The Art of Reflexology

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


A woman having reflexologyThe ancient art of foot massage, also known as reflexology, is making a comeback. It is most commonly used as an alternative therapy to re-energize the body and ease symptoms of many health ailments. The feet are the primary point of contact, but focal pressure can also be applied to the hands and ears as well, classifying it as a holistic practice.

The goal in reflexology is to increase circulation to allow the oxygen and nutrients to be properly distributed through the body by stimulating specific nerve endings and reflex points on the feet. The wonderful thing about massage is that, when done properly, it has the amazing ability to rid the body of toxins. That in itself is extremely beneficial for the body. Reflexology is a type of foot massage, but it is so much more.

The Origins of Reflexology

The origins of foot and hand massage date back as far as 4,000 BC in China and Egypt. With thousands of years of practice and success behind it, it is definitely a therapy worth looking into both for proactive measures and for healing. It brings balance back into the body by re-energizing it.

Zone therapy, an integral element of reflexology was introduced in 1582 by two European doctors by the names of Dr. Adamus and Dr. A’tatis. However, in the United States, credit is given to William H. Fitzgerald, M.D., for being the father of reflexology. In 1917, he published a book on the 10 vertical zones that extend the length of the body which became the basis of the practice in America. The zones show connections between the feet and hands to certain areas of the body which can be manipulated and adjusted.

The Benefits of Reflexology

The benefits of reflexology are numerous. No matter what industry you work in, or what career you have chosen, it is highly likely you put stress on your hands or weight on your feet. Reflexology has been attributed to helping with the following:

  • Boosting the circulatory system
  • Easing treatments associated with different types of cancers
  • Eliminating toxins
  • Helping with urinary tract infections
  • Increasing energy
  • Offering quicker recovery from injuries or surgery
  • Managing pain
  • Preventing headaches and migraines
  • Promoting relaxation
  • Reducing sleep disorders
  • Relieving depression
  • Stimulating the function of the nerves and the central nervous system
  • Soothing discomfort associated with pregnancy and postpartum

Improved Nerve Function

Neural pathways are very similar to muscles and require stimulation to make them work optimally. However, many people are not familiar with them or even know they exist.

A neural pathway is made up of a series of neurons that are connected to allow the brain to send signals from one area to another located elsewhere in the body.

By opening the neural pathways, you can improve the functionality and the flexibility of many areas in the body. With age, the nerve endings lose sensitivity, especially in the extremities. In one reflexology session, over 7,000 nerve endings can be activated creating a better flow of energy and blood.

Boost Energy Levels

A man with boosted energy levels after having reflexologyFor those who may feel sluggish, or are in need of an energy surge, reflexology sessions can really help. By aligning the organ and muscle systems in the zones, you can increase metabolism and create more energy.

An increase in energy can benefit the body in many ways, as well as create a happier living environment. Often a lack of energy and fatigue can lead to feelings of sadness, depression, and an inability to cope. Boosting energy levels are important for balance and optimal living. While this can be a welcome experience for many, those with adrenal weakness may fare worse and even experience adrenal crashes, so it’s best to see a doctor before trying reflexology if this describes you.

Increase Circulation and Blood Flow

The most popular reason people use reflexology is for the improvement of blood and oxygen flow throughout the body. With more oxygen reaching the organs and their systems, there tends to be an optimization of their vital functioning resulting in increased metabolism, cell regeneration, and faster healing.

Relaxation

The free-flowing neural activity that results in open pathways leads to the body entering a more relaxed and less stressed out state of calmness. For these reasons, reflexology is great for helping with sleep disorders such as insomnia. Although this is a difficult condition to deal with, holistic approaches such as reflexology can in some cases help get the body back into a normal circadian rhythm for sleeping.

Detoxing the Body

The proper elimination of toxins from the body is crucial for optimal health. Reflexology has been shown to improve the function of the bladder as well as aid in keeping urinary tract infections at bay. With a more efficient system of eliminating toxins, the body is protected from many diseases and health conditions. Detoxification can result in problems if your body is unable to flush the released toxins due to preexisting conditions, however. See the side effects below for more information.

Stimulating the Nervous System

There are many benefits to stimulating the nervous system. The greatest being that the brain experiences enhanced blood-flow, improving your cognitive powers. Inputs are then handled more efficiently and memory is boosted.

Helping with Headaches

Another popular reason people choose reflexology is to reduce and eliminate the pain associated with a variety of types of headaches. Foot massage and stimulation has been successful in reducing the severity of migraines by relieving tension in the zones of the associated muscles. Since stress-induced headaches are so closely related to migraines, people have had great success with these as well.

Speed Healing

Many experience quicker healing and recovery due to increased nerve activity and blood-oxygen circulation. Cells become healthier, allowing wounds and injuries to heal more quickly. Coupled with the analgesic properties of reflexology, patients recover more efficiently and are able to get back to daily activities much sooner.

Pregnancy and Postpartum Assistance

A pregnant woman having reflexologyPregnant and postpartum women have been shown to really benefit from reflexology. This use has gained popularity for two main reasons: studies have shown that it may shorten the length of time in which a woman labors, and it has lessened the need for women to turn to pain medication during and after labor. Due to many of the health benefits mentioned above, reflexology can also help reduce postpartum depression and aid in the healing process that occurs after delivery.

Cancer Remediation

Reflexology has been known to be a great way to ease the pain and side effects associated with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. It helps with sleeping problems, reduces anxiety, and lessens the severity of nausea and other indigestion issues that are often common side effects. The increased circulation and clearing of neural channels also improves healing and stimulates the antioxidants that can destroy cancerous cells.

Side Effects of Reflexology

Although reflexology is a therapy that can have many health benefits, it can also have several side effects. As the feet and hands are stimulated, toxins in the body are also being released to begin making their way out of the body, causing some unwanted results. While they are minimal, there are some things to be aware of:

  • Emotional disruptions
  • Exhaustion
  • Illness
  • Sensitivity

For those with adrenal fatigue and other chronic conditions that have weakened their systems and made them unable to cope with or eliminate an influx of toxins, more serious reactions can occur. These include:

  • Overstimulation of the adrenal system and HPA axis
  • Triggering adrenal crashes resulting in fatigue
  • Triggering retoxification reactions resulting in anxiety

Illness

Often patients experience what is known as a “healing crisis.” A development of flu-like or cold symptoms occurs as the body is stimulated to eliminate unwanted toxins. Symptoms could also include sinus congestion, runny nose, or a severe cough with mucus. When a patient receives therapy, they are always advised to drink a lot of water to flush their systems. Headaches are also common side effects of the body detoxing.

Fatigue

Reflexology is very relaxing. Many clients even find themselves falling asleep during therapy, or feeling extremely tired after the session. Sleepiness is usually most common at the beginning of new therapy sessions. Headaches are also common results from feeling overtired but usually diminish upon the body getting used to the therapy.

Emotional Reactions

Some people have reported feeling very emotional during and after therapy. Feelings such as crying and laughing have been most commonly experienced. Often anxiety and feeling overwhelmed enter the picture as well. But all pass as one learns to understand these emotions are related to the stimulation and increased blood flow to the brain.

Sensitive Feet

A woman feeling sleepy while having reflexologyAt the first visit, many can expect to feel tenderness, increased sensitivity, or the “falling asleep” of the limbs feeling.

All of these side effects are most common in the first few sessions and should reduce in severity or vanish completely shortly thereof.

Uncommon Side Effects

There are a few other not so common side effects including:

  • Dehydration. Drinking lots of water during and after reflexology therapy will help with the elimination of toxins from your body and keep the kidneys, bladder, and liver functioning properly.
  • Excessive sweating. This happens as your body tries to flush out the toxins.
  • Nausea. Caused by the removing of toxins from the body, nausea can be fought by drinking more fluids, consuming a small amount of ginger, or eating small portions of food not high in fat or sugar.
  • Skin problems. A flush is a common sign of detoxification.
  • Frequent urination and bowel movements. These occur as your body clears out any released toxins.

How Long Will Side Effects Last?

Luckily, the side effects of reflexology do not usually last longer than 24 hours. In rare cases, patients have reported feeling symptoms for up to three days following a session. In extreme case, they can last for a few weeks. It should be noted that some symptoms are noticed to get worse in severity before getting better. It’s looked at as a good sign that the body is being responsive.

For serious conditions or any concerning side effects, medical advice and should always be sought through your reflexologist, doctor or primary care physician immediately.

Reflexology should be considered a supplemental therapy alongside any formal medical therapy plans already put in place. Never switch plans without first consulting a professional.

Reflexology and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome

An AFS sufferer feeling better after having reflexologyAmong one of the most prevalent complaints therapists hear is that of overwhelming stress and unmanageable fatigue. Stress can create an incredible amount of damage to the body, including over-working the adrenal glands, which in turn cause exhaustion and illnesses such as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). Patients who suffer from chronic fatigue and AFS usually welcome healing procedures that can be done with minimal invasiveness.

Reflexology is a great alternative approach to eliminating the unwanted complications many illnesses carry with them, especially AFS. There is a specific pressure point on the foot for the adrenal glands. Manipulation of this point can send immediate energy into the adrenals. Over time as the energy rebuilds and strengthens the glands, the body begins to heal.

However, the result depends highly on the state of AFS. Too much energy may trigger adrenal crashes. Those with advanced AFS are most at risk, so in this case, caution is advised.

The location of the reflexology point on the foot can be massaged with the knuckle of the index finger by pressing and twisting the wrist back and forth as if turning a doorknob. Stimulation can be done for 15- 30 seconds at a time, not to exceed 2 minutes per day, every day. Some people can only tolerate 3-10 seconds per action point.

As mentioned above, along with the positive effects of reflexology, there are also some side effects to be cautious of. Sufferers of AFS should be most wary of the detoxing that comes along with the procedure as that can worsen their condition.

Always obtain professional medical advice when beginning any new therapy plans, especially if you suffer from pre-existing conditions such as AFS.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Reflexology is known for its ability to restore energy to the body when it has been depleted and is a great non-invasive and holistic approach to therapy for AFS patients. However, caution must be taken as it does detox the body which could cause serious side effects. Especially if you have more advanced AFS, it is best to consult with your healthcare professional before trying it.


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