The Importance of Proactive Foot CareBy Gary Goldfaden, MD
Our feet support tremendous daily pressure and weight, making them susceptible to injury, fatigue, microorganisms, and infections that can spread throughout the body. Unfortunately, few of us provide proper preventive care for our hardworking feet. In order to maintain healthy feet one must focus on a variety of goals that include muscle and pain relief, protection against bacterial and fungal infections as well as optimal hydration.
As we get older, the feet tend to lose their protective fat, which, together with free-radical damage from photoaging, can cause the once soft and smooth skin to become wrinkled, leathery, and to lose its natural elasticity. These factors not only deteriorate the appearance of the feet--they can erode our overall health and vitality.
Doctors are now discovering that targeted natural agents such as essential oils and botanical extracts can help energize and protect our depleted feet. The results are healthier feet with a more youthful appearance that are shielded against infectious invaders.
A feat of natural structural engineering, your feet serve as both a shock absorber and propulsion engine that are capable of withstanding incredible stresses.1 Not surprisingly, to support this daily pressure, they contain over 25% of all the body's bones and have the thickest skin of all your body parts.
Yet despite their natural padding and cushioning layer of fat, they are also extremely sensitive since the soles of the feet contain more pressure-sensitive nerve endings than any other part of the body. These tactile nerve endings also occupy more room in the sensory cortex of the brain than the entire torso.
What You Need to Know: Revitalize Aging Feet
- While the foot is one of the most widely utilized parts of the body, most of us neglect proper foot care.
- The feet are not only subjected to tremendous mechanical stress, they must also resist fungal and bacterial infections, ultraviolet-light exposure, dehydration, and everyday aches and pains.
- Natural substances such as essential oils, herbal essences, antioxidants, and plant-derived fatty acids can help your feet look and feel younger.
- Eucalyptus oil and menthol cool and soothe foot discomfort while promoting a clean and fresh feeling.
- Tea-derived antioxidants fight free radical-induced damage and maintain youthful skin structure and appearance.
- Squalene replenishes the skin's natural moisture barrier. Coconut oil softens skin while fighting microbial invaders. Shea butter provides skin-healing vitamin E while lessening discoloration and healing chapped skin.
- Essential steps in optimal foot care include gently washing the feet with mild soap, exfoliating calloused skin with a scrub or pumice, patting feet dry, and regularly applying a high-quality, skin-protective foot cream.
"When our feet hurt, we hurt all over." --SocratesTaking Care of Your Feet
Unfortunately, many commercial foot creams and lotions are composed mainly of water. As this water enters the skin, it temporarily expands the tissues much like air filling a balloon, so wrinkles fade away and your skin feels smoother. As soon as the water evaporates or gets carried away by the bloodstream, however, the dryness and wrinkles always return. In addition, these products often contain highly refined vegetable oils that have been stripped of all their natural protective antioxidants. As a result, they are highly prone to free-radical oxidation that can actually make your skin age faster. In effect, although these creams and lotions may bring about temporary improvement, they could actually end up accelerating a vicious cycle of skin aging.
Fortunately, a number of natural substances, including certain essential oils and herbal essences have been scientifically proven to overcome these problems and help your feet look younger and feel healthier.Soothing Power of Eucalyptus
One of nature's most powerful ingredients for moisturizing, soothing, and detoxifying hard-working feet is eucalyptus oil. Its ability to modulate ceramides (lipid component of skin structure) helps the skin's outer layer to retain moisture. This is extremely important for the feet, which can excrete as much as one pint of moisture every day.
A compound called 1,8-cineole in eucalyptus facilitates the production of hydrating ceramides in the epidermal cells,2 increasing the skin's softness and suppleness.
Carefully extracted by steam distillation from the leaves and stems of the tallest and fastest growing tree in the world, eucalyptus essential oil contains about 80% 1,8-cineole (its main active ingredient) and other healthy plant essences such as pinene and limonene.3
Not only does eucalyptus oil enhance the water-binding ability of ceramides, it has long been used in therapeutic programs to help cleanse and detoxify the skin.
Eucalyptus oil also has potent antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties4 against a wide range of microorganisms that prosper in moist, dark environments.
Soothing Power of Eucalyptus
Aromatherapy experts have long believed that quality essential oils like eucalyptus oil can also penetrate deeply into the skin and enhance circulation, thus promoting the delivery of oxygen and essential nutrients to the skin's deepest layers.
Tired feet therefore benefit from the natural soothing properties of eucalyptus, a proven analgesic5 that is one of the best oils known for lessening the discomfort associated with joint and muscle aches.
These numerous benefits of eucalyptus oil make it an essential ingredient in a program designed to hydrate, soothe, and protect the feet.Refresh Tired Feet with Menthol
Used medicinally in Japan for over 2,000 years but not isolated in the West until approximately 200 years ago, menthol constitutes about 50% of the essential oil in peppermint.
When massaged into the skin, menthol has a miraculous effect on the sensory nerves by stimulating those that produce a cool, soothing sensation to refresh tired, aching feet.6 Menthol does this by activating what scientists call transient receptor potential ion channels. These channels function as receptors for natural compounds such as menthol that evoke thermal sensations across the entire peripheral nervous system.7
Furthermore, menthol inhibits a specific pain receptor,8 a finding that may help explain its effectiveness as a topical analgesic for the relief of minor skin discomforts.
In addition to its local cooling and pain-relieving properties, menthol can speed up healing by dilating blood vessels,9 so increasing blood flow to the affected area, which is an important property in alleviating muscle and joint soreness.
Still another therapeutic property of menthol is its ability to help subdue many types of pathogenic fungi and bacteria10 and so prevent them from establishing infection in the moist, dark areas between the toes.
All of these features make this versatile ingredient a must-have ingredient in the ultimate formula for healthier, happier feet.The Proper Way to Care for Your Feet
Before you bathe, check the water temperature first with your wrists, not your feet. Bathe your feet in warm (not hot) water. If you have the time, soaking your feet before bathing for about 10 minutes can be beneficial.
- Carefully wash all areas of your feet with a mild soap, especially the underside of your toes and between them.
- Exfoliate any calloused tissue on the soles with an abrasive physical agent such as a scrub or pumice.
- Pat, rather than rub your feet dry. Make sure you get between your toes. Any moisture left on your feet can invite odor or allow disease-causing bacteria and fungi to grow.
- After washing, apply a foot cream that not only has skin-hydrating lubricants and emollients to help keep your feet soft and free from calluses and cracks, but that also gently exfoliates your skin and protects it from infection.
- Clean underneath your toenails carefully.
- Trim and file your toenails straight across instead of rounding them. This helps prevent ingrown toenails. Use a nail clipper, not scissors. Smooth the edges with an emery board.
Note: It is best never to use strong antiseptic soaps, perfumed skin lotions, or chemicals (such as iodine or corn, callus, or wart removers) on your feet.
Antioxidant Tea Blend
Another ingredient that can protect the delicate skin of the feet is antioxidant-rich tea extract.
The skin is highly susceptible to the damaging effects of free radicals--marauding molecules that rob electrons from the millions of cells in the body, including the skin's vital connective tissues. The connective fibers of the skin give it strength and elasticity, but they gradually begin to break down with aging as a result of continual free-radical bombardment. The damaged connective tissues of the skin's supporting framework become hardened and lose their ability to hold together. The once young, soft, and smooth skin of the feet then begins to sag and wrinkle, turning dry and leathery and displaying signs of premature aging.
Fortunately, potent extracts of red, green, and white tea can penetrate deep into the skin to protect it from oxidative stress and inflammation that threaten its youthful appearance and function.11-13 Red tea is an especially powerful source of antioxidants,11 while green tea provides the protection of epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a potent phytochemical that guards skin against the ravages of UV exposure and DNA damage.14
Scientists believe that the vitamin C activity of tea extracts may contribute to healthy skin tone and structure by supporting the formation of new collagen.15-17
Topical tea extracts thus provide antioxidant protection for optimal foot care by quenching damaging free radicals, counteracting the normal effects of aging, and keeping connective tissues strong and supple.Nourish and Hydrate With Squalene
Another natural substance that has the power to soothe and heal your feet is squalene.
Squalene is a biochemical precursor in the body's synthesis of cholesterol. It is also one of the principal hydrocarbons contained in the protective surface lipids of the skin, where it amounts to approximately 15% of the total fat content, although this declines substantially with aging.18 Distributed widely throughout most of nature, squalene is found in everything from the liver of deep sea sharks to vegetable sources like olive, palm, wheat germ, and rice bran oils.
Truly one of nature's great emollients, squalene is quickly and efficiently absorbed deep into the skin, restoring healthy suppleness and flexibility without leaving an oily residue. This highly effective natural moisturizer is great at replenishing missing oils and soothing dry, rough, or sun-exposed skin. It's no wonder that countless generations of fishermen from Scandinavia, Japan, and the South Pacific have used fish oils rich in squalene for healing the irritated skin of their faces and hands. Squalene from olive oil is generally preferred for dermatological use, however, because of its greater stability. Olive oil contains about 0.2-0.7% squalene.19
In addition to its ability to naturally nourish and hydrate tissue, evidence suggests that squalene may help fight dangerous bacteria that can infect the skin.20
Squalene also has potent antioxidant effects that may benefit skin health. Experimental evidence indicates that squalene is a highly effective oxygen-scavenging agent.21 Squalene's molecular composition allows it to donate electrons in order to neutralize dangerous peroxide radicals. Squalene has a chemical structure that is similar to vitamin A, allowing it to protect the skin surface from lipid peroxidation due to UV exposure and other sources of oxidative stress. Squalene's powerful free radical-quenching ability has been shown to be equal to that of butylated hydroxytoluene or BHT, one of the most powerful antioxidants known to science.21
Squalene not only inhibits the growth of disease-causing microorganisms, but also moisturizes, heals, and nourishes the skin of your feet, leaving them looking younger and feeling silky soft and smooth.Enemies of Healthy Feet
Our feet have approximately 250,000 sweat glands each and can excrete as much as one pint of moisture every day. This dark, damp environment between the toes is a perfect home for many disease-provoking microorganisms to thrive, paving the way for common infections such as athlete's foot. And cracked or broken skin provides a gateway for microorganisms normally found on the skin's surface to enter the bloodstream, setting the stage for potentially dangerous infections.
While going barefoot in the sun would seem to offer a solution to protect our vulnerable feet, damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation can increase free-radical production in the skin, making our delicate feet susceptible to the signs of skin aging and even cancer-provoking DNA mutations.
Furthermore, deterioration caused by normal aging and environmental stresses decreases the production of natural lipids called ceramides that are essential for skin hydration.
While the water content of the skin's outer layer, the stratum corneum, for normal, healthy skin is in the range of 10-20%,30 diminished ceramide production can cause it fall below 10%, allowing cutaneous aging to set in, making your feet look and feel dehydrated.
The skin on our feet is therefore in constant need of nourishing, moisturizing agents in order to restore softness and suppleness lost to aging, bathing, and extremes of hot and cold environments.
A targeted podiatric health care program must address all of these factors in order to best protect our feet.Antimicrobial Benefits of Coconut Oil
Early Spanish explorers called this large, round, hairy nut with the three indentations (that looked oddly like two eyes and a nose) "coco," meaning "monkey face."
The coconut palm itself is so highly prized among the Pacific Islanders as a source of food, shelter, and medicine that they simply call it "The Tree of Life."
Polynesians have long used coconut oil cosmetically as an ointment to help maintain their smooth and soft skin, mixing it with different varieties of flowers and other seed oils such as ylang ylang, kukui, and sandalwood for added fragrance and variety.
Also a staple of traditional medicine among Asian and Pacific Island populations for thousands of years, the oil of the coconut has been used for diverse health concerns ranging from mosquito bites to indigestion.
It is only recently, however, that medical science has begun to unlock the incredible healing powers of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is one of nature's richest sources of medium chain triglycerides. These novel lipids are almost identical to the medium chain fatty acids found in human sebum and have demonstrated interesting health benefits.22
Coconut oil and its constituents have been credited with antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties,23,24 which may help to prevent skin infections. In fact, a derivative of coconut oil has demonstrated broad-spectrum activity against numerous types of bacteria implicated in superficial skin infections.25 Coconut oil has also shown antifungal benefits against Candida albicans, a type of yeast involved in vaginal yeast infections as well as thrush (a fungal infection affecting the oral cavity).24
The combination of your sweat along with coconut oil fatty acids creates a thin, protective mantle on the skin that helps keep pathogens at bay. Coconut oil also softens and moisturizes while removing dirt from the outer layer of skin, leaving it shiny and smooth. In consideration of all these wide-ranging benefits, it's only fitting that coconut oil takes its rightful place as one of the key ingredients in optimal foot care.Shea Butter For Smoother, Softer Skin
Another topical ingredient widely hailed for its skin-health benefits is shea butter. Derived from the fruit of an African tree, shea butter is an ivory-colored fat that acts as a rich topical moisturizer and emollient.
Shea butter is a rich source of vitamin E,26 a powerful antioxidant that is a popular ingredient in anti-aging skin formulations. Topically applied vitamin E is widely used to fight wrinkles, fade excess pigmentation, protect against UV light-induced damage, and preserve the skin's protective barrier functions.27-29
While scientists are still investigating the many possible applications of shea butter, fans of this rich moisturizer credit it with fading scars, relieving eczema, soothing severely chapped skin and lips, lightening skin discolorations, and fading wrinkles and stretch marks. When applied to the feet, shea butter produces an immediate skin-softening effect.Conclusion
Your feet deserve the best of care especially during later life when the risks of infection, photoaging, dehydration, and everyday aches and pain are greatest. Wash them regularly and use a good foot cream containing natural, health-promoting ingredients.
Protective essential oils and botanical extracts such as eucalyptus oil, menthol, tea antioxidants, squalene, coconut oil, and shea butter provide powerful ingredients to help rejuvenate the feet. By locking in moisture, combating microbial infections and free radical-induced damage, and relieving everyday aches and pains, these bioactive agents can help feet look and feel younger. As a result, they will also feel happier and healthier--and so will you.References
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