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November 2023

Reflexology and the Immune System

Source – Reflexions: June 2022 – Written by Judith Whatley MAR

Reflexions is the AoR members quarterly magazine letting you discover the latest reflexology insights. Written by Reflexologists, for reflexologists.
In our June 2022 Edition we offered members an insight into the Immune System, and the learnings that reflexologists gain from the reaction of clients after treatment, and the observation that reflexology boosts the immune system. Here we share with you one article from this popular magazine.  Want more? Join today and access this whole edition of Reflexions as well as a library of previous editions of this highly sought after magazine.

ANATOMY OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

Along with the organs of the immune system like the spleen, tonsils, and thymus, the cellular activity which protects and strengthens the human body against invaders is linked and facilitated by the superhighway of lymph nodes and vessels known as the lymphatic system. We know that reflexology can have a profound and useful effect on blood flow and we might speculate that the improvements we see after reflexology in general healing terms are likely to stem from this improvement in blood flow. Blood flow and lymphatic flow are intrinsically linked, as the blood dumps fluid into the lymphatic system, and some of this is then recycled back into the blood. The lymph which travels along these vessels is responsible for transporting waste as well as acting as an alarm system for spotting invaders.

We already know from our own practice and from research that reflexology can have a good effect on moving lymph around so it is a short step to suggest that reflexology could help to promote good lymphatic flow, good blood flow and as a consequence a faster immune response when the body calls for it.

REFLEXOLOGY IN STRESS AND ANXIETY

Stress is something we all encounter from time to time. The body can utilise the extra stimulation and resources provided by the fight or flight response to combat short periods of stress. When this goes on too long, chronic stress results and the body is on constant high alert. Chronic stress has an immunosuppressing effect. If the body’s defences are called upon to rally and defend against attackers when a high-stress level is a constant and persistent companion the immune response is consistently downregulated. As a consequence, illness may take longer to recover from, and further stress may ensue. The endocrine system is also negatively impacted – adding circulating cortisol and other hormones into the bloodstream. Aspects of the immune system which help to rally our response, like natural killer (NK) cells are negatively impacted, as are the numbers and percentages of white blood cells and immunoglobulin levels.
All of this creates a perfect storm of poor reactivity to threats, leading to further stress. As we know, the relaxation effects of reflexology are profound and the link between reflexology and the reduction of stress is not in doubt.

More chronic aspects of prolonged stress can result in illnesses such as anxiety and depression. There is a good deal of research evidence for the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions like reflexology. This suggests therefore that reflexology can have a positive effect on the immune system by effectively allowing the body to return to normal functioning. Some research has been carried out into the cellular changes in the immune system with mixed results.

A study conducted in 2009 sought to measure the changes in immune cells after reflexology and scalp massage were applied to breast cancer patients. The results did not show that reflexology had any direct cellular impact on the immune system, although scalp massage did. However further data which was captured on the quality of life of these breast cancer patients did show that there was a longer-term positive uplift in quality of life.

This result may indicate that there was a later effect of reflexology which was not reflected in the cellular measures in the same way as the scalp massage. It is possible then that the after-effects of reflexology are longer lasting but research would need to test for this in any similar studies.

The challenges of researching reflexology include understanding how the body will react to reflexology over time. We know as therapists that sometimes the positive effects of reflexology are subtle, cumulative, and vary considerably between individuals. How those effects are measured in reflexology research is important and complex.

Reflexology and Sleep

A common outcome of reflexology is the enhancement of the client’s quality of sleep. Relaxation and the quality and quantity of sleep have profound implications for the proper
functioning of the immune system.

Research conducted into reflexology and sleep has been collated and analysed, and the conclusions drawn suggest that reflexology could be used as a complementary therapy specifically for sleep disturbances. Just as in the stress research above, reflexology could therefore be suggested as an immune enhancer purely because of its positive impact on sleep quality and quantity.

REFLEXOLOGY AND THERAPEUTIC TOUCH

Feeling cared for can have a positive effect on health and healing. An opportunity to share troubles, and talk to someone who is not directly involved can help to lift the burden. During reflexology the client is allowed time and space to re-centre, to spend time on themselves, and to engage in deep breathing. All valuable healing triggers

PAIN, INFLAMMATION, AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

Inflammation is the way the body reacts when it is damaged or under attack. It is meant to be a short-term reaction to an immediate threat, and it helps the body to repair. Chronic inflammation over long periods of time however is a big problem for the body and can have an immunosuppressing effect. There is evidence to suggest that chronic pain is directly influenced by the immune system and vice versa.

Reflexology can have a profoundly positive effect on pain this can feed into the immune response too. Pain is negatively influenced by stress, and the alleviation of stressors even in small amounts can positively influence the individual’s response to pain.

REFLEXOLOGY AND FASCIA

The latest research into fascial structures and mechanisms around the body have much to teach us about how reflexology reaches discrete areas of the body of the client during and after a session. This emerging field of research considers the potential of changes in superficial and deeper layers of tissue, into the neural pathways and even further into the cellular structures (Ingber, 2008).
This might be the key to understanding the profound changes in the systems of the body which occur after a reflexology session.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, reflexology can have an influence on the immune system in a number of ways. In order to maintain a healthy immune system, it is important to eat a balanced diet, take regular exercise and manage stress. In cases where these maintenance tactics have broken down, reflexology can help to restore balance in the immune response by helping to calm stress and anxiety, improving blood and lymphatic flow, and allowing for time and space to centre and breathe.
All reflexologists know how important it is to maintain homeostasis with frequent preventative reflexology sessions. Reflexology is not just for correction and rehabilitation it is for prevention too. Reflexologists are doing great work.