How Important Are Your Feet?
Our feet are the foundation of our body, carrying us through our lives, and often don’t get attention until there is a problem. Perhaps a bone spur, a bunion, arthritis, plantar fasciitis, or a sprain, start to slow us down. We can wear shoes that impact our gait, cramp our feet, and squeeze nerves that run all the way up to our hips and back, causing all sorts of pain. In Chinese medicine, we see our feet as the root of our being and their care essential to health.
A foot soak is a simple, economical way to treat pain and stress conditions and a way to increase the effects of other treatments like acupuncture. The heat from foot soaks increases circulation not just in your feet and takes fresh blood to body pain throughout our bodies so those tissues can repair and heal. Acupuncture works by a similar mechanism to decrease pain. And when you add medicinal herbs to the foot soak they become even more potent. Chinese herbs tailored to your condition enhance the effects of your foot soaks and effectively treat a host of health concern. Our skin is the largest organ of our body. The heat, minerals, and herbs that we absorb through the skin of our feet have both a local and global effect on our body and emotions.
Why the Feet?
In Chinese medicine, the body is organized into planes, trajectories, and levels, similar to a road map or an irrigation system. Half of these trajectories and planes begin and end in our feet. One-quarter of the body’s bones are in the feet, and over 72,000 nerve endings! There are six basic Chinese channels (those roadways I mentioned) running through the feet and coursing up our legs, connecting our feet with our hands, neck, head, and other distal parts of our body. On each foot we have 36 basic acupuncture points associated with these channels, and an additional 21 Tung-style acupuncture points located in each of our feet: that’s 57 points! Our feet bear all our weight when we move around and are more subject to injury than any other part of the body.
Years ago in pre-modern China, physicians often compared the human body to a tree, with our arms as the branches, our torso the trunk, and our feet the roots. There’s an old saying that “with age the root weakens first.” That is, our feet are the first to show aging: stiffness & pain, structural changes like claw toes, bunions, neuroma, thickened toe nails, numbness, difficulty walking…
What Can Foot Soaks Treat?
Here’s an incomplete list of what people treat with medicinal foot soaks
|Anxiety||Enhance immune system||Migraines|
|Back pain||Headaches||Painful and irregular menstruation|
|Cold abdomen with diarrhea||Hormones||Peripheral neuropathy|
|Cold hand and feet||Hypertenion||Plantar fasciitis|
|Common Cold||Irritable Bowel Syndrom||PMS|
In Chinese medicine we look at each individual holistically. We look at the balance of hot and cold within the body. For optimum health these temperatures need to be in balance. Extreme weather temperatures, humidity, aging and injury all have an impact on the temperature balance and circulation. Many people, who work in cold spaces such as in or near refrigerators used for food processing, cooks, and florists, are exposed to an unnatural amount of artificial cold. Even office jobs where there is air conditioning blowing can be detrimental for some individuals, especially if it is focused on a certain area like the feet or neck. Overtime, this cold seeps into the body and can cause problems. A hot foot bath is a great way to mitigate this and also soothes tired feet.
Insomnia and anxiety are two other common conditions that respond quickly to hot foot soaks before bed. The heat from the foot soak is described as bringing down from the agitation and relaxing the nervous system to encourage a state of calm and deepen sleep.
In Chinese medicine, we add medicinal herbs and mineral salts to our foot soaks. We select what we add based on the effect and part of the body we aim to treat. Many of these are ingredients you may have in your kitchen or grow in your back yard!
- Ginger: Warms the body, helps with aches and pains, relieves colds with a runny nose
- Epsom salt: Alleviates constipation, reduces fatigue, improves sleep
- Vinegar: Improves foot odor, prevents fungal infections, enhances circulation
- Lemon juice: Works as a natural exfoliant to remove calluses
- Mugwort: Good for tired and swollen feet (Roman soldiers used mugwort inside their shoes to keep their feet healthy!)
Starting this fall, clinic patients will be able to purchase therapeutic foot soak herbs in packets to make for convenient preparation and clean up. These are specially grown and prepared therapeutic herbs and part of a farm to clinic program that is funding the school library at an orphanage in rural western China.
3 Tips for a Great Foot Bath
1. To soak or not to soak?
If you are pregnant, have open sores, or any medical / health concerns you’re worried about, before starting your foot soak routine, schedule a consultation to discuss whether foot soaks would be the right self-care activity for your situation. You should avoid soaking your feet when you are hungry or very full, after drinking alcohol or other intoxicants, or when you are very tired. If you feel dizzy during your foot bath, remove your feet from the water, or add cold water to the basin. This will cause your blood vessels to contract, and help relieve dizziness.
2. All About Sweating
As you soak your feet, you may find your body warming and you actually break a sweat. Mild sweating is essential to a good soak and suggests you have opened up the circulation. But excessive sweating consumes energy, so you should end your foot bath before heavy sweating begins.
The optimal time for foot baths is right before bed, which will have the added benefit of helping you sleep. The best way to follow up a foot soak is with sleep or a foot massage.
Prepare Your Foot Soak
Foot soaks are a traditional Chinese self-care method particularly popular in cooler weather. And they offer an effective way to treat the body with medicinal herbs without affecting our digestion.
First decide whether you want to add anything to your foot soak water. Soaking with mineral salts like Epsom Salt helps to detoxify, relax muscles, relieve pain, and reduce inflammation. Or try a foot soak with Chinese herbs for more therapeutic effects.
To try a foot soak at home, gather a bucket or wash basin that is large enough and deep enough for both your feet, gather some towels, extra hot water to warm the soak after it cools, and find a place to sit.
For a mineral salt soak
Add about 1½ cups of mineral salts to 2 gallons of very warm water, enough water to fill the basin about 1/3 full. Make sure the liquid covers your ankles. Each person’s reaction to hot water is different, so start at a low temperature (100°F) and add hot water as tolerated. (HINT: take your feet out of the water before you pour in more hot water!) Soak your feet for at least 15 minutes, 25-30 minutes is best.
For an herbal soak
Place herbal tea bags in 2-3 gallons of water in a soup pot. Bring water to boil and simmer over a low flame covered for 30 minutes. Transfer the hot herbal soak to your soaking pan or bucket. The liquid is very hot. If you’re able, hold your feet over the water to allow them to steam while the liquid cools. Once the liquid temperature is ~105 F lower your feet and soak for 25 minutes.
You can reuse this herbal liquid for up to 3 days by saving the herbal soak and reheating to the appropriate temperature (without simmering).
For both mineral & herbal soaks
When you soak, keep a towel close by to dry your feet with when you’re done. Spend at least 20 minutes soaking. If the water cools, lift up your feet and add more hot water. Once the water cools and your time is up, be sure to stop soaking rather than linger in tempid water.
Foot soaking is a simple practice, but it can have a great effect on your health. Our bodies heal and rest best when we are relaxed so take a load off, and plunge in!