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Massage Therapy & Aromatherapy for Insomnia


What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that effects up to thirty percent of adults in America. Chronic insomnia (most nights for longer than six months) effects as many as ten percent of Americans. Insomnia is a difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. In my massage therapy practice in Longmont, CO I frequently see patients list insomnia as one of the contributing stressors bringing them to my table.  Without the benefits that continuous sleep provides to our biology a multitude of healthcare problems can result. Methods of treatment for insomnia can include prescription drugs, Psychological Services, Massage Therapy, Aromatherapy, Deep Breathing, Meditation, Yoga and Chi Gong. For the purposes of this article we will be exploring two of the therapies considered to be complementary/alternative medical choices: Massage and Aromatherapy.

Before we dive into treatments, lets explore a little more of the neurochemistry of sleep. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a mood, behavior, body temperature, physical coordination, appetite and sleep modulator. Derived from the amino acid tryptophan (yes, think turkey at Thanksgiving), serotonin can also be converted by the brain into melatonin. If you find yourself craving foods high in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, you may be serotonin deficient. In general, high-carbohydrate foods like potatoes and grains have tryptophan, as do most cheeses and meats. Serotonin is a precursor to the body’s rendering of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone released by the brain’s pineal gland to quiet and reset the part of the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus) that directs circadian cycles to prepare for sleep. What are other ways to boost serotonin to support the release of melatonin? Regular exercise, the more cardio inspired the better.

Circadian rhythm is another phrase you’ll hear in regards to biologically appropriate sleep. According to Charles Czeisler, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, circadian cycles are internal periodic rhythms that profoundly affect sleep and wakefulness.  “One of the causal mechanisms leading to insufficient sleep is altered exposure to the natural light-dark cycle. This includes the wide availability of electric light, attenuated exposure to daylight within buildings, and evening use of light-emitting devices, all of which decrease the strength of natural light-dark signals that entrain circadian systems.” (1)


How Can Massage Therapy Help Insomnia?

The chemistry of sleep is pertinent to massage therapy because massage can directly influence the body’s production of serotonin. Lowering stress hormones plays a major role on the road to a healthy mind body connection that includes restful sleep. Less cortisol released in your body means a more peaceful and balanced life. Massage therapy has been shown to reduce these havoc inducing hormones.

A study on back pain, conducted in January 2000 by the Touch Research Institute in conjunction with the University of Miami School of Medicine and Iris Burman of Miami’s Educating Hands School of Massage demonstrated that in addition to a decrease in long-term pain, subjects receiving massage experienced improved sleep and an increase in serotonin levels.(2)

This massage study employed twice-weekly, 30 minute massages for five weeks. Starting in the prone position, the following techniques were used:

  • Kneading and pressing the back muscles
  • Kneading and pressing the thighs
  • Stroking both sides of the spine and hips
  • Gliding strokes to the legs

In the supine position, participants received:

  • Gentle pulling on both legs
  • Gliding strokes to the neck and abdomen
  • Kneading of the anterior thighs
  • Kneading of the rectus and oblique muscles that help bend the trunk of the body forward
  • Stroking of the legs
  • Flexing of the thighs and knee

In Traditional Chinese medicine treatment of the heart and spleen meridians with moxibustion and acupuncture has been shown to give marked therapeutic effects for treatment of insomnia. (3) A well trained massage therapist can also positively influence these meridians with acupressure or shiatsu.   

Massage is an natural and substance free choice to help the multitude of people that suffer from insomnia. Because serotonin plays a role in brain function regarding sleep, it is practical to integrate various means for increasing serotonin and thus melatonin production. Research on the connection between serotonin and sleeplessness continues to unfold in the laboratories of our most dedicated sleep schools. In the meantime, the existing evidence is certainly enough to recommend regular massages for sleepless clients.


The Effects of Aromatherapy on Insomnia

Whether you are a regular essential oil user or just happen to have a bottle of Lavender gifted to you by an enthusiastic friend, you may have already been introduced to the increasingly popular field of Aromatherapy. I personally love to utilize favorites for my sleep health, which may include anything from plain Lavender to blends utilizing Cedarwood, Lavender, Ho Wood, Ylang Ylang, Marjoram, Roman Camomile, Vetiver, Vanilla and Hawaiian Sandlewood (check out this Serenity® blend here- secret… a dietary supplement version is being released this fall!).

  • Lavender- Lavender is widely used and accepted for its calming and relaxing qualities.*
  • Cedarwood- Known for promoting clear, healthy looking skin, Cedarwood has a warm, woody, balsamic fragrance that promotes relaxation.*
  • Ho Wood- Emotionally, given its linalol content, Ho Wood Oil is a “peaceful” oil. It is calming and is a good choice when needing to relax or unwind.*
  • Ylang Ylang- Considered an effective antidepressant, antiseptic, antispasmodic and sedative. It has a positive effect on immune health, blood flow and emotions, making it a natural remedy for the endocrine, cardiovascular, reproductive and digestive systems.*
  • Marjoram- Valued for its calming properties, Marjoram may be added to a soothing massage blend for targeting tired, stressed muscles.*
  • Roman Chamomile- The most versatile of the chamomiles, Roman Chamomile is extracted from the small, white, daisy-like flower of the roman chamomile plant. Used widely for its calming properties, Roman Chamomile is especially soothing to the systems of the body.*
  • Vetiver-  Loved for its rich, exotic, and complex aroma. Used extensively in perfumes as a base note and fixative, Vetiver’s woody, earthy scent complements many other essential oils. Vetiver also has many beneficial uses and can be used for relaxation.*
  • Hawaiian Sandelwood- From a renewable source in Hawaii, (specific to the brand I use) dōTERRA’s amazing Sandalwood oil delivers a variety of benefits including smoothing skin and enhancing moods.

A 2015 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Health Journal revealed that the use of aromatherapy was effective in improving sleep quality and readily available aromatherapy treatments appear to be effective and promote sleep. (4) With all of the scientific research continuing to being implemented by top research facilities in both the United States and Europe I look forward to the implementation of Aromatherapy to become more and more mainstream as a resource for sleep and stress disorders.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Sleep Environment Adjustments for Insomniacs

Sleep environment may not be something we are used to considering. However, I can tell you from recent personal experience that bringing awareness to things such as comfortable pillows, mattress and sheets can bring about an improved sleep experience. At a convention recently attended I heard it referred to as sleep hygiene. Too many books stacked next to your bed? Guilty. Light-emitting devices utilized in bed prior to sleep? Um, again…maybe. Soft lights to align with circadian rhythms and nice music along with relaxing scents, deep conscious breathing and little to no social media stimulation have all greatly enhanced my pre sleep, and thus my restful deep sleep experience. You never know where dreamland will take you, so why not prepare for the adventure with style and consciousness!


  1. Curr Biol. 2016 Apr 4;26(7):R271-2. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.071.
  2. “Research: Massage Eases Lower Back Pain, Increases Range of Motion,” Massage Magazine, January/February 2002.
  3. J Tradit Chin Med. 2008 Mar;28(1):10-2
  4. J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Feb;21(2):61-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2014.0113. Epub 2015 Jan 13.