  • Blood pressure lowers
  • Breathing slows
  • Muscles relax
  • Circulation increases
  • Lymph flow increases
  • Serotonin and melatonin levels may increase

A lot of the effects of massage are similar to those of various stages of sleep, but one cycle of sleep stages typically lasts about 90 to 110 minutes. Even in a 90 or 120 minute massage, you usually have to wake up and roll over about halfway through. Sleep Review lists a variety of reports on the effectiveness of massage in improving sleep. But, while these have found that massage improves sleep, it does not replace sleep.

What Does That All Mean?

So. Does massage equal sleep? No, but it can help. Massage helps you break the cycle of pain, find relief, and improve your sense of well-being. It can relieve stress and anxiety. In turn, it can help you get a better night’s sleep. Together, this allows your body to set up the conditions needed to heal itself. 

The frequency and type of massage needed vary from person to person. Health issues may mean massage is not right for you. I encourage you to work with all your healthcare team, including your massage therapist, to figure out what works best for you.

Be Well.

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