Most people are well aware of the stress reducing effects of a spa day, but not so many are aware of exactly why this is the case. Stress is related to the hormone cortisol, which is integral in the body’s fight or flight response – heightening sense perception and reaction time in response to perceived threats when triggered. However, in either its acute or chronic form, stress results in adverse reactions inside the body ranging from insomnia to impeded cognitive function, heart problems and muscle drain, leading to both physical and mental health complications. Fortunately, cortisol’s regulation can be affected by endorphins, many of which are released when engaging in certain leisure activities.
Thermal treatments, such as saunas and steam rooms, relax the muscles of the body counteracting their propensity to tighten in response to cold. Extreme heat also forces the body into vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels) which has the knock-on effect of reducing blood pressure. This also helps the flow of oxygen in the blood to important parts of the body including the brain. In steam rooms, humidity helps to clear congestion of the airway, particularly the nasal passages, whereas in saunas, extreme dryness combined with heat provokes the skin to produce sweat, opening the pours of the skin and flushing out any toxins trapped within. Both are typically warm, quiet places to sit and to decompress psychologically as well. The only downside of these is spending too much time within can easily lead to instances of heat stroke, so leave or do not enter if you feel sleepy.
Spending too much time sitting still or exerting to much strain on the back can lead to chronic back pain, or even worse situations where one needs to seek spinal cord injury treatment. Whilst nerve damage or conditions such as sciatica cannot and should not be addressed by massage therapy, using it to treat the muscle strain leading to stiffness of the back can significantly reduce the risks of greater injury. It is not fully understood why skin to skin pressure releases endorphins, but there is nonetheless a reservoir of empirical evidence to suggest that it does. Special attention is often placed on applying pressure to knots in all three layers of muscle tissue, the third typically being the subject of deep tissue massage. Knots are areas of muscle where spasms have caused a small portion of the muscle fibers to tense up, leading to pain and irritation, which can be reduced via the careful application of pressure.
Ultraviolet radiation (UV) on the skin triggers the production of vitamin D, which is integral to the immune system and reducing strain on the body leading to the production of cortisol. Tanning is the process by which controlled exposure to UV triggers the production of melanin, the substance which gives people their dark skin pigmentation, which protects the skin from UV overexposure. As a side note, it is important to remember that those with pale skin, and those with darker skin tones, have opposite problems in this regard. Where pale skinned people are more vulnerable to sunburn and the risk of developing skin cancer due to overexposure to UV, darker skinned people are more vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency, particularly in northern Europe, due to melanin blocking UV exposure. With sunbathing, therefore, it helps to know this in order to give yourself as much or as little sunlight as your body needs to optimize vitamin D production.