Smashing the "Toxins" Myth

Maybe you’ve just come back from a vacation where you had your fair share of wine and delicious food. Should you detox with a juice cleanse? Or perhaps a massage will flush these toxins from your body?

Many health-minded people are seeking new ways to benefit their health and to undo some of the prior damage that poor diets, air pollutants, and bad habits can do to their bodies. With the general rise of health consciousness, there’s also been an increase in the idea of “detoxing,” or removing toxins from their bodies with diets, cleanses, and even foot pads that pull the toxins out from the soles of the feet. Some massage therapists claim that massage can help flush toxins from your body.

But what exactly are these toxins? And do these detox methods really work? In truth, there’s little scientific evidence to prove that detoxes of any kind work, and that goes for massages as well.

While there are plenty of health benefits to massage, it’s not because of its ability to rid your body of toxins. We’re here to debunk the myth of toxins, and get down to the nitty gritty of what actually makes massage so good for you.

What are “Toxins?”

Before we jump into whether or not massages release toxins, let’s take a look at what “toxins” really are. They sound scary— definitely like something that you should try to avoid or get rid of at all costs. But toxins are just a normal part of life, and, like anything else, in small doses they are perfectly fine.

Perhaps what it is that people truly fear is not “toxins” but “poisons,” which are two very different things. Poisons are any harmful substance, but it’s important to remember here that many things in too-large doses can then be considered poison, even your daily multivitamin.

Toxins are a kind of subset of poisons; they are poisons produced by living things. Technically, drinking scotch, getting a massage, and hard exercise all produce toxins, but these toxins are just part of how our bodies metabolize, rebuild, and process on a daily basis. In moderation and with careful attention, all are completely harmless.

Your doctor wouldn’t recommend that you give up your exercise routine to avoid toxins, and any toxins created by massage certainly aren’t harmful either.

No, Massages Don’t Cleanse Your Body of Toxins. And They’re Totally Safe

In truth? Your body does a pretty great job of flushing toxins all on its own. If you are in good health, your kidneys, liver, and intestines should already be doing a great job of removing toxins. Except for very rare occasions like overconsumption of drugs or alcohol, your body doesn’t need extra help detoxing. It just needs time to do what it does best.

Massage “detoxes” and other kinds of detoxes— like juice cleanses— don’t really do much to release toxins from your body. This is just a myth. In fact, many of these juice cleanses are actually just crash diets with major caloric deficits that can leave you feeling weak, sluggish, and tired.

On the other hand, some people might fear that getting a massage, especially a deep tissue massage, might actually be toxic; that the toxins released can be harmful to your body. There is some truth to this – kind of.

If you’ve experienced an intense, deep-tissue massage that has left you feeling sore, tired, or disoriented, what you’ve actually experienced is post-massage soreness and malaise (PMSM). Excessive pressure like this can cause rhabdomyolysis, or “rhabdo,” which is the poisoning by proteins liberated from an injured muscle. This is only dangerous for extremely vulnerable patients, like the elderly or those with other health issues, especially renal issues.

If you work with an experienced, knowledgeable massage therapist, this should never be an issue. PMSM should only cause slight discomfort as a mild side effect of a strong massage, but for most of us, there’s no need to fear these kinds of natural toxins leaving your muscles.

The Water-Toxin Myth

You may have heard that it’s necessary to drink water after a massage because some massage therapists claim that getting a massage releases toxins directly into the bloodstream, and that the best way to flush them out is to drink plenty of water to encourage your kidneys and the rest of your digestive system to process these and remove them from your body.

It never hurts to drink plenty of water, so it can’t hurt to rehydrate after a massage session. This is why I often add this as part of my recommendations after a massage. But massages don’t flush toxins into the bloodstream, and water wouldn’t help if it did.

There are a lot of scientific reasons why this is the case, but know that massage doesn’t liberate these environmental pollutants from cells or “squish” them into your bloodstream or excretory systems to be expelled. Again, that’s what your kidneys and digestive system are designed to do.

The Lactic Acid Myth

Another myth about massages? That massage is  a great way to release lactic acid in the muscles after a long run or hard workout. The soreness and stiffness you experience after your first run of the season actually isn’t from lactic acid building up in your muscles, it’s what’s called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

When you work out, it’s like pulling on a long rope - some of the fibers in your muscles may break during the workout, in what are essentially tiny microtears. Unlike pulling on a rope that loses some of its strength though, your muscles rebuild themselves and become larger and stronger.

Your muscles do create lactic acid, but this is something they do all the time, even when your body is at rest. So the idea that your muscles are sore from lactic acid buildup is false. When you exercise, your body needs fuel, and breaks down some of its stored energy to get this, becoming acidic. Lactate is just a by-product of this process that is created all the time.

That doesn’t mean you should give up your post-run massage! There are still plenty of benefits to a good sports massage. Your massage therapist can reduce the pain and stiffness after a hard workout, which moves blood and fluid around your body, helping to heal microtrauma from your workout.

When you heavily work out a muscle group, it loses some of its flexibility and tenses up, making it easier to tear. A thorough sports massage eases this tension. It also reduces inflammation and swelling, and lessens fatigue, gearing you up to conquer your next race, conditioning class, or sweat session.

Other Benefits to Massage Therapy

Don’t worry. There are still plenty of reasons for regular massages, and benefits to even the occasional massage. Each massage is a great way to reduce stress and pamper yourself, sure, but there are major health perks as well. With massage, you can:

  • Reduce stress hormones like cortisol

  • Improve joint function and reduce pain for those with osteoarthritis

  • Lessen muscle soreness after a hard workout

  • Speed healing of overworked, sore muscles

  • Reduce inflammation and helping the muscles’ repair process

  • Lessen fibromyalgia-related pain

  • Help with anxiety and insomnia

  • Lessen the effects of temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ)

Massage has countless health benefits, but flushing toxins isn’t one of them. If you’re looking to remove pollutants and poisons from your life, there’s no quick fix: you have to do so with conscious lifestyle changes. Once you let go of the “myth of toxins,” though, you can let go. Enjoy your massage and relish in the many other benefits you’re receiving from your time on the table.