Fire Life


By Anne Gagliano

Image courtesy of “Foot Massage Images.”
I’ve spent many years agonizing over my husband Mike’s inability to sleep as a result of his firefighting career.  Then one day a miracle occurred:  Mike fell asleep quickly and easily, and without even trying!  I gaped open-mouthed at this phenomenon—Mike, sleeping, with the lights on and everything.  What had happened?  What strange, magical fairy dust had just materialized to cause this event?  I’ll tell you; it wasn’t fairy dust, it was, quite simply, a five-minute foot massage.  We’d been sitting watching a movie together, a common evening activity for us, when I took his tired, aching feet onto my lap.  I began to rub them halfheartedly and without much effort as I watched the show.  I kneaded them like Christmas cookie dough, and the next thing I knew, he’d passed right out.  Since that day I’ve become a firm believer in the power of foot massage.

People fall asleep all the time on the table of a masseuse.  Why is that?  Massage has been scientifically proven to release “feel good” hormones, or endorphins, into the body and brain.  Endorphins directly reduce levels of norepinephrine and cortisol, which are stress hormones, the primary inhibitors of sleep.  A study was done on subjects who suffered from either depression or insomnia or both.  The control group was given a daily massage over a period of five days.  At the end of the five days, the control group’s urinary levels of norepinephrine and cortisol were significantly lower than the nonmassage group’s.  The control group also experienced an increased number of hours slept at night and reported lowered symptoms of anxiety.1

Endorphins released during massage have other benefits as well.  Not only do they counter stress and lift the mood, but they also prevent nerve cells from releasing more pain signals to the brain, literally “making the pain go away.”  A sore and weary firefighter cannot relax and go to sleep if pain impulses throb loudly through the brain.  Pain actually keeps the body awake.

The benefits associated with massage are experienced from head to toe—it doesn’t matter whether it’s back, neck, or foot.  The human touch is healing, soothing, and relaxing; it is like no other.  The word massage is derived from the Greek word “masso,” which means “to handle, touch, or to work with the hands.” The reason I prefer to give Mike a foot massage as opposed to say a back massage is simply this—it’s easiest for me while being just as effective for him.  I’m simply not strong enough to give him a deep-tissue massage through his thick muscle layers.  I try, on occasion, with little effect.  (He does, however, have great effect on my bad shoulder when he massages me, as I have little muscle and he is very strong.)  But if I rub his feet, which have less muscle and thinner skin, I strike gold, for the feet are actually warehouses of stored stress.

Situated in each foot is the solar plexus reflex, a spot where much of the body’s stress resides.  When pressed, the solar plexus reflex can calm the entire nervous system.  It is located in the center of the ball of the foot (near the toes.)  There are approximately 7000 nerve endings in the feet—when rubbed, the release of stress is felt throughout the entire body, including the brain, as these nerve endings are connected to every system.  Foot massage has been proven to even relieve headaches.

But wait, it gets better.  Foot massage improves circulation and heart health.  Blood transports oxygen and nutrition to the body’s cells.  Blood also works to remove waste and toxins from the cells, cleansing your system.2 When stress is present, whether from real danger or merely perceived, blood flow becomes limited as the body believes there’s no time for things like cleansing and repair.  It’s “all hands on deck—we have an emergency” mode, meaning blood is used for strength purposes only. For firefighters, this is a problem, as their job forces them to be amped up on ever-present adrenaline (or stress hormones such as cortisol) for the purposes of survival.  For them, there really is no time for things like cleansing and repair.   Stress hormones keep the heart working overtime, which can eventually lead to heart disease, which is a major killer of firefighters.  Endorphins are the key to eliminating these stress hormones, which wreak such havoc on the circulatory system, and there are only two ways to create them: One is through exercise; the other, massage.

Foot massage may prevent harmful effects of stress from taking a toll on other areas of the body as well.  If present, stress hormones can upset the digestive system, muscular system, and skeletal system.  The immune system, too, can be worn down by the effects of adrenaline.  The power of endorphins not only eliminates stress hormones, but it actually stimulates immune cells as well, making them stronger and better able to fight disease.  These diseases can range from the common everyday cold all the way up to the more serious ones like cancer.  A strengthened, invigorated immune system can even slow aging.

Foot massage does all this and more:  It promotes sleep, lifts the mood, eases pain, and counters illnesses associated with stress.  What a wonderful, simple gift to give to the one you love–the power of the human touch. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Look for my next column, “How to Give a Great Foot Massage,” if you wish to improve this craft for yourself or for your spouse.


1., “The Benefits of Massage Therapy.”
2., “Foot Massage Benefits.”


 Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.