Your Shoes Are Starving Your Brain

Runnning shoes on runnerThis post is for the neuro nerds. My bio buds. The manual therapists, the weekend warriors and the supple leopards. It’s also for the moms and dads, and the generation they are charged with raising.

This post is about proprioception. And it’s for all of us.

Proprio-what???

I am going to use the term ‘proprioception’ loosely in this post. Normally, we use it to simply talk about our own awareness of body position. Here, I’ll lump it in with other sensory information  as an all-encompassing way to describe the combination of impulses directed from the body to the brain via the nervous system. It can be from neurons, mechanoreceptors, proprioceptors, golgi tendon organs, muscle spindles, Pacinian corpuscles and tons of other things most people don’t care about.

But I care about them. Because they are essential to life. And most of us are stifling the message.

So here goes (if you’re still with me). Our body is littered with sensory neurons and organs that send signals to the brain for interpretation. Proprioception is mediated in the cerebellum (the hindbrain). Other sensory information is computed in the cortical region of the brain.  Here, a physical representation has been created to depict the density of sensors in parts of the body. It’s called the sensory homunculous, which means ‘creepy little dude.’ (See picture below)
I10-13-homunculusYou see that the lips and hands are huge because they are the most sensitive parts of our bodies, and thus have the most dense innervation allotted to them.

But I left out another big one. Our feet!

Yes, our feet are packed with senory neurons and proprioceptors and are supposed to give our brains tons of feedback about the nature of our environment. I say ‘suppose to’ because everyone is suppressing this important feedback with fashionable functional casts shoes.

Yes, your shoes are killing you. Or at the very least decreasing the quality of your life and health. Killing sounds more compelling though.

One of my favorite authors, Dr. James Chestnut likes to talk about proprioception as an essential ‘nutrient’ for your brain. Think about all of the childhood behavioral and brain disorders. ADD/ADHD for example is partly a sensory input disorder. The brain isn’t getting sufficient feedback from its environment and thus ‘asks’ for more. More movement, more activity, more stimulation, more nutrients. And yet we have a society that puts shoes on our kids, has them sit in tidy lines in class all day and wonders why so many kids are struggling. And yes the food is partly to blame. But this post is all about movement and proprioception.

The Hard-Level Floor Theory
From an ancestral health perspective, this all makes a lot of sense. Back in the day, we would spend a lot of time moving about the ground, connected to the earth. Mark Sisson talks a lot about this in his newest book The Primal Connection. We would have been on uneven surfaces and naturally had strong feet and tons of sensory input from our feet to our brains. Nowadays, we must make a conscious effort to get off of hard-level floors and out of shoes to feed our brain the proprioceptive nourishment it requires. Could the modern trend of something as common as shoes be contributing to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, depression, ADD, etc?

What to do?
We can’t very well go around barefoot all day. It’s true; our society is setup to dissuade a full complement of sensory feedback from our feet. Translation: no shirt, no shoes, no service!

Below is what I recommend to patients and what I have personally done. Not only will you help nourish the brain, these strategies can help to alleviate plantar fasciitis, shin splints, IT Band syndrome, patellar tendonitis and chronic ankle sprains.

  1. Whenever possible,  take off your shoes and walk around on the grass.
  2. Daily “Foot drills.” These are simple exercises to strengthen and rehab the foot muscles. (see video below)
  3. Gradually shift all footwear to barefoot or minimalist style.
  4. When weight training, I’ve opted for Inov-8’s, which are less restricting than a full-blown lifting shoe. Depending on your level of involvement, pick something that will protect, but also create a more ‘natural’ environment.
  5. When hiking, I like Vibram Five Fingers.
  6. When at work, I find a minimalist flat from Vivobarefoot is ‘dressy’ enough to get by.

(Please note the video is not mine. Credits can be found in the YouTube link.)

I wouldn’t recommend doing all of this all at once. It takes time to strengthen the foot enough to transition safely back to our original nature. Especially if you’re a runner. DO NOT simply take of your shoes and pound the pavement. Go slow and steady to build up your innate foot strength and proprioception.

After all, we’ve been in walking casts most of our lives.

Yours in Health,

Dr. Scott


13 thoughts on “Your Shoes Are Starving Your Brain

  1. Great article, thank you! Unfortunately, I can’t wear my VFF’s much anymore…I made the mistake of “double-undering” in them and hurt my foot…and it’s never totally recovered. I’m going to try these foot exercises! I’d love to get back to my VFF’s…I get “stone bruises” on my heels if I walk too much in them, but I’d love to at least work out in them again…

    • Tara,
      I actually don’t really recommend training if VFFs. I prefer them more for walking / hiking. The goal there of course is to mid-foot strike and avoid heel striking. It takes time and practice to transition back to the way we’re supposed to walk.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      -Dr. Scott

  2. Great article – I have a question though! I walk around a lot during the day outside on pavement. I usually wear orthodics and a show with a “supportive” sole. When I do, my feet don’t hurt at all but If I don’t wear something as supportive, my feet ache starting in the middle of the day. What are your recommendations for “weaning” myself off of my current shoes.
    Thanks!

    • Danielle,
      Thanks for the question. In your case, if you are comfortable with your current shoe, you don’t ‘have’ to switch. I would simply suggest adding in the Foot Drills to your routine, and walk around barefoot other times of your life. The unfortunate truth is that we aren’t ‘suppose’ to be on pavement so much. But if you’ve found something that works for you, stick with it. You can always try slow transitions, with short periods of using a more minimalist shoe during other parts of your life. Recognize there is a ‘hardening’ period where the foot will be achy when you start working it out. Just like any other muscle/body part.
      Hope that helps,
      Dr. Scott

  3. Really nice article and helpful video. However, you lose some credibility by misspelling the word “heels” in an article about feet.

    • Kris,
      I assume you mean the typo in the video? I did not make the video. I should add a caption to clarify the original source.
      Thanks for the catch.
      -Dr. Scott

  4. Pingback: The Limitations of Mobility | Dr. Scott A. Mills

    • Ruth,
      I have a few thoughts…but not a specific recommendation. First – this post from another Doc covers just about everything in detail that I would say. He recommends vivobarefoot brand which is fine, and I’ve seen kids versions of the Merrell Glove but they can be pricey and kids grow out of shoes so fast…
      I’d just look for any sort of minimalist slip on flat (think Toms, or like a thin soled chuck taylor) with a wide toe box. Anything that allows for natural foot spread, movement and strength development.

      Lastly, anytime they are in an environment that allows…let them go barefoot!
      That’s how we’re meant to be after all.

      Thanks,
      Dr. Scott

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