Embrace Self-Care

A Naturopath’s Healthy Advice for MTs

By Kathy Gruver

With 20 years of experience in the healing profession, one thing I’ve learned is that massage therapists tend to take better care of clients than they do of themselves. For MTs, physical therapists, reiki practitioners, nurses, you name it—burnout is common among caregivers. Whether it’s “practice what you preach” or “physician heal thyself,” it’s imperative that caregivers adopt a self-care philosophy. Ultimately, we can’t be of service to others unless we put ourselves at the top of our client list.


Nutrition is the perfect place to start when it comes to self-care for therapists. Not only do you need to properly fuel yourself for the massage sessions scheduled in your day, but you also should give thoughtful consideration to what exactly that fuel is.

Let’s start with some basics. There are a few things that I recommend cutting out of the diet completely. Soda is one. Diet or regular soda has no health benefits or nutritional value and may actually cause health problems. High fructose corn syrup consumption has strong correlations to the obesity epidemic and artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas may cause problems such as headaches, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, and brain tumors. Studies show that artificial sweeteners may shut down leptin production in the brain, which is the chemical that tells us when we’re full.1 Soda is also high in phosphorus, which can leech calcium and other needed nutrients from our bodies. Stick to water, teas, and natural juices.

When it comes to artificial sweeteners, I strongly recommend eliminating them from all aspects of your life. There are many natural options for sweetening your beverages, like stevia, luo han guo, xylitol, and even just plain sugar. I don’t believe sugar is as bad as it’s been made out to be. In excess, it’s an issue as with certain preexisting conditions like diabetes, but I still feel it’s healthier than the man-made chemicals we’ve been ingesting.

I also recommend avoiding artificial colorings and preservatives. Many people are sensitive to these compounds and they may be contributing to asthma and other inflammatory diseases.2 I found that having a handful of M&Ms would cause me to have an asthma attack a few hours later. It took me days to see the connection. And, with a little experimenting, I discovered that only two of the colors caused a problem. If I need a fix, I only eat the brown ones, as they seem to be less problematic for me. Your experience may be different than mine though. Sometimes we have to be detectives to figure out what might be causing our issues. It’s easy when we can hold things in our hands and investigate, but some things are hidden from us, making it harder to avoid these culprits.

Monosodium Glutamate A good example of such a culprit is monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is pervasive in our food, yet the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require it to be included on product labels unless found in high quantities. MSG acts as an excitotoxin, or stimulant, on the brain and can cause numerous physical and neurological symptoms. Many people are sensitive to MSG and it’s frustrating that their diet has to be a trial and error to see what foods may contain this ingredient. MSG is a flavor enhancer that was commonly found in Chinese food, but it’s also prevalent in many of the packaged foods we consume today. 

Genetically Modified Foods

Another thing getting tougher to avoid in our foods are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Only a few crops are approved for modification, which is good news. The bad news, however, is that those crops are in the majority of our packaged and processed foods, and they do not have to be labeled as having been genetically altered. By law, organic foods cannot have genetically modified components in them. Corn, soy, and cotton are the big three when it comes to GMOs. Do you eat anything with high fructose corn syrup, soy protein, or soybean oil in it? It’s probably genetically modified. How about anything with cottonseed oil? Again, probably genetically modified. I believe GMOs are ruining our food supply and are causing a number of health issues we haven’t even connected them to yet.

Vitamins and Supplements

We’ve talked about what to get rid of, now let’s add some beneficial things back in. I believe we should all be taking a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, especially in times of stress, illness, or for people who are vegetarian or vegan. Our food is just not supplying us with the needed nutrients, so I recommend that everyone supplement their diet. Make sure you’re getting a good variety of minerals and not just taking calcium, as I know so many women do. I also recommend fish oil or flax seed oil, an amino acid supplement, and any individual nutrients you might need, like extra vitamin B or magnesium. If you’re having issues like mood problems, sleep disturbances, headaches, or muscle and menstrual cramps, you might want to add magnesium, as it is useful for all those issues. Be sure to follow any recommended dosages on the label.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Sleep disturbance is another issue I see a lot of people facing these days. Sleep is critically important to maintaining good health. It’s during sleep that our bodies regenerate and heal, our minds rest and wander, and our subconscious gets to play during dreams. Many ponder how much sleep we really need, and there remains debate on the issue. We must remember that we are biological individuals and the most important thing is the quality of our sleep and that we sleep when we are tired.

If you are having trouble sleeping, there are solutions other than prescription drugs. Sleeplessness is not an Ambien deficiency. Following are some tips to help you get the regenerative rest you need.

Limit your caffeine intake and don’t use stimulants to force yourself to stay awake, especially at night. We have a delicate system of biorhythms and when we start to force ourselves to stay awake later than we should, it messes with our cycle and problems will arise. Things like Red Bull and RockStar are only going to act as a temporary fix. You’ll eventually crash from drinks like this, and they can also be highly addictive. Also avoid sugary snacks and the office candy dish to fix your afternoon energy slump. If you need a boost during the day, try a walk, deep breathing, drinking water, or having a healthy snack like nuts. Often when we hit that afternoon slump, we are dehydrated and just need more water … or air. Both these things transport oxygen in our system, which is needed for energy.

So you cut out caffeine and still can’t sleep. What now? Well, let’s go back to nutrition. Adding things like B vitamins, magnesium, tryptophan, and melatonin may help. Make sure you don’t take B vitamins too late in the day, as they can cause disrupted sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is essential for us (meaning we can’t make it ourselves) and is one of the hardest to get, especially for vegetarians. Tryptophan is the precursor to 5-HTP, which then converts to serotonin, the feel-good hormone in the brain that helps with mood and sleep. Melatonin is another naturally occurring substance that can be taken as a supplement to help with sleep. Make sure you don’t try tryptophan or melatonin if you are taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), which are drugs like Prozac. Also, follow any dosing instructions on the label.

If you’re still having trouble getting a good night’s rest, consider your sleep environment. Make sure the room is dark and quiet. Use a white noise machine or earplugs if the space around you tends to be noisy. Avoid strenuous exercise or a loud, scary movie before bed and focus on more sedative activities. Do things to relax and unwind from your day like reading (nothing work-related, though), pet your dog or cat, or soak in a hot tub. It’s time to leave the day behind and rest. Also avoid excess alcohol at night; it is a sedative, but it may disrupt sleep and cause dehydration.

Our minds seem to be our biggest obstacle to going to sleep. Often when we lay in bed, with the dark and quiet, it gives our mind free reign to run rampant. We dwell on our day, worry about tomorrow, wonder if what we did was wrong, question our choices for the future, or simply lie there and do work in our heads. We ponder our to-do list or try to solve that one last problem. We have to find a way to shut off that thinker and relax. However, this is the toughest barrier to sleep because the mind can be like an unruly child. What’s the solution? As I see, there are two options: shut up and sleep, or get up and work. I don’t think it’s bad to get out of bed and deal with things. To lie for hours thinking about something is pointless; get up and finish the paper, write stuff down, make a list for tomorrow, or check to see if you actually made the deposit in the bank. These things are just going to drive you nuts if you don’t do them, so go do them and then return to bed. If it’s not the worries of the day keeping you awake, just get up and distract yourself, read your book until you’re tired, do a Sudoku—anything to take your mind off the work.

Finally, train your brain to help you fall asleep at night. We can only think one thing at a time. So, if you are thinking about something negative or work-related, change the thought to something else. This is what counting sheep is all about; it distracts the mind from repetitive thoughts. I like to use affirmations for this. If I find something is bothering me, I’ll change the thought to “I fall asleep quickly and easily” or “I awake feeling refreshed.” This not only distracts you from the problem thoughts, but also programs the body. Remember the importance of the mind-body connection and the fact that you are the boss of them both.

Prevent Burnout

We’ve eliminated things that are bad, added in some things that are good, and improved our sleep. What’s next? Let’s talk about the health of our business and how it relates to us. I’ve been doing massage a long time and I’ve seen my colleagues burn out, get injured, and just plain get sick of this profession. I’ve learned some things over the years that may help you have a long and healthy career.

First off, make sure you schedule time for you. It’s really easy to fill every open spot in your appointment book with clients, paperwork, and emails. Leave some room in that schedule to get some bodywork yourself, take a walk, or have lunch with a friend. You have to schedule yourself into your day, just the way you do with every other client. Between clients, make sure you have enough time to handle the things you need to accomplish. Is 15 minutes enough to change the table, check your phone, stretch, go to the bathroom, return client calls, and breathe? Maybe it should be 30 minutes. Try to schedule yourself so you get the time you need.

Next, don’t be a martyr. It’s really easy to feel like you are the only one who can save everybody and many times our clients treat us this way. We have to remember, though, that the client actually does the healing; we are just facilitators. Make sure you don’t let your ego get too involved in what you do. It’s very exciting to say you did 10 massages today. People are impressed with that number, but you’re going to have quicker burnout if you try to keep up that schedule. Sometimes it’s scary to turn down clients and we wonder if we’ll ever get them back. Be confident in your abilities and know that the work will be there when you need it. If you’re working for someone else and they are forcing you to do more massages than you’re comfortable with, ask them to ease up the schedule, go to part time, or consider a job change. It might seem scary now, but in the long run it will be better for you and you’ll extend your career.

How do you tell if you’re getting burned out? If you look at the clock the second you show up for work, you aren’t as focused on clients, you rush them out after the session, you’re getting cranky, or you skimp on time, it might be time for a break. Sometimes we can just cut back on the scheduling and that solves the problem. Oftentimes, we need to refocus on what our purpose is, which for many of us is to help people and find joy in that. If we get away from our purpose and find we’re just churning people through to make a quick buck, we’ll start to feel unease with our lives. Reevaluate what you want and make the necessary changes.

Mind Over Matter

Lastly, let’s talk more about our minds. We can take all the supplements in the world, meditate daily, have a low body mass index (BMI), and sleep like a baby, but if our minds and thoughts are negative, we are still not truly healthy. Studies estimate that we have 60,000 thoughts per day and that approximately 50,000 are negative. That’s just over 80 percent negative thoughts, and, to me, 80 percent negative results. It’s no wonder so many people are struggling to be successful, happy, and healthy. I see clients come to my office with the same ailment or disease over and over again. We’ve all met them. And I’ve observed the connection between their thoughts and their bodies. Remember, however, that this doesn’t just affect the folks on our tables. What is eating at us? Who is the pain in our neck? Are our hands full? These are the types of phrases we’ve agreed on in this society, and I see a connection between those words and our injuries and illnesses.

If we can get to the root of what our bodies are telling us about our minds, we can improve our health. Observe the phrases you use to describe your situations and pain; it gives a hint as to what thought pattern can be changed for greater healing. Changing our mind is hard. We’ve been programmed for years to think the way we do. But if we can change our minds, then we can change our bodies. And when we are healthy, we can lead by example for those around us.

Our clients come to us looking for healing. They expect us to help them through their physical (and often emotional) ailments. If we have done the work on ourselves first, then we are better equipped to help our clients feel better, too. The healthier we can be, the healthier our practice can be, and that’s a win-win for everyone.

 Kathy Gruver is a massage therapist, naturopath, and author of The Alternative Medicine Cabinet: Hundreds of Ways to Take Charge of Your Health Naturally (Infinity, 2010). For more information, visit www.thealternativemedicinecabinet.com.


1. Sharon P. Fowler et al. “Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-term Weight Gain,” Obesity 16, no. 8 (2008): 1894-1900.

2. Duygu Ozol, “Asthma and Food Allergy,” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine 14, no. 1 (2008): 9-12.