A post-workout massage is doing more than just moving lactic acid out of your body and relaxing tight muscles. The massage therapist may also be rubbing out anxiety and depression. The relaxing qualities of massage are being shown to help elevate moods and a person’s sense of well being.

A review by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage lowered the body's level of cortisol by as much as 53 percent. Cortisol is a stress hormone found at higher than normal levels in people suffering from depression. Massage can also increase the "feel-good" hormones—serotonin and dopamine.

A review of medical literature about the mental health effects of massage, appearing in the March 2010 online issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, concluded that there is "good evidence to suggest that massage therapy is an effective treatment of depression." Depression is a major public health problem and people too often are not successfully treated, if at all, Dr. Wen-Hsuan Hou of I-Shou University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and colleagues note in this report.

The research team searched for randomized, controlled trials of massage therapy in depressed patients. They identified 17 studies looking at 786 people in all. In 13 of the trials, massage therapy was compared to another active treatment such as Chinese herbs, relaxation exercises or rest. Four studies compared massage to a "no treatment" control group. Investigators also used a range of methods for evaluating mood and depression in study participants.

Dr. Hou's report noted that, overall, the studies showed that massage therapy had "potentially significant effects" in alleviating symptoms of depression. The researchers proposed a number of ways through which massage might be helping people with depression, such as by reducing stress and inducing relaxation; building an alliance between the massage therapist and subject; and by causing the body to release the "trust hormone" oxytocin.

Massage to treat depression remains controversial in the medical community, partly because there is not a large body of scientific research to support the theory. That may soon change. The National Institute of Health has funded a number of on-going research projects that are looking into topics such as massage to treat anxiety disorder, massage to alleviate depression in patients with advanced AIDS, and massage to promote recovery in women who were victims of sexual abuse as children.

For more information visit the National Institutes of Health and the Touch Research Institute.