My clients who have known me for some time know that I've been a novice wood worker for several years. Working with wood, be it making cedar strip kayaks or cutting boards, has some lessons for the human body, if one notices.
Remember the stickiness of collagen I mentioned in Part I? Collagen as a molecule is “leggy” with branches that grab on to other molecules around it. Remember also that collagen is literally everywhere in the body. The honeycombed-like scaffolding that gives home to our fat cells looks just like the fascial scaffolding around our muscle cells too. Nature loves patterns, and uses them across species and parts, widely.
So if the collagen in fascial scaffolding is what separates each muscle cell and each fat cell, and it covers each organ and bone and ligament and tendon, how should we regard it, now that we know about it?
My husband at the time made beautiful cutting boards for friends and family a couple of years ago and needed a hand in the glue-up process. He had these lovely blocks of maple, cherry and a little walnut glued together in variegated strips and needed a hand quickly spreading the white wood glue in between them before clamping them together for a night to adhere.
It got me thinking about the collagenous basis of glue, and what is needed for a good glue-up. Of course, the glue, pressure and time. In this case, the clamps provide the pressure. Regarding time, if I were to unscrew the clamps and peek to see if the glue had set too early by pulling a couple of the wood strips on our cutting board apart, we likely wouldn’t be able to get the two pieces back together unless we scraped all the old glue and reapplied new, reclamped and gave a proper amount of time. The chemical bond of the glue molecules would break apart.
Every day I see people in my office with adhesions or “stuck parts” somewhere in the body. I have them myself. We all do, somewhere. Our parts are supposed to move, to slide against other neighboring parts inside us. So why do we get conditions like sciatica and pseudo-sciatica, the pain in the butt that nags and aches down the leg?
I keep coming back to what it takes for a good glue-up. Stickiness, time and pressure. The gluteal muscles are the perfect place for this to happen. We sit, providing pressure. We sit for long periods, providing time. We know we have the glue inside us, surrounding each separate part.
An experienced massage therapist knows that it’s not just about pushing on the tissue, but lifting it, too, like separating glued up parts so that fluid can flow between them again and they can slide against their neighbors like they should.
I’ll write more on that fluid and it’s dynamic role in our health and well-being at another time. But in the meantime, there is much we can do to prevent ourselves from “gluing-up”. Get up and move! Forget isolating muscles when you stretch, reach high and feel a stretch from your arm, through the arm pit, down your side and into the hip. Western medicine loves to isolate areas as if each works in a vacuum; don’t fall into an isolationist’s trap of stretching just quads or just calves without thought of the fascial lines that connect these parts up to your neck and head and down to the heel.
Here’s another aspect of the glue-up: dilution. We all know that we can add water to Elmer’s glue and lessen its sticking power. When we are dehydrated, the body will take what water we do have and use it for life-sustaining functions, not performance of the large intestines or of skeletal muscles. Adding more water to one’s diet, more than is necessary for survival, will serve to dilute the sticky nature of our collagen, “lube” the surfaces within us and help our immune cells reach every nook and cranny to protect us. Chemists have a saying, “The solution to pollution is DILUTION.” It applies to us, as well. So keep your parts “juicy,” keep moving, and go with the flow!
I’ve been thinking. Or rather contemplating the idea of what’s under our skin for over 15 years and in that time also palpating hundreds of clients’ tissues, my understanding has vastly changed. Of course massage school requires each student to memorize the origin and insertion of each muscle and some ligaments, and what each does. The pre-med anatomy and physiology courses in the university had “real-life” cadavers so we could see first-hand what a preserved, dissected and “cleaned up” dead human body looks like. All I can say is it’s hard for me to eat turkey bacon now.
These are the same classes those in the medical profession get early on, and I say the cadavers were “cleaned up” because the teaching assistants had removed with the skin, the fatty layer of superficial fascia and all of the meaningful connective tissue from the bodies of the cadavers so that we could see only the parts they were teaching and quizzing us about.
What’s wrong with that? It’s only part of the picture. It’s an unfortunate habit of human nature that we tend to discount that which we don’t understand. Boom. In the garbage, a whole organ system full of information and function. This outer fascial layer is often cursed along with our adipose, or fat. We have it cut and sucked out by surgeons’ tools. We cover it with clothing, we sit on it, and we hope to discard it because we don’t fully understand it. Let’s not fall into that trap.
If you were to remove a chunk of your fatty layer, say from your thigh, all the way down to the deeper fascial layer that looks like a translucent sheet of Saran Wrap that covers your quad muscles, and take this fatty square with skin on top, what would you find? Well, you would find lots of blood vessels, little nerves and glands closer to the skin for the release of sweat, skin oils and excess of toxic build up of substances your body no longer needs or wants.
But if you took the fatty layer itself and removed the fat cells, what you’d be left with is a beautiful honeycomb structure of a collagen-based scaffolding.Contrary to what my anatomy and physiology professor lectured, it does have structure.
It’s collagen based, I say, as is just about every wrapping in our bodies. It gives us structure. That collagen based substance can be found wrapping our blood vessels, around our bones and every organ in our bodies. It helps our muscles and tendons attach to the bones, it’s the basis of that big strappy hinge of our low backs, and when the fascia of the bottom of our foot becomes irritated, it’s called Plantar Fasciitis.
I liken fascia to a bread recipe. From the same ingredients it takes to make bread, you can also make pancakes, white sauce, paste, muffins, bagels, etc. all by slightly altering the ingredients. Collagen in this case is like the flour in the recipe, and is the glue that binds and thickens. You have undoubtedly heard of glue factories, and how the glue is obtained: horses, cattle, hooves, etc. are literally cooked to render the collagen from them for the white glue on our kids’ school supply lists. There is even a cow on the front of the bottle.
And just as collagen is to fascia as flour is to bread products, collagen can help form our outer cushioning layer, a strong lining for our blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, our ligaments and tendons. It creates scar tissue to repair wounds, and works with bone material to repair fractures. As if that’s not enough, it does even more.
So what breaks down collagen? Well, you know how sun exposure contributes to wrinkles, right? Ultraviolet light breaks down collagen. Lack of vitamin C breaks collagen apart. It takes one molecule of vitamin C to make one molecule of collagen. You’ve heard of the disease scurvy, right? Sailors and prisoners died of it by the millions. What happens when the human body doesn’t get enough vitamin C after 3 or 4 months? The collagen of the body breaks down until the teeth fall out of the gums, fatigue, depression, bones that had long since healed break open again, scars open up and ultimately, a major blood vessel breaks open, causing internal bleeding and death.
We don’t have to worry about scurvy today, because luckily, people in a position to observe, ignored the politics of the snake oil companies and popular thought of the 1790’s and tried something new. The answers had been there all along. The Native Americans knew it all along, but nobody asked them. Sometimes it takes a long time to see the value in something or somebody, especially if we don’t fully understand it.
Stay tuned for more on collagen and fascia and how and why we should get “unstuck”.