Reflexology and the Respiratory System: Take a deep breath!

Did I leave you hypothetically sleep deprived and headachy last month? Bear with me.

Breathing seems like such a simple activity – moving air into and out of our lungs. Did you know we do it about 15,000 times per day? It is so important to our survival it’s only partly under our control. The brain automatically causes our respiratory muscles (diaphragm) to contract. Think of a child threatening to hold its breath!

How we breathe plays a vital role in our well-being. It’s a gas exchange! Oxygen and carbon dioxide switch between the air, lungs, and the blood. Oxygen allows the body to change glucose (a sugar molecule) into carbon dioxide and water. One of the by-products of that reaction is energy. And, our respiratory system has other functions: smelling, vocalization, and cleaning and warming the air we breathe.

One of the first things I notice during a reflexology treatment, is the client’s breathing rhythm changes. The person may take a deep breath and sigh, as these reflexes are being stimulated.

The nervous, endocrine, muscular, skeletal, and circulatory systems are intimately involved with the respiratory system whenever we take a breath.

The Parts:

The nose is for both inhalation and filtration of air. It filters using nose hair and mucous secreted by its lining to trap dust and other harmful particles. The nose warms the air and mucous membranes also moisturize the air before it goes to the lungs. Our nasal cavities make olfaction (smelling) possible. I’m concerned by the prevalence of removing nose hair for aesthetics. It’s there for a reason!

The pharynx is basically a connector to the larynx.

The larynx leads to the trachea, sometimes called the windpipe; the air comes down the trachea, splits into two bronchial tubes, which then split into bronchioles, like an upside-down tree root system, which expand into the lungs. This is where the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange take place.

The lungs are made up of tiny sacs called alveoli. Millions of these make up the lungs. The lungs are a spongy organ with a rich blood supply. The expanding and contracting action of the lungs is important for lymphatic drainage. This expansion and contraction acts like a bellows and pumps the lymph. We have a high surface area for the blood to make its gas exchange with the inside air in the surface area within the lungs.

The diaphragm is actually a muscle, but is included in the respiratory system to understand how it works. Located beneath the lungs and above the stomach, it is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest area from the abdominal area and tightens and releases to act as an accelerating pump for breathing.

The hypothetical sleep-deprived, headachy scenario:

You’re not sleeping, so the nervous system is immediately out of whack. Stress and chronic pain are two culprits that often keep us awake at night. Our emotions affect our nervous system. Many people find soothing music, meditation, or journaling helpful.

Amongst the tossing and turning, or lying staring at the ceiling, the endocrine system is trying to release hormones to balance things, but the nervous system isn’t cooperating. Physiologically, the body is stuck in a fight or flight response rather than a rest and repair state.

Chronic pain and sleep deprivation go hand-in-hand. Muscles tense and our brain wills them to relax, we get into a vicious circle. I don’t want to get into the use of pain medications here, but soothing soaking baths or foot soaks often help relax tight muscles.

And, I imagine the respiratory system is acting up. In all likelihood, you’re shallow-breathing, rather than taking nice deep, calming breaths, so you might be interested in trying out a breathing exercise.

We haven’t got to them yet, but chances are our Digestive System and Cardiovascular systems aren’t happy either – further contributors to the headache.

Can you see how the body systems relate to and impact each other? Though we’d like to think so, overcoming illness, particularly chronic illness, is never a simple, quick fix.

Next month, take a look at the Cardiovascular system with me.





Reflexology and the Endocrine System: One amazing orchestra!

Hypothetical scenario: You didn’t get enough sleep and wake up with a headache. A glance at the alarm clock tells you you’re already late.

How many of us start the day this way?

This month is about the Endocrine system, a system made up of groups of cells called endocrine glands. These glands secrete chemicals (hormones) directly into the bloodstream.

Hormones influence almost every cell in our body, but different types of cells respond to different hormones.

Hormones regulate mood, growth, physical maturation, mental skills, tissue function, and metabolism. They affect sexual function, reproductive processes, and can cause serious health problems – even death, when the endocrine glands aren’t working properly. Eek, not good!

The pituitary, hypothalamus and pineal glands are located in the centre of the head, located quite close together. The pituitary is often called the master gland and is connected to the brain by an intermediary piece of tissue, like an interlink, called the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is part of the nervous and endocrine systems because it sends out nervous impulses and manufactures hormones. It connects to the pituitary gland and is like the conductor of an orchestra. It regulates and controls the other endocrine glands as if they are the orchestra. It is essential in coordinating the balance and flow of the entire endocrine system.

The pituitary gland produces critical hormones that control various bodily functions. It sends signals to other endocrine glands to stimulate or inhibit their own hormone production. For example, the pituitary gland will release a hormone (adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)) to stimulate cortisol production in the adrenal glands when you’re stressed.

The pineal gland regulates light and dark and seasonal rhythm. Did you know the optic nerve controls the pineal gland? It releases melatonin (think: sleep) and is related to other functions such as calcium metabolism. SAD and depression are connected to the pineal gland. Sufferers often find using a *full spectrum light box helps during low-light winter months.

The thyroid gland is shaped like a large bow-tie at the base of the throat. It governs general metabolic rate. Like the idle in your car, a hyperthyroid you’re burning up a lot of gas; a hypothyroid and you’re in danger of stalling. Along with thyroxin, the thyroid gland also secretes calcitonin. This hormone lowers calcium levels in the blood. The parathyroid glands are embedded like four polka-dots just behind the thyroid gland. They produce a hormone called parathyroid hormone which has the opposite effect of calcitonin. It increases the calcium levels in the blood. These glands also help blood clotting time.

The thymus gland is a dual-function gland. It sits right behind your breastbone and is part of the endocrine and immune systems. It produces thyroxin, triggers and produces t-cells.  It is critical in childhood to build a strong immune response.

The pancreas is another dual-function system. It is an endocrine and digestive organ. As an endocrine gland, it secretes the hormone insulin and glucagon. These are functional in the regulation of blood sugar. Blood sugar in the blood, is like gas in a car. This is the energy source which gives the body its get up and go. If the thyroid gland sets the pace of the idle, this would be like the gas line regulating how much gas is coming in at any given time. We know diabetes and hypoglycemia are two conditions based on imbalances in the pancreas. Diabetes is too little insulin – therefore too high a blood sugar. Hypoglycemia is too much insulin – therefore too low a blood sugar.

The adrenal glands (there are two) sit like little caps on top of the kidneys. They release the hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are important hormones for the fight or fight response. This is what regulates our back-up system in relationship to stress or threat. It’s really an emergency system, and of course in today’s high-paced life, I find many people have a lot of sensitivity on the adrenal gland reflex. Cortisol helps to balance the adrenaline. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory. The adrenals also function in water balance, by having trophic hormones along with the kidneys.

The ovaries and testes are dual function endocrine and reproductive organs. The ovaries and the testes are what secrete the majority of estrogen and progesterone in the female and testosterone in the male.

As the second of nine body systems, I imagine it’s become clear — we’re complicated beings!

It’s not uncommon when receiving a reflexology treatment to find the Endocrine System reflexes are tender.

Here’s a great exercise if you’re feeling anxious? Stressed? Try thymus tapping – it’s easy and you can do this anytime, anywhere! Tap the middle of your chest with your 2nd, 3rd, & 4th fingers or thump with your fist – think Tarzan! Do this for about twenty seconds and breathe deeply in and out. You may feel a little tingling or a subtle settled feeling.

One system can’t work without the others. Next month we look at the Respiratory System.



* Full spectrum light box link goes to the Mayo Clinic – Seasonal affective disorder treatment: Choosing a light therapy box.

Stressed out? Reflexology and the Nervous System. Why it works.

The human body is a remarkable thing. I think we take the magic of it for granted. We wouldn’t function at all if it weren’t for the Nervous System.

Composed of the Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System, the nervous system runs the body. There are also the special senses: the eyes, ears, and skin. They give us messages from the outside.

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is protected by the skull; the spinal cord is protected by the spine. We know the brain controls: speech, hearing, sight, and emotion. The hypothalamus – located in the brain, is an interlink between the nervous and endocrine systems. It connects to the pituitary gland and plays a key role in maintaining body homeostasis – balance. I believe our body always tries to return to a state of balance.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is both voluntary and autonomic: made up of nerves and their branches that start in the brain or spinal cord, leave them and go to other parts of the body. Vertebrae protect the spinal cord. The vertebrae get larger as they move down the spine, this makes sense as there’s more of us to support. Between each vertebra is a disc. Pairs of nerves exit each vertebrae. The voluntary part of the peripheral nervous system is all the nerves that go to and from the muscles that you have some control over. The autonomic part of the peripheral nervous system is all the nerves that travel to your organs and glands. We have little conscious control over these nerves.

The peripheral nervous system contains 12 pairs of nerves starting in the brain going to structures of the head and neck and 31 pairs of spinal nerves starting in the spinal cord travelling to the rest of the body. The peripheral nerves exit the spinal cord and run around the body, like veins and arteries. There are motor and sensory nerves. Sensory nerves move in the direction of the brain, motor nerves move away from the brain.

Most of us experience a pinched sciatic nerve from time-to-time. The biggest nerve; the size of a man’s thumb at its largest point, it carries a major portion of signals from the sacral plexus to the legs, exits the spinal column and feeds the legs and branches off. Where it leaves the spinal column it is prone to compression and this is often the sciatic pain people experience. In a reflexology treatment we work four reflexes specific to the sciatic nerve.

A plexus is a bundle of nerves. There are many of them throughout the body. The solar plexus, in the middle of the diaphragm, is one most of us are familiar with. We’ve all felt, in a moment of shock, a little punch in the gut. This is the solar plexus firing as it sets off the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system.

Imagine you are reading a book in your favourite chair and suddenly a door slams shut.

The sympathetic nervous system revs the system up — moves us into fight or flight (state of stress), increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, and moves blood to the extremities. It stops the digestive process. This is a basic response to threat.

I think a major problem with our culture is we are stuck in sympathetic nervous system overload. We don’t go into this state as an occasional thing, but are rather living in this state 24 hours a day, and are showing stress-related disease. As an example: We wake in the morning, haven’t even got out of bed and we are already going through our to do list for the day. This isn’t natural.

The parasympathetic nervous system slows the system down. A state of rest and repair, this system lowers our heart rate and blood pressure. This is the optimum time for us to efficiently digest our food. It should be clear to us — in this hectic world, our digestive systems aren’t working properly. It’s no wonder many people have digestive issues.

During a reflexology treatment, the practitioner focuses on the brain, head, hypothalamus, eyes, ears, inner ear, solar plexus, and sciatic nerve reflexes.

The beauty of a reflexology treatment is it immediately switches a person’s nervous system from sympathetic mode (fight or flight), to parasympathetic mode (rest and repair). This occurs during each reflexology session.

As a reflexologist, I notice the person’s breathing slow down, they may sigh, feel sleepy, their mood may change from one of agitation to one of peacefulness. This should be normal. The body wants to be in a state of homeostasis – balance. Unfortunately, this delicious calm feeling is rare.

If you are unable to have a reflexology treatment, a few other ways you can support your nervous system and reduce stress, are: laugh, smile, exercise, meditate, breathing exercises, and walking in nature.

Throughout my life experiences; broken leg, multiple surgeries, recent wrist trauma, stress — of all these things, what fills me with awe, is the resilience of the human body.

The nervous system is intimately linked to the endocrine system which I will talk about next time.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experiences and hope you’ll share with me in the comments section.