Barefoot Therapy: Part 1
It is difficult to contemplate any part of the human body and not be fully humbled by the magnificence of its design and how the form so perfectly aids the intended function. This is especially true of the human foot. The result of 7 million years of evolutionary progress the human foot is an amazing example of natural engineering at its finest. The human foot is a highly sensitive, mobile, flexible and adaptive appendage packed with an intricate network of bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments, fascia, and tendons. Your feet are charged with the awesome task of reacting to the environment they contact, constantly relaying critical information back and forth to your brain, allowing you to walk, stand and run gracefully. Every time your foot hits the floor your brain should know exactly how to adapt your body to absorb the shock and react to changes in the terrain. This allows you to maintain your balance and dignity! Your brain can only perform this impressive task when the foot is allowed to perform its equally impressive role. As form precedes function your foot can only do its job well when it is as strong and flexible as nature intended. Just as weak foundations caused the tower of Pisa to lean, weak feet can upset the balance of your whole body, becoming a significant and continual source of stress for your body to adapt to. This means that regaining full function of your feet is a critical piece of the health puzzle and if you look after them well, your feet will look after you. Providing strong foundations that will have no problems supporting you for a lifetime.
We are all familiar with the sense of smell, taste and sight. Foot sense is not as well known but it is equally important. If you step on a sharp stone the body reacts by immediately contracting certain muscles that lift your foot off of the ground away from the danger. This is an example of foot sense in action.
Foot sense happens because there are millions of highly specialised nerve endings embedded in the tissues of your feet. They are mostly found within the muscles but your skin, ligaments and joints also contain some. The purpose of these nerves is to detect tension, movement, force, pressure and temperature changes in the foot. The foot is one of the most nerve-enriched areas of the whole body. The scientific term for this time of nerve communication is proprioception. Which comes from the patine proprius meaning ‘ones own’ and ‘perception’. When fired up these proprioceptive nerve cells send information to the brain which is used to work out out the relative positions of neighbouring body parts . Motor communication can then be sent to your muscles to adapt your movement and posture accordingly and continuously. This amazing feet is all carried out by automatic reflexes without you ever having to think about it.
Each time your foot strikes the ground the impact force that gets placed back up through your feet knees hips and spine can be many time greater than your body weight. This is why proper technique and foot health are so key to optimal and injury free performance. The foot automatically senses information about the ground relative to your posture with every step that you take. Your brain then uses this data to make changes to body. The pebble in your shoe may cause you to adjust your foot angle, or that blister might cause you limp to alleviate the pain.
As your foot continues to assess information about pressure, force, tension and movement it sends this information along nerves, through the spinal cord and up to the brain. Your brain can use this information to allow your entire body to respond to this foot sense. The name for this body wide sense is called kinesthetic sense. It is because of kinesthetic sense that your don’t need to look down at your feet to know where they are because your brain can automatically sense its location.
You may not have heard this term before but foot stress is a very real form physical stress that overtime has negative effects on whole body health. Foot stress is pandemic throughout the developed world because from a young age we a socially conditioned to imprison our feet in tightly fitting, inflexible shoes. This can be very unhealthy for the foot and the structure as a whole, resulting in a gradually stiffened and weakened foot structure that has an impaired ability to send proprioception to the brain.
It is interesting to think that our hunter gatherer ancestors thrived for millions of years without any form of elaborate and sophisticated footwear. In fact if our genes expect anything at all from us it is that we should be barefoot. Just think 7 million years of standing on two legs has very likely installed some design features which mean that the foot should be able to sense the ground which it stands upon and be strong and flexible enough to walk, hike, sprint and even run long distances barefoot. The human foot is designed to be free, to be moved, to be challenged with regular physical activity and to be in contact with the ground as often as possible. Instead these days we are very much socially conditioned to wear something on our feet at all times, essentially shielding our feet from the environment beneath. By blocking foot movement and numbing the feedback from the ground beneath overtime there is a gradual loss of foot sense. Ultimately this results in distorted and reduced kinaesthetic sense which leaves people prone to injury and poor function.
When you deeply study the human body one of the fascinating things that stands out is how completely interconnected everything in your body is. All of your systems and subsystems and various anatomical parts are all intimately interconnected and reliant upon each other for the continued proper functioning of themselves and the body as a whole. Posture, for one, is largely controlled automatically by the alignment of your feet bones through this proprioceptive nerve feedback effecting spinal reflexes and the tone of postural muscles. If the foot becomes de-conditioned the so does posture. Ie you begin to stoop and slump forward. Healthy, knee, hip, pelvis and lower back alignment is also highly interdependent upon each other. The foot muscles for example get their information on how to work from the nerves of your lower back, so misalignments in the base of your spine can cause numerous foot weaknesses and problems over time. Coordination of the movements of your lower back and lower limb muscles when you stand, walk and run are intern highly dependant upon this proprioceptive feedback from the foot and ankle nerve cells to work well. What this means is that you rarely just get a lower back problem or a foot problem, or any problem in isolation. Everything is intricately interconnected and we need to start thinking of ourselves as an ecosystem of cells whereby each and every part of us has a vital and equally important role to play in the health of the whole. No part can be neglected.
How good is your kinesthetic sense?
To get an idea of how important this proprioception is to structural health try this experiment. Put you running shoes on, close your eyes and stand on one leg. Count how many seconds you can stay steady before you start to wobble and fall. Then, take you shoes and socks off and repeat the experiment. What do you notice? Well if you are like most people on the planet you will notice that you are significantly more stable when barefoot. Notice that the foot is an incredible piece of machinery, able to efficiently and dynamically change the position of the foot arches, toes and heel bone with subtle muscle contractions that maintain your centre of gravity. This is how your feet, literally the foundations of your body, work to keep you in balance.
Evolution and Running
Over the last 20 years the running shoe industry has done a fantastic job at convincing us that our feet are somehow imperfect and that to be able to run we need to cushion and cocoon them in tight, ‘protective’ and expensive shoes. It is enlightening to read the research that shows that the running shoe industry has done very little to prevent injuries in runners. In fact the research shows the exact opposite, which is that the more expensive the running shoe the greater the likelihood that the runner will get injured. Running is one of the most popular sports on the planet, with millions of people using it for regular exercise. If running is so good for us, how come 70% of runners pick up injuries from one year to the next? Well, the shoe industry would like you to believe it is because running is an impact sport so you need more cushioning in your shoes, or perhaps you are unfortunate enough to ‘pronate’ or ‘supinate’ your foot as you run. The good news is that there are a multitude of different makes and models to help you find the perfect shoe for you but up until this point in time this technological progress in the running shoe industry has achieved nothing apart from increase the rates of injury. Everything from gel inserts, to air cushioned heels, to arch support, to heel chips, to forefoot stabilisation and orthotics have all failed. Perhaps they are failing because the natural design of the human foot is incredibly difficult to improve upon and perhaps we are simply not using this incredible human foot in the way nature intended it to be used.
There is a theory in human evolution that suggests that we began to develop larger more complex and intelligent brains around about the time that we started eating animals. Animal meat is loaded with the essential fatty acids upon which nerve and brain cells are made from. With these essential fats the brain could grow and develop. How on earth would human beings have been able to catch enough wild animals to support our growth and evolution? After all human beings are not exactly apex predators, we don’t have sharp claws, big muscles or enormous fangs! One theory, which I believe is at the forefront of our current understanding is that we used to hunt in packs by chasing down a wild animal for probably tens of miles at a time. Human beings are very good at keeping cool and can therefor run at a moderate pace for a very long time without over heating and needing to rest. The same cannot be said for our four legged prey, they can run very fast but not for very long and if they run for a long time they eventually overheat. There in lies our evolutionary advantage. Eventually the animal needs to give up and as long as we were close enough to track its path then we would eventually catch it, kill it and eat it.
Ah, but there is one fatal flaw to this theory. How on earth would human beings have run so many hundreds of miles without shoes! The answer is of course that we did. We become very efficient runners and we did so without shoes. We did this with strong healthy feet, attached to strong well aligned bodies and by running with a natural, bio-mechanically efficient gait.
The main issue is really how we chose to use our bodies rather than what type of shoe we chose to purchase. The next time you are outside with your running shoes I urge you to try the following experiment and feel this important difference for yourself in your own body.
Firstly, without thinking too much put your running shoes on, head out to the road in front of your house and simply start running at moderate pace. Notice which part of your foot strikes the ground first. What you will find is that by wearing running shoes you virtually force your body to run with a heel strike gait. Meaning that your heel bone hits the ground before the rest of your foot producing a powerful shock wave that goes through your ankle, knees, hips and spine. From a bio-mechanical point of view this is a tremendously inefficient way to run that results in wasted energy and unnecessary stress to your joints and ligaments.
Next I’d like you to take your shoes off. Leave your socks on if you are feeling squeamish, but preferably take your socks off too so that your feet can really feel the ground beneath. Then go for a run. Notice immediately how you innately and intuitively land on the ball of your foot rather than your heal. Your knees will automatically bend to absorb the shock and you head and torso will be balanced and upright. This is how nature intended it. A very efficient and low stress way to run. With some training and careful focus on the right technique you would find that this way of running is not only faster and far less taxing on your joints but your body will not injure, old niggling injuries will start to correct, your posture will improve and you may very well find that running becomes an addictive sport. Don’t just take my word for it, go out and try it for yourself.
Having worked with many thousands of patients over the years it has become increasingly clear to me that modern shoes and sedentary lifestyles have caused a pandemic of unhealthy feet. When the foot becomes week, stiff and misshapen there is reduced neurological connection between the brain and the terrain which overtime undermines a persons state of health significantly and leaves them prone to injury and poor performance. A lot of people can get caught in the trap of chasing symptoms around different areas in the body, trying lots of different natural health treatments, or heaven forbid buy a more expensive pair of shoes. The answer of course lies in restoring the health to the feet themselves and providing the body with stable, flexible, adaptable foundations that communicate well with the brain and allow you to function at your best.
Barefoot Therapy: Part 2
In the next blog post in this series we will be looking at how you can regain the natural strength and flexibility of your feet. Stay tuned!
Yours in health,
Love, Light & Liberation,
Dr Richard Gliddon
Wellness Coach, Chiropractor, Mentor