S.A.D.? Regular Massage Therapy Can Help to Regulate the Effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Any time during the year is great time to receive a massage treatment. Honestly I can’t think of a better way to relax, or have unwanted stress, tension or pain just melt away from the body. Aside from stress and muscle tension relief though, many people do not realize the additional benefits that come with receiving  massage therapy treatments. These can be especially important during the long cold winter months.

When the temperature drops and light is limited, many people suffer from SAD (seasonal defective disorder) A lesser form of SAD is know as “the winter blues” which impacts a larger portion of the population.

In the morning most of us head out the door to work in the dark only for us to return home also in the dark. The lack of sunlight takes a toll on our emotional and psychological well being. Receiving a massage can feel like a mini holiday. It lowers your stress and helps you relax . It takes you out of your everyday routine and for a while it makes you forget about the cold winter weather. (1)

Massage also has physiologic implications on mood by increasing your serotonin and dopamine production. These chemicals contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness and may help reduce SAD or the winter blues. (2)

In order to understand how massage can help with SAD we need to look at the neurotransmitters that control our mood. The University of British Columbia Mood Disorders Clinic has done significant work on seasonal affective disorder and has identified the role of both serotonin and dopamine in SAD presentations. (3)

Let’s look at the two “happy chemicals”.


Serotonin is a chemical that occurs widely throughout the body and has a variety of functions.

It can have both direct and indirect impacts on your mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire, social behaviour and temperature regulation. In the brain serotonin affects levels of anxiety and mood.

Sunlight is thought to increase the brains serotonin production. Lack of sunlight equals less serotonin production, which has an effect on your mood. (3, 4)


Dopamine is a chemical that helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. This chemical enables us to see rewards and to take action to move towards them. Dopamine contributes to the feelings of pleasures and satisfaction as part of the of the reward system in the brain.

Sunlight is thought to boost dopamine levels and improve your mood and consequently a lack of sunlight equals less dopamine which has an effect of your mood.

You can see how the decrease of these two chemicals effect your body and mind in so many ways including mood, motivation and participation in the everyday activities of daily living. Serotonin helps your mood and Dopamine helps with productivity and focus. (3, 4)

So how does massage play a role in all of this?

When your mind and body are effected by SAD it adds stress to your body. The main stress hormone is cortisol.

Research done on the positive effects of massage therapy through biochemistry demonstrate decreased levels of cortisol (stress) and increased levels of serotonin and dopamine (feeling of well-being). In studies of stress reduction (through massage), cortisol was tested and it was determined that there was a significant decrease of the hormone (averaging decrease of 31%).

In a study by Field et al., 2005, an elevation of serotonin and dopamine was found in response to massage. There was an average increase of serotonin by 28% and an increase of dopamine by 31%. These studies suggest that the stress alleviating effects (decreased cortisol) and the activating effects (increased serotonin and dopamine) of massage therapy is beneficial on a variety of conditions and stressful experiences. (2)

In conclusion, in times of decreased sunlight during winter months we do not get enough serotonin and dopamine production. Massage helps the body to relax and unwind therefore decreasing stress and allowing your body to increase its serotonin and dopamine production. Therefor feelings of well-being are increased and hopefully it helps lesson the effects of SAD or the winter blues.

Adding massage therapy treatments to your personal health and well-being routine may be extremely beneficial on many levels. During these dark and cold winter months receiving 2 or 3 monthly massages may really be beneficial for you. It can range from 30, 45, or 60 minute treatments. This can be discussed with your therapist and together you can create a treatment plan that works for you and your needs.

Who knows, it may just make the winter season go by faster.


Heather Heaney, RMT

Heather graduated from Sutherland -Chan School of Massage Therapy in 2005 and has established a strong practice in the Junction over several years. As an experience registered massage therapist, she specializes in Deep Tissue, traditional Swedish massage, Therapeutic massage, Pregnancy massage and Breast massage techniques in her practice. Most recently Heather has taken specialized courses in therapeutic cupping, taping and abdominal massage.

Heather is passionate about women’s health issues and works with her clients to create effective and specialized treatment plans.


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  1. https://www.livingtouchmassage.com/blog/five-reasons-to-get-a-winter-massage
  2. Field, T, Hernandez-Reif, M, Diego, M, Shanberg, S & Kuhn, C. Cortisol Decreases And Serotonin And Dopamine Increase Following Massage Therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience (2005) 115 (10): 1397-1413.
  3. https://sad.psychiatry.ubc.ca/frequently-asked-questions-about-sad-and-light-therapy/
  4. http://blog.neurogistics.com/index.php/sad/

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