Before I get to the reflexes, I want to talk a little bit about the digestive system as a whole.
The best place to start is with the first step in the digestive process.
Believe it or not, it happens before you even taste your food. Just by smelling the aroma of mom’s homemade cherry pie or thinking about how delicious that salad is going to be, you start salivating – and the digestive process begins, preparing for that first scrumptious bite.
The food we consume is the fuel for our bodies, and its nutrients give our cells the energy and substances they need to operate. But before food can do that, it must be digested into small pieces the body can absorb and use.
About the Digestive System
Our digestive system is a wondrous series of organs and glands that processes food. In order to use the food we eat, our bodies have to break the food down into smaller molecules that it can process; it also has to excrete the waste.
For the most part, our digestive organs (i.e., the stomach and intestines) are tube-like and act as containers for the food as it makes its way through the body. The digestive system is essentially a long, twisting tube that runs from the mouth to the anus, plus a few other organs (i.e., the liver and pancreas).
The Digestive Process (Movement of Food through the System):
I’ll be talking more specifically about each organ of the Digestive system individually in future Reflexology Newsletters, but let me briefly go through the organs involved: The digestive process begins in the mouth.
Food is partly broken down by 2 processes – the mechanical process of chewing and by the chemical action of salivary enzymes (these enzymes are produced by the salivary glands and break down starches into smaller molecules).
On the way to the stomach: the esophagus – After being chewed and swallowed, the food enters the esophagus.
The esophagus is a long tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach. It uses rhythmic, wave-like muscle movements (called peristalsis) to force food from the throat into the stomach.
This muscle movement gives us the ability to eat or drink even when we’re upside-down.
In the stomach – The stomach is a large, sack-like organ that churns the food and bathes it in a very strong acid (gastric acid). Food in the stomach that is partly digested and mixed with stomach acids is called chyme.
In the small intestine – After being in the stomach, food enters the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. It then enters the jejunum and then the ileum (the final part of the small intestine).
In the small intestine, bile (produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder), pancreatic enzymes, and other digestive enzymes produced by the inner wall of the small intestine help in the breakdown of food.
In the large intestine – After passing through the small intestine, food passes into the large intestine. In the large intestine, some of the water and electrolytes (chemicals like sodium) are removed from the food. Many microbes (bacteria like Bacteroides, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Escherichia coli, and Klebsiella) in the large intestine help in the digestion process.
The first part of the large intestine is called the cecum (the appendix is connected to the cecum and the ileocecal valve – connects the ileum to the cecum). Food then travels upward in the ascending colon.
The food travels across the abdomen in the transverse colon, goes back down the other side of the body in the descending colon, and then through the sigmoid colon.
The end of the process – Solid waste is then stored in the rectum until it is excreted via the anus.
How is the digestive process controlled?
1. Hormone Regulators
The major hormones that control the functions of the digestive system are produced and released by cells in the mucosa of the stomach and small intestine.
These hormones are released into the blood of the digestive tract, travel back to the heart and through the arteries, and return to the digestive system where they stimulate digestive juices and cause organ movement.
2. Nerve Regulators
Two types of nerves help control the action of the digestive system.
Extrinsic, or outside, nerves come to the digestive organs from the brain or the spinal cord. They release two chemicals, acetylcholine and adrenaline.
Acetylcholine causes the muscle layer of the digestive organs to squeeze with more force and increase the “push” of food and juice through the digestive tract.
The intrinsic, or inside, nerves make up a very dense network embedded in the walls of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon.
The intrinsic nerves are triggered to act when the walls of the hollow organs are stretched by food.
Digestive System Problems
Nearly everyone has a digestive problem at one time or another.
Some conditions, such as indigestion or mild diarrhea, are common; they result in mild discomfort and get better on their own or are easy to treat. Others, such as inflammatory bowel disease, can be long lasting or troublesome.
Keeping Digestion on Track
The kinds and amounts of food a person eats and how the digestive system processes that food play key roles in maintaining good health.
Eating a healthy diet is the best way to prevent common digestive problems.
What can reflexology do?
You can see from the information above, the digestive system is a vital and complex system that involves the whole body – digestive organs, nervous and endocrine systems.
Now we know where the digestive system is in the body – let’s review the location of the reflexes on the feet.
Bilaterally, the digestive system reflexes occupy the area on the plantar surface of the feet, between our reflex landmarks of the diaphragm line and the pelvic line (exceptions are the esophagus and sigmoid colon reflexes).
If you follow the bones – the digestive system reflexes are superficial to the shafts and bases of the metatarsals and all of the bones of the mid-foot (the 3 cuneiforms, navicular and cuboid bones).
And, just as these organs are located on the left or right sides of the body, the reflexes will be found on the corresponding left or right foot. As above, so below.
I’m always on the lookout for changes in tissue texture in the soft arch of the foot. I call it the “belly of the foot” because that’s where the “belly” or digestive reflexes are mostly located.
The mere size of the digestive system reflexes on the feet, proportionately give feet a winning edge for addressing the digestive system there.
But even though the feet the space advantage, the other reflexology areas (hand, face and ears) are better for other reasons – like a deeper relaxation response – so don’t count them out.
If I’m not detailing a specific digestive organ reflex, I keep the techniques general.
Thumb-walking the 5 zones from the pelvic line to the diaphragm line, essentially addresses the digestive system reflexes “en mass” (the sigmoid colon and rectum reflexes dip into the heel on the left foot).
Now, as a reflexologist it’s always a relief to me that we don’t treat, diagnose or prescribe.
But, as we know, everything in the body, all our systems and processes are affected by stress and not in a good way.
I know from the vast amount of research that’s out there now – reflexology can profoundly affect the parasympathetic nervous system and has the greatest potential to reduce stress.
It’s useful to “listen” very carefully to what the feet will tell you here. Any changes in tissue texture found on the arch will add the digestive system to my menu of reflex areas to detail in the session.
And, for self-help, the access we have to the “soft belly” or arch of the foot is such that it’s almost made to rest our hand and scoop into it.
Even a few minutes of general work can make a difference. But, when you detail the specific reflexes research proves that our effectiveness can increase threefold!
Key steps for your digestive health
It’s important to keep in mind that we are what we eat. Choosing the right food and eating in a calming environment is ideal.
These tips will help you maintain better digestive system health:
- Choose high quality, fresh organic foods – raw foods have their own enzymes which are especially important when your body is healing and may be low on enzymes in general.
- Chew thoroughly – Digestion of carbohydrates (starches, sugars) starts in your mouth with saliva and enzymes. The enzymes not only help break down your food, they also attack bacteria.
- Don’t rush when you’re eating – take your time and sit down to eat. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people hurry their meals.
- If you drink a beverage with your meal make sure it’s room temperature – If you drink ice cold liquid with your food, your body has to heat it first and that takes more time and energy away from the digestive process. Drinking enough water is always a good idea and it will aid all your body’s processes. But drinking it (or any beverage) cold with your meal will slow digestion down. Enough said.
There’s so much I’d like to share with you on this topic, so I’ll be adding more future newsletters.