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”.