The Relaxing Connection: How Massage Affects the Vagus Nerve

The Relaxing Connection: How Massage Affects the Vagus Nerve


Massage therapy has long been associated with relaxation and stress relief. The soothing touch of a skilled therapist can provide a sense of tranquillity and well-being, but have you ever wondered about the science behind these therapeutic benefits? One key player in the physiological response to massage is the vagus nerve. In this blog, we will explore the fascinating relationship between massage and the vagus nerve, backed by scientific references.

The Vagus Nerve: A Brief Overview

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve or the "wandering nerve," is a crucial component of the autonomic nervous system. It extends from the brainstem to various organs in the body, including the heart, lungs, digestive system, and even the skin. Its primary function is to regulate many essential bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and the "rest and digest" response.

The Relaxation Response

One of the most intriguing aspects of the vagus nerve is its role in triggering the relaxation response. When activated, it can counteract the "fight or flight" response, which is associated with stress and anxiety. Instead, the vagus nerve promotes a state of calm and relaxation.

Massage and the Vagus Nerve

Several studies have explored the connection between massage therapy and the vagus nerve, shedding light on how massage can stimulate this vital component of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Reduction in Stress Hormones:

Research conducted by Field et al. (2005) showed that massage therapy can reduce the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, while simultaneously increasing the activity of the vagus nerve. This suggests that massage may help shift the body from a stressed state to a relaxed state.

Enhanced Heart Rate Variability (HRV):

HRV is an indicator of the body's ability to adapt to stress. In a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 2012, participants who received regular massages showed increased HRV, suggesting improved vagal tone. A higher HRV is associated with better stress resilience and overall well-being.

Improved Mood and Anxiety Reduction:

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that massage therapy led to a decrease in anxiety and an increase in serotonin and dopamine levels, both of which are associated with improved mood and reduced stress. This effect is likely mediated, at least in part, by the vagus nerve.

Enhanced Digestive Function:

The vagus nerve plays a vital role in digestion, and massage can indirectly influence it. Massaging the abdominal area can stimulate the vagus nerve, potentially leading to improved digestion and reduced gastrointestinal discomfort.


The science behind how massage affects the vagus nerve is an exciting field of study. As research continues, we gain a deeper understanding of the intricate connections between touch therapy and the nervous system. The evidence suggests that massage therapy can activate the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and improving overall well-being.
It's essential to note that while massage can offer numerous benefits, it is not a replacement for medical treatment for conditions like anxiety or depression. Always consult with a healthcare professional for personalized advice on incorporating massage into your wellness routine.


Field, T., Ironson, G., Scafidi, F., Nawrocki, T., Goncalves, A., Burman, I., Pickens, J., Fox, N., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10), 1397-1413.

Diego, M. A., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Friedman, L., & Shaw, K. (2001). Massage therapy effects on anxiety, depression, and mood in patients with HIV/AIDS: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 7(4), 409-417.
Diego, M. A., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Vagal activity, cortisol, and sleep improvement, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 27(2), 217-228.

Moyer, C. A., Seefeldt, L., Mann, E. S., Jackley, L. M., & Does massage therapy reduce cortisol? A comprehensive quantitative review, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 12(1), 3-14.
Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., Krasnegor, J., Theakston, H., Hossain, Z., & Burman, I. (2000). High blood pressure and associated symptoms were reduced by massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 4(1), 31-38.

Ernst, E., & Lee, M. S. (2010). Acupuncture for rheumatic conditions: an overview of systematic reviews. Rheumatology, 49(10), 1957-1961.

Seifert, G. (2015). Massage therapy in outpatient cancer care: a retrospective analysis of a continuously evolving cancer care support service. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, 5(4), 371-376
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