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Part 1 The Physiology of Relaxation Therapy

Sep 2, 2004

Increase blood flow to the feet – YES !

Increase blood flow to the feet – YES !
Birgitta I. Rice, M.S., R.Ph., CHES


This series of articles will provide information on the benefits of relaxation on health and wellness, with a focus on peripheral circulation problems in diabetes patients.

Relaxation Training causes

Muscles to feel relaxed and comfortable
Heart rate and blood pressure to become slower and lower
Your breathing to become deeper and the rate slower
Hands and feet to possibly become warmer
A possible decrease in head aches and colds

When you relax regularly, you condition the body to become more tolerant of stress even in stressful times.

After stressful times, relaxation allows the body to possibly decrease the stress hormones which are still circulating in the blood stream. This can be beneficial because the cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones, have very harmful effects on the blood vessels as they circulate.

Research has shown that relaxation improves peripheral blood flow, which can increase healing and reduce pain.

Part 1 The Physiology of Relaxation Therapy

I came to realize the value of relaxation during my graduate studies in health education where I specialized in stress management education. I studied and researched the effects of relaxation on the peripheral arteries both in the scientific literature and in clinical applications.

Relaxation provides a decrease in sympathetic nervous system tone allowing the arteries to widen ever so little and allowing an increase of blood flowing through them. That in turn translates to an increase of available oxygen to the body tissues, specifically in the periphery.

The neural pathways of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system guide the function of the stress response and the relaxation response. Through a training process involving relaxation exercises, the patient may learn to regulate a balance in these pathways, thus affecting the body’s physiology. While the tone of the sympathetic nervous system (which guides our activities) lessens, there is an increase in the parasympathetic nervous system (which guides our recovery or rest) at the same time. The way the body works in this instance is to seek a balance – mind and body working together.

Relaxation works through psycho-physiological means implying that both the mind and the body are involved in the quieting process. Progressive muscle relaxation training focuses on the muscle groups and allows them to relax. With fewer impulses firing from the muscles to the brain, a lower level of stimulation is evident in the body organs (e.g., less tense muscles). It is referred to as somatopsychic relaxation. With this modification of incoming and outgoing neural impulses come the benefits associated with relaxation.

Other relaxation techniques such as Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response, meditation and hypnosis suggest that relaxation starts in the thought processes, the cognitive process of the mind (e.g., reducing excessive rumination or anxiety). This process is called psychosomatic and has as an end result the relaxation of the body physiology. Many relaxation techniques defy this simple classification and are often a combination of several modalities.

Visualization, active imagination or imagery, has been used successfully in the treatment of various illnesses. It is specifically valuable to use these practices while the body is in a relaxed state. That is, first you allow your body to relax for a few minutes; then while relaxed, visualize healthy outcomes or desired healing. When the body is in a relaxed state, the neural transmissions are fewer, and the “language” of the positive visualizations and healing suggestions “can be heard” more easily by body tissues.

Part 2 will describe the clinical investigations of this technique, the research findings, statistical outcomes and publications.

Birgitta I. Rice, MS, RPh, CHES received her education and pharmacy license in her native Sweden. She is a researcher, clinician and certified health education specialist at the University of Minnesota, Division of Epidemiology Clinical Research Center, Minneapolis, MN

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four