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Aromatherapy massage has many known benefits, but the significant impact it can have on mothers during pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding is not widely known, and we want to change that.
Becoming a mother is one of the most significant changes in a woman’s life, and for some it's not the wonderful, exhilarating experience we imagined.
Motherhood brings revolutionary change. Changing not only our responsibilities and daily routines, but also who we are as a person – what we think about, what we prioritise, and how we feel inside and out. Even the expectation of all this change can be super stressful.
When we experience stressful situations, our bodies can go into that 'fight or flight' mode, releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Ongoing stress can lead to anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and a whole lot of other problems. However, our body is designed with a natural way to counter this stress response through the vagus nerve system. This is our 'rest, relax and digest' system, and scientists are discovering how we can deliberately trigger the relaxation response to improve our sense of wellbeing.
Many studies have shown that both massage and specific scents can aid mamas-to-be. So, let’s learn how, in Part One of our three-part series.
It all starts with the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our autonomic nervous system, it regulates heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion; it's responsible for our gut-brain connection; and it tells our body to relax by sending instructions to release oxytocin.
This nerve is the master of our parasympathetic nervous system, helping to support our relaxation, healing, and recovery, and counterbalancing the sympathetic nervous system that controls the 'fight or flight' response which shuts down bodily function for basic survival.
When the vagus nerve is activated the body releases oxytocin which promotes rest, relaxation, and wellbeing ...
... and oxytocin is key for happy mamas!
For many years, scientists have been exploring how we can activate or stimulate the vagus nerve and increase our vagal tone to overcome stress, reduce pain, and boost our wellbeing.
Through these studies, aromatherapy massage has become a highly regarded and frequently used complementary therapies to support mothers' sense of wellbeing.
What is aromatherapy massage?
Aromatherapy massage combines the physical touch of massage and the calming scent of essential oils to promote relaxation for body and mind.
Equally inhaling certain scents has been found to trigger the release of oxytocin, reduce stress, and improve mood.
When we inhale scent molecules, they travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the emotional centre if the brain. This direct brain connection is believed to be why scents are the strongest triggers of memory, and the connection to the parasympathetic nervous system may explain how it modulates anxiety and improves sleep quality. While the connection between scent and relaxation is yet to be fully understood, aromatherapy is highly regarded for supporting mental and physical wellness.
How does lavender massage improve wellbeing?
Oxytocin is our feel-good love hormone. It helps our body counter the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone, which is released by our body when that 'fight or flight' reaction is triggered. When oxytocin is flowing, this increases relaxation, reduces stress and anxiety, decreases pain sensation, and improves mood.
Research is discovering that oxytocin can be increased naturally through massage with lavender essential oil. The lavender scent and the massage both stimulating the vagus nerve to promote our sense of wellness.
Interestingly, it seems that both the person being massaged, and the person massaging receive a boost.
How can aromatherapy massage help in pregnancy?
Anxiety can happen at any time during pregnancy. A mother’s body is going through immense change. We can feel unwell, not be sleeping, and our emotions be on a rollercoaster between joy unspeakable and dread (or anything in between). Life will never be the same once we welcome the new miraculous tiny human into the world, and all of this can trigger stress and anxiety in mamas-to-be.
In a 2021 systematic review of randomised controlled trials, researchers evaluated the effects, side effects, and contraindications of relaxation massage during pregnancy.
They found that the main benefits of massage during pregnancy were: reduced stress, back + leg pain, depression and anxiety; increased immune response; increased serotonin and dopamine levels; higher baby birth weight and reduced risk of preterm delivery. And that for "healthy pregnant women without complications, relaxation massage has positive effects throughout pregnancy."
The review concluded,
“Massage treatments show more positive effects than other relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. Effects on prenatal depression are comparable to psychotherapy and antidepressants.”
And went on to recommend that,
"It is necessary to rethink the biological and psychological effects of massage treatments and to make more use of this potent tool."
Throughout these studies the use of diluted lavender essential oil is common because it has a long history of safety, and the scent is strongly associated with relaxation and calm.
A 2015 study looked at the impact of regular use of lavender cream on pregnant women’s anxiety, stress, and depression, and compared its effectiveness to an unscented cream.
The participants were given a cream to rub on their legs 1.5 hours before bedtime for 8 weeks. One group were given lavender cream and another group a placebo cream. At 4 weeks and 8 weeks the Lavender Group were found to have lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression than the Placebo Group.
Some in the Lavender Group were also given a footbath to aid relaxation, but the Researchers found adding the footbath did not significantly improve effectiveness of the lavender scented cream.
This study built on previous research that had made similar discoveries. Back in 2006, a UK review looked at the use of aromatherapy and massage for antenatal anxiety and concluded,
"Aromatherapy and massage had successfully been used to produce significantly greater improvement in reduction of anxiety, [than psychotherapy techniques or antidepressant drugs]."
Aromatherapy seems to take things to the next level, but even massage alone is benficial. A 2010 a review of three studies also found that simple massage had significant impacts on the wellbeing of mothers.
In the first study, pregnant women received massage therapy for 20 minutes for 5 weeks. The women reported a decrease in depression, anxiety, and legs + back pain. Cortisol levels decreased and, excessive fetal activity decreased, and the rate of premature birth was also lower in the massage group.
In the second study, were massaged by their significant others over a 16-week period. Receiving a 20-minute massage twice weekly. They also reported significant decreases in depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels.
In the third study, pregnant women diagnosed with major depression we given 12 weeks of twice weekly massage by their significant other, or only standard treatment as a control group. The massage group (as compared to the control group) had reduced depression and cortisol levels by the end of the therapy period, but also had reduced depression and cortisol levels during the postpartum period. And that the newborns of the massage group had lower cortisol levels that the newborns of the control group.
All of these studies just go to show that gentle touch and calming scent really do help our bodies cope with the stressors in life.
Is only professional massage therapy effective?
No, the studies show that massage by loved-ones are just as effective. The most important thing with massage is that it feels pleasant and not painful for the mama-to-be. A 2020 study found that even a soft shoulder massage that feels pleasant will deliver the desired outcomes.
In the 2021 systematic review of pregnancy massage trials, the authors found that the body of studies showed:
🦋 massage treatments are a potent tool to alleviate stress, anxiety, pain, and depression in various patient groups.
🦋 prenatal depression is one of the leading risk factors for postpartum depression, which in turn can impact baby's development.
🦋 massage treatments show more positive effects than other relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. Effects on prenatal depression are comparable to psychotherapy and antidepressants.
This study also examined the safety of massage for pregnant women and recommended that:
🦋 the abdomen of pregnant women should not be massaged.
🦋 pregnant women should not lie on their stomachs for massage.
🦋 there should be no deep muscle massages of the arms and legs, just very gentle stroking.
🦋 only safe and well dilluted essential oils should be used during massage.
Like with so many things during pregnancy, always check with you primary healthcare provider before you start.
Well that's all pretty interesting ...
It seems hard to believe that something as simple as twice weekly aromatherapy massage by a loved-one can have such a major impact on wellbeing for a mama-to-be. It's often the simplest things in motherhood that do the most.
In Part Two we'll explore the research into the benefits of massage during birthing. In the meantime, if you know a mama-to-be please share these studies - massage can make a world of difference.💖
Here's to happy, healthy pregnancies!
Here at Everkind, we think you shouldn’t have to choose between your wellbeing and what works. We’ve carefully made our range of all-natural bodycare to work as well as – if not better than – their synthetic counterparts, without compromising on using quality certified organic ingredients. To find out more, shop the Everkind range, or get in touch with the team.
In her pre-mum life Amanda-Jane was an environmental lawyer. When her children were little she and her family moved to the country in a market gardening area, where they experienced first-hand the toxic impact of conventional horticulture on groundwater, land and personal health. This experience launched her on a journey to restore her family's health and find practical, truly natural solutions for everyday needs. Amanda-Jane became the founder and creator of Everkind - a body care brand strongly committed to providing body kind, people kind, planet kind essentials that work.
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