with Dr. Kathleen Regan, ND

Why might a naturopathic doctor recommend massage therapy? Most people think of massage for musculoskeletal pain or stress as it has long been known that massage can lower perceived stress, blood pressure and cortisol while regulating vagal tone. But did you know that massage has a hug impact on the immune system? From pre-term infants to immune-compromised adults, research shows that a weekly massage helps to enhance immune function via natural killer cells and lymphocytes.

If your immune system is strained from acute or chronic illness, immune compromise or autoimmunity don’t be surprised to receive a recommendation for weekly massage for 5-8 weeks. This may be beneficial for:

  • General immune boosting
  • Chronic cough, cold or flu
  • Chronic bacterial, viral or fungal infections
  • Mono
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Cancer
  • HIV
  • Pre-term infants or immune-compromised children

Curious to learn more? Below are a few examples of studies aimed at investigating the immune-modulating effects of massage therapy.

  • Pre-term Infants: A randomized placebo-controlled trial was conducted among stable premature infants. Study intervention was provided 5 days per week until hospital discharge for a maximum of 4 weeks. Immunologic evaluations (absolute NK cells, T and B cells, T cell subsets, and NK cytotoxicity), weight, number of infections, and length of hospital stay were also evaluated. In this study, MT administered to stable preterm infants was associated with higher NK cytotoxicity and more daily weight gain. MT may improve the overall outcome of these infants.
  • Breast Cancer: Women diagnosed with breast cancer received massage therapy or practiced progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) for 30-min sessions 3 times a week for 5 weeks or received standard treatment. The massage therapy and relaxation groups reported less depressed mood, anxiety, and pain immediately after their first and last sessions. By the end of the study, however, only the massage therapy group reported being less depressed and less angry and having more vigor. Dopamine levels, Natural Killer cells, and lymphocytes also increased from the first to the last day of the study for the massage therapy group.
  • Colorectal Cancer: Sixty-six patients with colorectal cancer were enrolled in a randomized-controlled trial. The intervention consisted of three massage sessions with ginger and coconut oil over a 1-week period. Changes from pre-assessment to the end of treatment were measured in terms of white blood cells, neutrophils, lymphocytes, CD4 and CD8 cells and the CD4/CD8 ratio and also the severity of self-rated symptom scores. Aromatherapy with light Thai massage was found to be beneficial for the immune systems of cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy by increasing the number of lymphocytes and reducing the severity of common symptoms.
  • General Immune Function: Immunological studies were performed on 10 healthy volunteers (average age: 24 years). Subjects were asked to lie on a massage device for 20 minutes, twice a week, for a total of 8 weeks. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated and were evaluated for immunophenotypic characteristics as well as for the functional parameters of T-lymphocytes (T cells) and natural killer (NK) cells. The authors concluded that even mechanical massage twice a week may modulate immune function and may be beneficial in subjects with impaired immune function, such as aging individuals and HIV patients.



Ang JY, Lua JL, Mathur A, Thomas R, Asmar BI, Savasan S, Buck S, Long M, Shankaran S. A randomized placebo-controlled trial of massage therapy on the immune system of preterm infants. Pediatrics. 2012 Dec;130(6):e1549-58.

Field T. Massage therapy research review. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2014 Nov;20(4):224-9.

Field T, Diego M, Hernandez-Reif M. Moderate pressure is essential for massage therapy effects. Int J Neurosci. 2010 May;120(5):381-5.

Hernandez-Reif M, Field T, Ironson G, Beutler J, Vera Y, Hurley J, Fletcher MA, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, Fraser M. Natural killer cells and lymphocytes increasein women with breast cancer following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci. 2005 Apr;115(4):495-510.

Keeratitanont K, Jensen MP, Chatchawan U, Auvichayapat P. The efficacy of traditional Thai massage for the treatment of chronic pain: A systematic review.

Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2015 Feb;21(1):26-32.

Khiewkhern S, Promthet S, Sukprasert A, Eunhpinitpong W, Bradshaw P. Effectiveness of aromatherapy with light thai massage for cellular immunity

improvement in colorectal cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2013;14(6):3903-7.

So C, Sarath J, Giollo S. The Effect of Thermal Massage on T-Lymphocytes and Natural Killer Cell Function. The Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine. https://ispub.com/IJAM/6/1/3818

Wang AT, Sundt TM 3rd, Cutshall SM, Bauer BA. Massage therapy after cardiac surgery. Semin Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2010 Autumn;22(3):225-9.