The idea that massage can somehow flush out toxins from the body has been around for a long time but what does that really mean? What toxins are supposedly being flushed out of the body? What are the mechanisms responsible for this detoxification? Is your massage therapist assisting in this process and how? Let’s look at the possible answers.

What is a toxin?

A toxin is defined as a substance created by a plant or animal that is poisonous to humans. Firstly, it’s important to note that our bodies don’t produce toxins. We don’t create venom likes snakes do, for example. Any toxin that may get into our bodies would come from an outside source.

Luckily for us, our bodies are actually very good at getting rid of toxins without any external help. Your lungs, for example, have tiny fibres called cilia that trap any harmful substances you inhale and exhale them with carbon dioxide. Your kidneys and liver both filter your blood and eliminate any potential toxins through your digestive tract and urine. Any substance that has the potential to be toxic has adequate avenues for elimination and it’s only when normal homeostatic processes break down that they can accumulate.

What about lactic acid? Doesn’t it build up in muscles as we exercise, like a toxin?

1922 study is responsible for sparking the theory that lactic acid is responsible for muscle soreness but current evidence doesn’t support it. The body does not produce lactic acid, but lactate. It is a by-product of cellular metabolism and is released into the bloodstream during intense exercise when oxygen intake isn’t keeping up with muscle energy demand. Lactate is not a toxin and is actually a help rather than hindrance to muscle performance.

Ok then. Lactate isn’t a toxin but it can build in the muscles so it’s a waste product that needs to be cleared out, right? Doesn’t massage help with that? 

No, to both questions.

As stated above, lactate is produced in response to a lack of adequate oxygen during exercise. It actually fuels muscles when exertion is extreme. It is not a waste product.

Lactate levels drop within 15-20 minutes and clear completely within an hour as exercise intensity is reduced and oxygen/hydration increases. So, by the time a massage therapist comes along these processes are long done and a massage is unlikely to improve recovery. Even if a massage occured before lactate had cleared, it’s unlikely that the manipulation of muscle tissue would have any effect on how the body deals with it since massage doesn’t really affect circulation.

Additionally, it has also been theorized that a deep massage may produce minor muscle injury akin to vigorous exercise. As a mild form of rhabdomyolysis , it may also play a role in the post-massage malaise often experienced after an intense massage. This suggests that deep massage has the potential to impair muscle recovery rather than promote it.

So, I think it’s safe to say that the pervasive belief that it’s possible to squeeze substances like lactate out of your muscles through massage is not based on any evidence and is a myth we need to let go.

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