Does Reflexology For Depression Really Work?
Sep 18, 2023, 8 min read
The benefits of reflexology are often debated. Some think it has the potential to alleviate a number of illnesses, while others believe it’s all about the placebo effect. So… which is true? If you are curious about reflexology and its effectiveness in helping manage the symptoms of depression, we’re answering all your questions – what it is, whether or not it works, if it really does have any mental health benefits, and more.
By taking a look at the studies on reflexology, we’re lifting the lid on the truth behind this alternative therapy. If you are suffering from symptoms of depression, we’ll be taking a closer look at what could really help.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about reflexology and its effectiveness with regards to mental health, we’re here to help.
What is reflexology?
Reflexology is a type of alternative therapy that studies how each part of our body is connected to another part. Using a reflex map of the feet and hands, reflexologists will use massage techniques and pressure points to connect to the internal organs and other areas of the body in an effort to improve health and wellbeing.
How does reflexology work?
More research is needed to understand the way in which reflexology works, but there are a few theories:
- Traditional Chinese medicine: It is believed that one’s qi (pronounced ‘chee’) which is thought of as an energy in the body, is blocked due to stress which can cause various illnesses. Reflexology is thought to keep qi flowing throughout the body to remain free from illness. It is believed that by touching certain pressure points, energy is sent to the appropriate area of the body in order to heal.
- Nerve impulse theory: This involves the central and autonomic nervous systems. In the 1890s it was discovered that nerves connect the skin to the internal organs, and when touched, the body’s nervous system adjusts as a result. This theory suggests that stimulating certain points on the feet can enhance your nervous system’s connection to the corresponding parts of the body.
- Zone theory: This suggests the body is made up of 10 vertical zones, each corresponding to specific fingers and toes that can be massaged in order to access those particular zones.
- Hemodynamic theory: This suggests by stimulating certain points on the feet and hands, you can enhance the blood flow to the corresponding area.
- Fascia involvement: This suggests reflexology influences changes in the fascia, which is a thin membrane covering and separating the organs. Certain areas of the body can be affected as a result.
There are many theories for how reflexology works, but there is a lack of evidence-based scientific studies on exactly what it does.
So… does reflexology actually work for depression?
As above, there is no way to tell exactly how reflexology works, but depending on the health conditions you are trying to treat or the general benefits you are looking for, it is difficult to ignore the many positive accounts and success stories of reflexology.
Despite a lack of quality evidence, reflexology continues to be a popular alternative therapy that could still provide benefits. As it is a low-risk option, it can be used as an additional treatment on top of conventional medical treatment, but it’s unclear whether it should be used as an alternative to medical care.
Some of the factors that may contribute to the positive results found by reflexology include things like:
- The calming environment in which reflexology sessions often take place, utilising low lighting, relaxing music, aromatherapy scents, and so on
- The additional support from a reflexologist, such as discussing worries and current life challenges
- Physical touch, which is often comforting
The placebo effect is also thought to be at play during reflexology, as the expectation of a positive outcome tends to create this outcome anyway thanks to positive thinking. The placebo effect does not mean any results you feel are not real, but simply that they are a result of the expectation rather than any scientific reasoning.
At the end of the day, even without any scientific backing, if something makes you feel better and does not pose a threat to your health, there is no reason not to continue doing it.
What can reflexology help with?
Reflexology has been thought to help alleviate a number of ailments and issues. For example, it has been found to have positive effects on:
- Sleep quality and fatigue: One study found that reflexology increased the sleep quality and decreased fatigue in postmenopausal women, while in another study on pain, fatigue and sleep quality in patients who had had surgery for kidney transplants, their score for sleep quality significantly improved after having reflexology, compared with the control group.
- Blood pressure and heart rate: A study found reflexology to be effective in reducing heart rate in stage-2 hypertension patients, and partially effective in reducing blood pressure.
- Pain: One study found the level of pain in liver transplant patients decreased when they received reflexology compared to the control group, while their beta endorphin and comfort levels increased.
- Premenstrual syndrome: A study found that not only was reflexology able to relieve both somatic and psychological PMS symptoms, but the longer the reflexology session was, the better the result.
- Stress: Studies have suggested a possible reduction in stress levels through reflexology interventions.
Reflexology has been found to have the potential to help young children, as it was found to be effective at reducing their pain levels, regulating their heart rate, increasing oxygen saturation, and relieving colic symptoms.
When it comes to cancer, one study found reflexology could help to reduce the symptoms of fatigue, nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing breast cancer treatment, while another study showed it could reduce fatigue, pain and sleep quality in patients with lymphoma.
It is clear that for many different health conditions reflexology offers a consistent pattern of beneficial effects, and therefore further study would be useful.
Can reflexology benefit mental health?
As mentioned above, although there are not enough studies to determine exactly whether or not reflexology can help with mental health issues, it may still be an effective additional treatment even if it is not directly responsible for results.
Several studies have found reflexology could help to decrease anxiety levels. For example, one study of women going through their first pregnancy found that reflexology treatment helped to alleviate their anxiety when compared to the control group, and another study found reflexology to be an effective intervention to reduce anxiety levels and improve sleep quality of informal caregivers. This would imply that reflexology has the potential to positively impact mental health conditions.
Does reflexology help depression symptoms?
Well, it certainly could, although more research is required.
The reasons why it might help depression are debated, but this does not diminish the fact that if you feel an improvement in your depression symptoms through reflexology, there is nothing to suggest you cannot continue trying it if you are seeing positive benefits – as long as it is not used in place of medical treatment if this is needed, or interfere with medical treatment.
There are studies that support the benefits of reflexology for depression when it arises as a symptom of another condition. For example, study results have shown that reflexology could be effective in reducing depression in gynaecological cancer patients during chemotherapy, reducing depression during menopause, reducing anxiety and depression in older women suffering from acute coronary syndrome, and significantly reducing depression in women with multiple sclerosis.
All of the above studies look at depression as a symptom of another health condition, but there is a distinct lack of studies on the effects of reflexology in depression on its own, so the answer to whether or not reflexology can help with depression remains unknown.
What to do if you have depression
At Augmentive, we believe advice and support for those with depression should always be bespoke and tailored to the individual to help with their specific symptoms and life circumstances. There are long-term risks to leaving it untreated, so it is best to reach out to a qualified specialist with experience in treating depression.
If you are looking for ways to address your depression with lifestyle changes, these might include:
- Sleep: Improving your sleep hygiene can help to alleviate depression symptoms, so go to bed and wake up at the same time, keep your bedroom temperature low, and avoid caffeine to improve your sleep quality.
- Exercise: Exercise is known to boost endorphins which can improve mood, so adding some gentle exercise to your daily routine could help.
- Dietary changes: Studies show that heavily processed foods have been linked to depression, so making healthier choices with your food could improve your wellbeing.
- Avoid substances: Both alcohol and drugs are nervous system depressants and could make depression symptoms worse, so cutting back on these or avoiding them altogether can help.
As well as lifestyle changes, if you are suffering from symptoms of depression, it is best to reach out and discuss your options with someone who can help. You can speak to your GP about how you are feeling, or reach out to a specialist like the mental health professionals available through Augmentive.
If you are diagnosed with depression, treatment options such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), behavioural activation (BA), mindfulness-based therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), or something else may be offered. These may also be suggested in conjunction with medication to help give you the best chance of recovery.
Also, you may choose to try additional holistic therapies such as reflexology to enhance the benefits of your treatment. As long as none of these additional measures interfere with your prescribed medication or recommended therapies, there is no reason you cannot try them.
If you are unsure of what the best option is for you, we offer a free 15 minute consultation to help guide you towards a specialist who has experience with your specific set of symptoms, and can help you work through your depression issues.
Please note: Augmentive is not an emergency mental health service, so if you are having suicidal thoughts you should call Samaritans on 116 123 or reach out to someone you trust for help.
If you have a question about a mental health condition, or just wondering what's the point of life, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
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