Mind & Spirit

The Science of Self-Care

The Science of Self-Care

Photography: iStockPhoto

Mind & Spirit

The Science of Self-Care

You might think of bath bombs and facial massages as fun frills, but there's actually much more behind many popular self-care rituals—and plenty of science to back it up.

So you slathered on a face mask and posted a #SelfcareSunday selfie on your social media channels. But how well are you really taking care of yourself these days? If you’re like most women, between your job responsibilities, the demands of a busy family and a physically distanced social life, you may not be spending much time on you. We get it: It’s easy to put off an at-home manicure when you’ve got deadlines to meet, groceries to get and bills to pay.

“But there needs to be a little bit of time for you—somehow, someway,” says Erica Arcuri, a naturopathic doctor and founder of Well BYND wellness clinic in Toronto. “The term self-care has been really hyped, but at the end of the day, what it comes down to is giving yourself attention,” she says. “It means recognizing that you’re burnt out or you’ve been neglecting yourself, and then doing something with intention that will nourish the aspects that seem to be lacking.”

Did you know that some of the buzziest self-care rituals are much more than just nods to wellness? Many of these practices are rooted in science and ancient healing techniques. They really can help you to de-stress, soothe muscle aches and even sleep better. Read on for six science-backed self-care rituals, and how to make the most of these practices at home.


1. Gua Sha

It's been called the original at-home self-care practice for good reason. Gua Sha, the ancient technique that involves gliding or scraping along the skin with a stone to reduce inflammation and stimulate circulation, dates back to the Paleolithic Age, and has roots in traditional Chinese medicine.

Skin scraping, whether it’s done on the face or the body, stimulates the lymphatic system. “Lymph is a fluid that carries white blood cells that are essential for immune function,” says Arcuri. The lymphatic system works to help rid the body of cellular waste and protect against infection, but unlike the heart, which pumps the circulatory system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a force moving it along at a steady clip, she says. Regular movement, like going for a walk or periodically getting up from your desk to stretch, is important for stimulating lymphatic flow. (There are some 600 lymph nodes throughout the body, including under the arms, behind the knees and in the pelvic area).

We can’t move the muscles in our cheeks, forehead and jawline in the same way that we do in the rest of our body, which is why Gua Sha is helpful for lymphatic drainage in the face—and why fans notice reduced puffiness and a more toned appearance. If you’re doing it at home, apply a facial oil first, then glide a Gua Sha stone over the contours of your face using soft even pressure, working out and up from the middle of your face.


2. Cupping Therapy 

"Cupping is one of my favourite treatments to perform on people because 10 out of 10 times, they come out feeling amazing,” says Arcuri. Here’s how it works: In this ancient form of alternative medicine, a practitioner will use glass cups and a flame, or, more often these days, plastic cups with a pump, to create suction to draw the skin up into the cup. “Essentially it’s doing the reverse of massage—instead of being pushed down, the muscle is being pulled up, which allows fresh blood flow and circulation to flood the area,” says Arcuri. A 2015 review published in the journal Plos One confirmed cupping as a promising treatment for neck and back pain. “It’s great for releasing muscle tension and moving stagnant blood in the area,” says Arcuri.


3. Journaling

Whether you’ve kept a diary since you were a teenager, or you only write lists for the grocery store, you know there’s something helpful about jotting ideas down on paper. Journaling has a few obvious benefits, like boosting mindfulness, facilitating communication skills and helping us sort out our thoughts and feelings. But numerous studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to less anxiety, better sleep—and even a stronger immune system. According to James Pennebaker, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, regular journaling actually strengthens immune cells, protecting us from illness.


4. Meditation & Deep Breathing 

If you haven’t tried meditation yet, you really need to get on board with this self­care prac­ tice that’s proven to have countless benefits for our physical and mental health. Research from the University of Pittsburgh has shown that regular meditation not only helps us relax, but actually shrinks the size of the amygdala (the brain’s stress zone), too. And, according to research published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, learning mindful meditation significantly improves a person’s quality and duration of sleep. (More z’s? Yes, please!)

“When we spend time tuning into our para­ sympathetic nervous system, everything else works better,” says MacKenzie Miller, an inter­ nationally recognized yoga instructor based in Red Deer, Alta. “You have less inflammation, less stress, a lower heart rate and increased production of serotonin.”

Best of all, it’s not as complicated as you think. All it takes is five minutes a day where you sit quietly (and this could be in bed, at your desk, or even in your parked car), close your eyes and observe or count your breaths, says Miller. Truly, that alone will be enough to help you feel more calm and centred. “What I love most about these simple, beautiful practices is that they are accessible to everyone,” says Miller.


5. Epsom Salt Baths

Whether you’ve logged too many hours sitting at your WFH desk, pulled a muscle during a jog or felt the pains of your arthritis acting up, it’s important to take care of your aches and pains. One way to do that is in a long hot bath loaded with Epsom salt. (It isn’t actually salt, by the way, but magnesium sulphate. It’s named Epsom salt after the English town where it was discovered in natural springs back in the 17th century). Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant, which is why it helps with sore spots, but the routine itself might be what feels so good, says Arcuri: “It’s the ritual of creating the bath, getting in and having 15 minutes to yourself to just turn off.”


6. Nature Walks

In Japan, a walk in the woods is a recognized form of preventive health care known as shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. There’s plenty of research to show that a light walk of less than an hour among the trees can lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, reduce blood pressure, decrease anxiety and more. One study from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo has even shown that trees release antimicro­bial compounds called phytoncides that offer therapeutic benefits similar to aromatherapy. All you have to do is take in the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors while moving your body.

No forest? No problem. If you live in an urban area, just head for a quiet tree­lined street, or walk to your nearest green space. A socially distanced stroll in a nearby park can also lift your mood and bolster your overall health. “It’s really grounding, especially dur­ ing these stressful times,” says Miller. “I always feel better when I go outside and take a few breaths.”


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Mind & Spirit

The Science of Self-Care