How far you can reach beyond your toes from a sitting position, back against the wall, legs straight out in front of you? It may sound like an unimportant question, but it may actually be an important predictor of your longevity.
There are several accurate predictors of longevity that I have written about in prior Musings, including the length of our telomeres and our lung capacity. But another one that I have not yet written about is our flexibility. The health, flexibility and aging process of our connective tissues – tendons, ligaments and fascia — are extremely accurate predictors of how long we are going to live. Collectively, the connective tissues in the body are a three-dimensional network that runs throughout the body, giving us our shape and form as well as the framework for the organs, bone, teeth, blood vessels, muscles, and cartilage.
The test I have described – called “sit and reach” – is a diagnostic method used to determine the flexibility of a person’s body. The degree of flexibility is indicative of how stiff the arteries are. And because arterial stiffness often precedes cardiovascular disease, this simple test is a quick measure of risk for early mortality from either heart attack or stroke.
According to a recent study, arterial stiffness among middle age and older people is correlated with trunk flexibility. Interestingly — because of all the current emphasis on cardio exercise — the effect was independent of both muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. Another recent study found that middle age and older adults who began a regular stretch exercise program significantly improved the flexibility of their carotids, a major artery found in the neck that feeds the brain.
In the animal world, too, flexibility has a direct correlation with aging. Research documents that tendons age slower in animals that have longer life spans, and tendons age faster in animals with shorter life spans. Flexibility confers significant advantages to the body in a number of ways. Healthy blood vessels are elastic, and elasticity helps to moderate blood pressure. With flexibility comes better health of the blood vessels, as they are enabled to expand and contract more easily. Both lymphatic drainage and blood circulation are improved. There is more efficient removal of toxins as well as better muscle use, and joint and organ function. Tissue lubricants are stimulated, making mobility easier.
Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even with activity, the body dehydrates and stiffens with age. By the time most of us have reached adulthood, our tissues will have lost 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Too, muscle fibers begin to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that make tissue become more unyielding. This aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather.
Joint immobility can be manifested anywhere in the body, but it is most common in the hips and knees. More than one million hip and knee replacements are done every year. Arthritis is now the most common cause of pain and disability, and though it was once thought of as a disease of the elderly, 2/3 of those diagnosed today with arthritis are under 65.
When we think about flexibility, we usually think about muscles. We are told to stretch our muscles before workouts and after. But tendons, ligaments and fascia are also involved in flexibility, and it is now clear that they play an equally important role in both flexibility and the over-all health of the body. Ligaments connect bone to bone; tendons connect bone to muscle. Fascia is considered to be the most important of the three connective tissues as it connects all parts of our body, from head to toe, and from our skin to the deepest recesses of our body. Because of fascia, the internal parts of the body are able to slide smoothly over other tissues. Healthy fascia is strong; it can withstand up to 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. If we were somehow able to separate the entirety of the fascia webbing, intact, from the rest of the body structures, a perfect outline of the body would become visible. We would be enabled to see the exact shape of every part of the body, both on the inside and the outside.
Each of the connective tissues is comprised almost totally of collagen. Collagen is an interesting substance in the body: it is the “glue” that literally holds the body together as a coherent whole and it comprises 90% of what holds the body together. Although the collagen webbing stays with us for life, over time it changes. It can stretch from trauma; it can shorten from scar tissue; it can tear or get damaged from injury, inflammation or nutritional deficiencies. It can be cut from surgery. Most of the injuries that we sustain throughout our lives are from damage to the connective tissue. Even those aches and pains that we experience as being joint problems usually involve connective tissue damage.
By far, the most common problem with connective tissue is tightening. Once collagen begins its journey toward degradation, our ability to move is impeded; wrinkles form in our skin; we lose our sense of balance; our posture changes; we get shorter; our joints hurt; and we develop the need for reading glasses. It’s the process that we call, in sum, “aging.” But, the aging that we are seeing today is usually premature accelerated aging. It’s not aging at all. It’s an abnormal process that is illness that we’re passing off as a normal process of aging.
It now appears that collagen is also involved in the prevention of Alzheimer’s. Until recently, it was unknown that collagen VI is made by neurons in the brain and that it can fulfill important neuro-protective functions. Scientists from the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease, UCSF and Stanford have discovered that collagen VI, protects brain cells against amyloid-beta (Aβ) proteins. These are the proteins that are widely thought to cause or be correlated with Alzheimer’s disease.
There are a number of ways that we can curtail the abnormal process of collagen degradation. I’m going to refer to three methods: yoga; a specialized form of neuromuscular therapy called Spiral Techniques; and collagen supplementation.
In recent years, biomedical research has begun to investigate and appreciate what yogis have known for centuries: stretching keeps us limber, youthful, and healthy. Of course yoga stretches the muscles, releasing lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. But yoga also stretches all of the soft tissues, including ligaments, tendons, and fascia. And progress in yoga usually happens quickly. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga. The greatest gains were in shoulder and trunk flexibility.
The seated forward bend I described at the beginning of this Musings is not only a diagnostic predictor, but a therapeutic exercise as well, and is commonly performed in yoga classes. The exercise stretches a muscle chain that begins at the Achilles tendon, extends up the back of the legs and pelvis, then continues up along the spine to end at the base of the head. According to yoga understanding, this asana rejuvenates the vertebral column and tones the internal organs, massaging the heart, kidneys, and abdomen. One study showed that yoga can help with stroke recovery. Participants in the study had a history of stroke, and took group yoga classes twice a week. At the end of eight weeks, participants showed clinically meaningful improvements in balance, motor function, independence, and quality of life.
As the owner of a day spa, I have wonderful blissful massages every week. But when it comes to needing REALLY therapeutic bodywork, I turn to my trusted neuro-muscular therapy guy, Art Jaffe. Art has developed a specialized form of deep tissue work that he calls “Spiral Techniques.” Derived from a form of body-work developed by Mark Lamb called Bio-Sync, this is an unwinding technique that is highly effective in restoring flexibility as well as stimulating maximum blood flow, thereby bringing nutrients to tissues and cells and enabling them to remove toxins and waste in a more efficient manner. As a result, hardened and tightened connective tissue is released, eliminating nerve impingement and pain.
As Art talks about his technique, he begins to talk about energy and matter, and the interface of the two. He describes that matter moves in a spiral movement. From the smallest atom, to the double helix of our own DNA, to the largest galaxy, the spiral form represents movement that is continuous and infinite. As well, the spiral form has absolute integrity of structure: it can be lengthened or shortened, but never loses its inherent spiral organization. And it is this specific quality that is replicated in our body’s connective tissue: it can stretch or contract, but it has the ability to always return to its original position. When our connective tissue is exposed to a spiral movement, it inherently recognizes its own nature and resonates readily with it. Whereas most body practitioners use their arms and hands in the application of their healing work, in Spiral Techniques the practitioner uses his whole body to first gather, then channel and focus, and finally project the energy into areas needing release. The points of physical contact between practitioner and client are far beyond tactile. It is touch as well as energy transfer. Art can be reached at 646-644-0990. His associate, Karine Vermenot, brings a more feminine touch to the same work, and can be reached at 917-584-5183.
There are 14 different kinds of collagen, but the most predominant one in the body is collagen type II. If you want to increase the amount of collagen II in your body, there are various ways of accomplishing that.
There is injectable collagen, which physicians use to fill in wrinkles, lines and scars on the face. This is a purely cosmetic procedure, and has no over-all health benefits. Usually there are no ill-effects (except an occasional allergic reaction), but it can yield a kind of lumpiness once it settles into the face. At times, collagen is injected directly into joints, such as the knee. One can get relief from pain with this treatment, but, to my mind, it is healing in the reverse order. An injection heals from the outside-in, but healing from the inside-out is usually a more long-lasting healing effect.
Collagen can also be applied topically, and is an ingredient in many facial products. However, most scientists believe that topical collagen is not effective in reducing wrinkles because naturally occurring collagen molecules are too big to penetrate the depths of the skin.
Collagen can also be taken orally, in both powder and liquid form. A plant-derived product that I have found is called BioSil. Most collagen on the market, however, is derived from animal sources. Collagen MD is a powder product made from bovine collagen. These are both available on the internet. Jusuru BioCell collagen is the only liquid product I have found, and is taken from the sternum of free-range chicks 6-8 weeks old. I am told that the liquid gets the best results because the process of nutrient absorption begins immediately in the mucous membrane of the mouth. Jusuru is a MLM product. If one is willing to consume an animal product, Jurusu is probably the way to go. If you want to hear testimonials about the Jusuru product, call 530-881-1499, access code 871489. If you want to order the product, you can email La Casa.