Can massaging your big toe make your brain work better? Practitioners of foot reflexology, a kind of foot massage based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, would say yes. According to the tenets of reflexology, the foot contains reflex points that correspond to every part, gland and organ of the body. In effect, reflexologists find an image of the body mapped onto the foot and believe manipulating the part of the foot that corresponds to a part of the body, such as the brain, will improve the flow of energy to that body part, bringing it into balance and promoting its healthy functioning.
History of Foot Massage as a Healing Art
The Chinese have been practicing the art of therapeutic foot massage for as long as 5,000 years. The oldest known medical textbook, written in China 4,000 years ago, describes the pressure point concepts that form the basis of both acupuncture and reflexology. Foot manipulation also appears to have been a medical treatment in ancient Egypt, as evidenced by a wall painting depicting the practice that was found alongside other wall paintings of medical procedures in the tomb of a high-ranking Egyptian official dating from about 2330 B.C.
Theory of Foot Massage in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine is that a life force called Qi flows through the body along paths called meridians, which function as communication channels within the body, connecting the body's organs and relaying information between them. The life force Qi, which flows along the meridians, is made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which balance each other to keep the body vital and whole. The theory holds that some of the body's organs are yin-yang pairs that must be in balance with each other to be healthy. If a person's yin and yang fall out of balance, the movement of Qi along the meridians can be blocked, causing pain, illness, or other kinds of dysfunction. According to traditional Chinese medicine, a practitioner can unblock Qi and restore balance to the body by manipulating places on the skin where the meridians surface, called acupoints. The feet offer a dense network of such acupoints, or reflex points, that allow a foot reflexologist to unblock the life force flowing to every part of the body, including the brain, by massaging the corresponding reflex point.
Research on Foot Reflexology in Western Medicine
Very little high-quality scientific research on the effectiveness of foot reflexology has been done. Western doctors tend to be skeptical about the existence of Qi and meridians because these are speculative entities that cannot be observed or measured. Scientists are, however, actively investigating the related practice of acupuncture, with results that demonstrate convincingly that acupuncture has observable effects on how the brain functions. Acupuncture achieves its effects primarily by acting on the nervous system, but it also appears to activate the pituitary gland and parts of the brain in such a way as to affect the body's production of proteins, hormones and brain chemicals.
Possible Benefits of Foot Massage on Brain
According to traditional Chinese medicine, if you manipulate the reflex points on the feet that communicate with the brain, you will stimulate the flow of vital energy to the brain and promote a healthful balance of the brain's processes. More well-designed scientific research on foot reflexology is needed to test the validity of this claim. The research on the related practice of acupuncture is encouraging in that it demonstrates that manipulating acupoints can have positive effects on the brain. Centuries of personal accounts of the health benefits of foot massage have been unearthed. Based on these, reflexologists would recommend that you try a foot massage to relieve stress and promote a state of deep relaxation--to improve the quality of your sleep; to relieve headaches, including migraines; and to reduce anxiety and depression. It is important to keep in mind, though, that reflexology is a complementary therapy and that you should always consult a medical doctor for any problems you are having with your physical or mental health.
How to Stimulate Reflex Points for Brain
The reflex point for the brain is the tip of the big toe, as well as the tips of the second and third toes. On the pads of the big toe, you will find the reflex points for the hypothalamus, the pineal gland and the pituitary gland, all of which are also important for brain function. You will find these points more easily if you look at a reflexology chart, which is a visual map of all of the reflexology points on the foot. You can use a few different techniques to stimulate brain reflexes. You can begin by lightly stroking the reflex point with a downward motion using your fingertips. Another technique you can use is finger walking, where you massage the area by pressing up and down on it with the thumb and forefinger. You can also use your fingers to apply firm pressure to the reflex point for about one minute.
- Scott Byrne, Reflexologist: A Brief History of Reflexology
- Egyptian Monuments: Tomb of Ankhmahor
- "Medical Journal of Australia"; "Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomized controlled trials"; 2009
- "Autonomic Neuroscience"; "Acupuncture, the limbic system, and the ... the brain"; 2010
- Daily Mail Online: How Your Feet Help You to Heal
Susan Rush has been writing professionally since 1999. Her work has been published in "The Chicago Tribune" and in scientific publications and on health-related Web sites. She has special expertise in the area of patient education and has written educational handbooks that have been used by medical centers across the nation. Rush earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Cornell University.