The Science of Spas

The Science of Spas
May 2007 Special Sections

While spa treatments such as massage and hydrotherapy have been around for thousands of years, we’ve only recently begun to understand the scientific reasons for their effectiveness. We talked to experts at Twin Cities spas about why these age-old remedies are still so beneficial today.

While some may think of a day at the spa as an indulgence, the treatments found at today’s spas were once considered a necessary part of health maintenance, and many people relied on them the way we do modern medicine. In ancient Rome, people staved off aches and pains by regularly bathing in therapeutic mineral waters generated by natural hot springs; gymnasiums in the golden age of Greece also incorporated hydrotherapy as well as massage; and the Chinese have treated ailments with acupuncture for thousands of years. Ever wondered why these age-old methods for maintaining and restoring health and a sense of well-being are still prevalent today? We looked into some of the most popular treatments offered at Twin Cities day spas to find out the science behind why they work.

The Healing Touch
Feel guilty when you splurge on the occasional massage? You shouldn’t, according to studies by The Touch Research Institute in Miami (TRI), which is part of the University of Miami School of Medicine. TRI collaborated with researchers from several other universities to study the health benefits of massage therapy. During the course of more than one hundred studies, TRI discovered that massage diminished pain in fibromyalgia patients, increased pulmonary function in asthma patients, decreased glucose levels in diabetes, and boosted immune responses in a variety of diseases from HIV to cancer—just to name a few of their findings.

Many of the benefits of massage seem to stem from stress reduction. “During a massage, there’s often a decrease in stress hormones like cortisol, which is released during periods of anxiety, and an increase in levels of serotonin,” says Jodi Graham, massage therapist at Simonson’s Spa, which has several locations in the Twin Cities. This is significant because low levels of the hormone serotonin have been associated with clinical depression and other mood disorders.

Diane Cook, co-owner of The Day Spa in Edina, says that, in terms of stress reduction, massage is one of the most beneficial spa treatments for long-term health and well-being.

Cook has witnessed the tangible benefits of massage, in combination with physical therapy, in her own son, who had a stroke last year at the age of thirty-two. “The massage is helping to keep his hand active, and it also helps with the emotional stress of his treatment,” Cook says.

Terry Clements, director of wellness at Solimar Spa in Eagan, explains how massage works directly on muscle groups that are injured or tight. “Massage increases circulation to the muscle, which brings oxygen to the muscle, which in turn brings healing.” Most people are aware that we need oxygen to breathe, but it’s also essential in healing bodily tissues like skin, muscle, and bone. Poor circulation in muscle tissue or skin can stagnate oxygen flow, which is where massage can help.

The pressure administered during a massage also removes lactic acid build-up, which is a toxin left over in contracting muscles. “Your muscles have naturally occurring toxins as a by-product of movement, and if you’re not drinking enough water, excess toxins can settle into the muscles, making them tighter and, therefore, more prone to injury or pain,” Graham says.

Tight muscles are also the culprit in many sports-related injuries, which is why regular massages are a must for many athletes. If there’s a sports injury, massage helps break down scar tissue, gets blood flowing to the muscles, and gets you back to balance and symmetry, says Stephanie Olson, massage therapist at The Marsh in Minnetonka. Even those of us who rarely step on a treadmill can be prone to muscle strain from repetitive-stress disorders from typing on a BlackBerry or lifting one too many grocery bags. “People don’t realize how tight their muscles are, and massage can be an injury-preventative measure,” Olson says. “It’s really a form of ‘passive exercise’ because the touch is very stimulating.”

Your Best Foot Forward
For many Minnesotans, pedicures are the ultimate luxury to be indulged in only in the spring and summer months when feet are visible. But foot care has year-round benefits that can’t be underestimated—especially for those who spend a lot of time on their feet. Pedicures are much more than a change of polish. The warmth of the water, the movement of the whirlpool jets, and the stimulation of the foot rub and exfoliation all work together to revive tired and sore feet by increasing circulation.

Practitioners of reflexology, a form of massage that concentrates on the feet, believe feet contain many pressure points that can increase overall health if stimulated. For example, there are thousands of nerve endings in the feet, and reflexologists say that stimulating nerves that correspond to specific organs in the body can help resolve imbalances in afflicted areas.

“Reflexology is the belief that each part of the foot is connected to other parts of the body,” Cook says. “For example, one area on the bottom of the foot might effect your kidney or liver or lymph nodes.”

More Than Skin Deep
Skincare has become a focus of many spas as people have begun to realize that it’s important to keep the surface of the body healthy, too. Just as in a massage, stimulating facial skin increases oxygenation, which helps skin to heal and regenerate itself. “Skin is the largest organ on the body, and it takes in nutrients,” Clements says. Exfoliation, which is part of most body treatments, helps enable this process. “Exfoliation brings oxygen to the skin, and oxygen in turn brings more nutrients to the skin,” Clements says.

At Solimar, aromatherapy oils (such as lavender, eucalyptus, and camphor) are incorporated into the body scrub to enhance the client’s mood during the experience while also helping to moisturize and condition the skin. For example, Clements says the smell of lavender helps calm and relax a person while eucalyptus and camphor relieve muscle tension.

For more intense hydration and detoxification, Clements recommends a body wrap, which has health benefits that go well beyond great-looking skin. Clements says Solimar Spa’s hydrating aloe wrap helps the body produce more endorphins as a result of the body’s response to the relaxation effect of the wrap and the massage. To give an analogy of how this works, Clements adds that endorphins are the same stress-reducing hormones that are produced when you go running or meditate.

Hydrotherapy is another whole-body skin treatment that goes well beyond the surface. “Our hydrotherapy soak is a really slow, introductory detox,” Clements says. “The jets work up to your back and then back down for lymphatic drainage.” The pressure from the jets stimulates lymph nodes to help them do their job of fighting off infections and cleansing the body. The warmth and movement of the water helps relieve sore muscles, and Clements says the deeply relaxing experience also helps many of her clients sleep better. 

Put on a Happy Face
Facials offer many of the same benefits as body treatments, but they concentrate on the area that the rest of the world sees every day. Mental health is an important part of spa treatments, too, and it’s well known that a healthy appearance contributes to a healthy self-esteem. “Skin treatments and facials can help you feel beautiful from the outside in,” Clements says.

Conversely, neglecting your face care can result in conditions from acne to redness or blotchy skin. “Unless you keep your skin hydrated and replenished, you’ll end up with dry skin,” Cook says. Of course, water is the best way to keep our skin hydrated; Clements recommends drinking half your body weight in ounces of water a day.

But even if you’re drinking plenty of water and have a good home face-care regimen, most can benefit from a facial from time to time to give skin an extra boost. This is especially true in the spring and fall when temperatures and humidity levels change drastically and skin is forced to adjust quickly, sometimes resulting in loss of moisture and vital nutrients. A facial can help ease this transition by using special products to give your face that extra moisture it needs, remove dead skin, and re-introduce nutrients that might have been depleted. Most spas offer a variety of facials depending on your specific needs and skin type.

Facials can contribute to a healthier appearance by creating smoother, healthier looking skin, but if you want to tackle cosmetic issues such as wrinkles, uneven pigmentation, or really dull-looking skin, there are more intensive treatments available at some spas. “Peels have great results for reducing the appearance of wrinkles,” says Christine Turner, advanced aesthetic educator at Simonson’s. “Depending on your level of wrinkles, we can penetrate at deeper levels.” Like peels, microdermabrasion works by removing “keratin” or dead skin, but the process is more of an active one. “Microdermabrasion does a lot of the same things as peels, but it’s more physical because the tiny crystals [aluminum oxide] used actually break up the keratin, which is then removed with a vacuum,” Turner says.

Lasers, which for some time enjoyed status as a cure-all for skin problems, have received some bad press lately, mainly due to improper use by inexperienced technicians. While the laser controversy has been brewing on the sidelines, a safer form of technology, called Gentle Waves, has come to the fore. “It’s similar to the laser but non-wounding,” Turner says. “Light emitting diodes, or LEDs, stimulate the skin to lighten pigment, minimize pore size, and decrease the enzyme that breaks down collagen in skin.”

With so many choices, it’s important to match each client with just the right treatment. A first-time consultation is a must to make sure there are no contraindications, or health conditions specific to a client that make the treatment too risky. Contraindications include conditions like light-sensitive seizures, light-sensitive migraines, and pregnancy.

Even if a client’s skin is too sensitive for the most common treatments, there are usually alternatives. “Myotonology is a microcurrent facelift that uses tiny electrodes to stimulate the muscle where the wrinkle originates; it’s like Botox without being invasive,” Turner says. “It’s great if skin is too sensitive for a peel or microdermabrasion.”

Looking to the East
Despite the many successes of modern medicine, there are still conditions that elude even medical specialists. People are turning to Oriental or Chinese medicine, which has been around for thousands of years, to treat such stubborn ailments. According to Chinese medicine, physical and mental health has to do with maintaining the right balance—what the Chinese call yin and yang—and “chi,” which best translates as energy or flow. “When people are stressed or are in pain, usually their chi isn’t flowing properly, which we call chi stagnation,” says Kent Marsh, licensed acupuncturist at The Marsh. “Chi is necessary to move blood through the system.”

By pinpointing the cause of the stagnation, Marsh, who has a masters degree in Oriental Medicine, can determine where to place the thin acupuncture needles to release stagnant chi and restore balance. The needles are inserted in “point combinations,” which can restore balance in the body to ease a certain ailment. Acupuncturists work with the twelve main meridians of the body, each meridian representing a certain organ of the body. The needles are very different from what we are accustomed to in the West when we get a shot at the doctor; they are much thinner and their purpose is to reduce pain rather than cause it.

Some of the most common ailments that can be eased with acupuncture are arthritis, lower back pain, sciatica, and stress. Marsh says he has also been helping clients who are trying to lose weight or lower cholesterol. “And there are other residual benefits to acupuncture, too, like people reporting that they are sleeping better,” Marsh says. “Some of the patients that are coming to see me are on lots of different prescription drugs, and they realize that by attaining balance they can cut down on those drugs—whether they’re taking them for emotional or physical pain.” Of course, Marsh says a change in medication should be discussed between a patient and his or her primary physician.

Easing both mental and physical pain is something that seems to be unique to spas. An increasing number of medical professionals believe that emotional factors like stress and depression are contributors to all kinds of ailments from headaches to chronic pain to cancer. By helping us heal both mentally and physically, spa treatments not only help ease problems that already exist, they can also help prevent them from occurring—or recurring—in the future. While modern medicine is here to treat us once we’re already ill, regular spa treatments can work a lot like a tune-up on a car, helping to prevent the need for future repairs.

Tips for a Great Massage
By Sara Williams

The benefits of massage can be enhanced and extended by taking heed of some good advice. Follow these tips for a massage that not just soothes but sings.

* To help your body detoxify, drink more than the recommended amount of water. That is, half of your body weight in ounces of water per day. Weigh 140 pounds? Drink 70 ounces.

* Set your mind at ease. Quiet all thoughts and worries before and after the massage. This will allow your mind and body to fully integrate. Afterwards, reenter your life slowly.

* Pre- and post-massage, eat light and right: fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Stay away from processed foods, meats, heavy, fried foods, sugar, and alcohol.

* Breathe. “During the massage, your job is to breathe. That’s it,” says Terry Clements, wellness director of Solimar Wellness Spa. “Concentrate on even, relaxed breathing. That helps bring the much needed oxygen to the bloodstream, which brings it to your muscles.”

* Smell lavender. “In our physiology of the senses, smell triggers the strongest memory,” Clements says. “If your massage therapist uses a scent and you smell that again, it will remind you of the massage and take your body back to that, so keep [the scent] on hand.”

* After the massage, maintain the state of relaxation in both your mind and body. Don’t rush back into stressful situations—take a nap, a walk, or do whatever it is that brings you peace.

* Bringing heat to the skin and muscles helps ease the body into repose. Prepare for your massage with a warm bath or steam shower especially if you have difficulties relaxing. Soak or steam post-massage to extend its benefits.

* Consult your spa’s wellness director if you have a specific health concern. He or she can consider your specific situation and confirm if the massage or other spa services can aid your health goals.