Have you ever wondered why the barefoot shoes were, and still are, such a big craze? Why do you see people running barefoot, training barefoot, and realistically just avoiding shoes whenever possible?
Wellness gurus and health experts talk about all the functional benefits of training barefoot–better balance, coordination, mobility, strength, etc.--but there’s one biggie that’s often overlooked. The benefits of being barefoot aren’t all about your feet and your performance–they’re also about your brain.
It’s like that old principle goes “use it or lose it.” While we know that applies to muscles, bones, and connective tissues–hence why regular physical activity is key to maintaining mass and strength–that saying also applies heavily to the brain. When we’re not exercising areas of the brain regularly, they can atrophy and become dysfunctional. On the other hand, if we’re consistently activating certain areas of the brain, they can grow and increase the number of neuronal connections to strengthen certain neural pathways.
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”
- Santiago Ramon y Cajal
It’s what we call neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to change, remodel, and reorganize to increase adaptability to new situations. More than 100 years ago it was suggested that the human brain is capable of continuous functional changes. A Canadian scientist by the name of Donald Hebb proposed that changes in biochemical processes in one neuron can stimulate changes in neighbouring synapses that are simultaneously activated–this formed the basis of the idea of synaptic plasticity. Another scientist confirmed this theory showing that healthy regions of the brain can take over the functions of injured areas, using this work as the basis of treatment for people who suffered vestibular damage.
While we’re not going to dive into the details on neuroplasticity, it is important to know that when you continually work to strengthen certain areas of the brain, you can alter the way the brain works.
The feet are equipped with a system that sends information to the brain about where it is and its environment. It’s called sensory feedback and it provides information to the nervous system to establish internal awareness about where the body is and how it’s moving in relation to its external environment.
Sensory feedback in the feet is essential to help the brain understand the ground it’s walking on and make decisions quickly about how to act. One of the biggest issues with conventional cushioned shoes is that they put a major barrier between what’s on the ground and what your feet are sensing. The foot contains over 200,000 nerve endings that provide our brain with information, so when you wear maximum cushion shoes, you’re cutting your feet off from a wealth of beneficial sensory feedback.
In order to understand how going barefoot can benefit the brain, let’s take a look at something called the Homunculus, as seen in the image below. Homunculus is a Latin word meaning “little man” and it is a visual representation whereby the size of the features represent the relative proportions of the areas of the human brain responsible for motor and somatosensory function. Simply put, the features that are most exaggerated correspond to the largest representations in the brain. The hands, for example, are one of the most adept regions of the body, so they have the largest representation in the brain and therefore on the motor and sensory homunculus.
The sensory homunculus is based on the density of sensory neurons corresponding to the specific areas of the body, whereas the motor homunculus is based on motor function of the body. Areas of the body with a higher density of neurons for either sensory or motor function comprise larger regions of the brain, which explains why the depiction of the homunculus doesn’t look like a real representation of a human.
When we use a specific area of the body more regularly to feel or move, the homunculus in the corresponding area of the brain is stimulated and its development increases. As such, a higher resolution map of that particular area forms in the brain.
One of the biggest benefits of being barefoot is that it has a massive impact on stimulating sensory receptors in your feet. Have you ever noticed that when you step on pebbles or rocks in overly cushioned shoes, you can tell you’re on an uneven surface but there’s no pain or discomfort attached? But when you step on the same surface barefoot, you almost want to scream and immediately jump onto a softer surface? That’s the sensory neurons in your feet firing to inform your brain about what your feet are feeling. Being barefoot increases the amount of information received by the brain about where they are in space, the texture of the surface they’re on, and how tense muscles are.
Going back to the homunculus, being barefoot helps to strengthen and sharpen the homunculus of the foot in the brain and sets the ground for improving balance and motor control.
When we’re constantly wearing shoes that are ultra-cushioned with heel lifts and toe springs, we don’t allow for the sensory homunculus to develop, which results in poor reception from the foot and a subsequent lack of control and increased risk for injury. However, when you lose the shoes, the sensory feedback going to the brain from the foot becomes more refined, which allows for the brain to depict smaller, more subtle changes in sensory stimuli and adjust its movement patterns to suit.
When you lose to mega-cushioned runners for either barefoot or shoes that mimic barefoot sensations–wide, thin, flexible–you’re allowing the sensory receptors in the foot to fire like they’re meant to fire. They can convey information to your brain about where you are, what you’re doing, and how they need to respond. When you’re wearing conventional shoes, you’re limiting access to all of this information, which can result in foot abnormalities, gait issues, and lack of sensory relay, all of which impede on performance and everyday functionality. When you go barefoot or wear minimal shoes, you’re strengthening that connection to the brain and supporting essential performance factors like balance and spatial awareness.
Long story short, there are a few ways in which going barefoot can massively increase your sensory detail:
Aside from increasing the strength and resiliency of your feet, going barefoot can have really big benefits for circulation and anatomical alignment, which has a positive and direct impact on the function of the brain and nervous system. As a result, you’re getting better balance, better motor control, and a much more enjoyable experience from your training.
Think we’re fibbing? There are studies that support the physiological benefits of what’s called “earthing”--direct physical contact of the body with the surface of the earth–and its profound effects on human physiology and health.
Multiple lines of research suggest that disconnecting from the earth may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness, and suggest that reconnecting with the Earth’s electrons can result in everything from reduced cardiovascular risk to better sleep and reduced pain. That can happen simply by walking barefoot outside or even just sitting or sleeping with a system that transfers the Earth's electrons from the ground to the body.
Not to mention a big change in brain function. So, consider ditching the shoes and letting your feet feel the dirt.
Chevalier G, Sinatra ST, Oschman JL, Delany RM. Earthing (grounding) the human body reduces blood viscosity-a major factor in cardiovascular disease.J Altern Complement Med.2013;19(2):102-110. doi:10.1089/acm.2011.0820
Chevalier G, Sinatra ST, Oschman JL, Sokal K, Sokal P. Earthing: health implications of reconnecting the human body to the Earth's surface electrons.J Environ Public Health.2012;2012:291541. doi:10.1155/2012/291541
Demarin V, Morovic S, Bene R. Neuroplasticity. Period biol. 2014; 116(2):209-211.
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