We do have a real live matrix in our bodies. It is known as the ECM or extra cellular matrix. It also falls under the heading of the broader term “fascia”. For most people, fascia means the Saran wrap like lining of many body cavities and joints, but emerging science suggests that functionally, even cartilage and bones maybe variations on the fascia and ECM theme. For today, I want to focus on the matrix that is the ECM.
It has some unique properties that you might want to be aware of, in terms of your health and the aging process. Three biggies are: it has extremely high water content- up to 78% when well hydrated so it’s often said that the ECM is “mostly water”. That is an over simplification, however, because the water is bound up by the gooey substances that make up the ECM. Visually, you might think of the ECM matrix as similar to one of those gel packs you heat or put in the freezer, to treat strains and sprains. It flows, but far more slowly that water. One expert jokingly refers to it as extracellular snot, because of its similar chemical makeup.
Next, the matrix is a communication device. It is loaded with stress, pain, vibration and proprioception (where you are in space) receptors, that when deformed by movement, trauma or pressure, send piezoelectric signals to the surrounding areas and perhaps far beyond. Thus, it forms a kind of slow neural network that, over time, can shape itself and the tissues around it. Again, this is not the fast response of the nervous system, or even the endocrine/hormonal system. This kind of signal may take months to have a visible or functional effect on tissue, but once it does, that effect can take equally long to reverse. And that effect is cumulative and continues as long as we continue that stimulus.
Probably the most telling manifestation of our matrix is our posture.
You’ve probably heard the term “adhesions” and if you do any kind of body work or massage you most likely have been told by your therapist, “I need to break up these adhesions” in such and such an area of your body. Adhesions can take many forms, including out and out scar tissue and ultimately, bony change that we see in osteoarthritis. Theoretically, any and all adhesions could be reversed and remodeled, if you removed the offending stimulus. This includes the bony changes of arthritis. But this kind of change is often impossible for most people, because it occurs at a point in their lives where they literally would run out of time, to fix these problems. Concomitantly, most of the doctors people see have little information or knowledge about the matrix and few people are willing to put in the time and money.
Also, this area of medicine and science is still evolving, which is why you are reading it here instead of the blogs or newsletters written by the usual suspects.
As I gain expertise in this field, there are a couple of things I want to share with you, to help you keep your Matrix healthy.
At this juncture, three quarters of our population (Western population anyway) has adopted a similar posture. Simply put, it is head forward, rounded shoulders with arms rotated towards the chest, a “stuck” thoracic spine, excess lordosis of the lumbar spine (think the guys with big bellies sticking out and their backs pulled along with them!), anterior pelvic tilts (same big bellied guy- now follow his belt around as it goes from “high to low” as it circles from the tail bone to well below the belly button) and finally, externally rotated femurs without turned feet. Again this is a generalization and there are many finer points and variations, but as our population ages you are going to see more and more of this.
What is the cause? Primarily sitting, especially for long periods of time without hydration. No one likes to get up on the plane to pee, but if you sit at a desk or are in planes, trains and automobiles for a long period of time, you are likely to be stationary and dehydrated.
Try to fix this whenever you can by getting up and moving and staying hydrated. Remember the matrix is mostly water and dehydrating it will adversely affect its function. Same goes for athletics or working out. It is good to try to stay reasonably hydrated during any event, especially longer duration stuff. One bout of dehydration may not cause permanent dysfunction, but if you routinely do it over a year or two, as many triathletes and long distances runners do, you will pay the price and likely wind up with an ongoing, chronic injury, that seems almost impossible to get rid of. The chronic dehydration of Western life thickens the matrix and allows it to form adhesions, especially in areas of strain and pressure. You may not get adhesions on your “sitz bones” (the ischial tuberosities), but within a few inches are your low back and your hips and both of those areas feel the effects and strain of sitting and dehydration, in many people. The snot turns to glue! Then your muscles are glued in place.
Now here is the part where I offend people, as I often do, while unearthing the current state of understanding on a topic. In our book, The Immortality Edge (Wiley and Sons 2010), we discuss the effects of Yoga and meditation on telomere length. Since that book was published, there is not a day that does not go by, where someone inserts their favorite movement therapy or activity into the mix as a “way to keep your telomeres longer”. I have seen weight lifting, running, Tai Chi Yoga, Pliates, spinning and just about every other form of exercise, being thrown on the telomere bandwagon. Most of it has absolutely no real merit, at this point in time. It may make sense, but it is not proven to the degree that people who are hawking this stuff will lead you to believe.
It turns out that meditation scores big, not only on the telomere scale, but also on the matrix scale. I have written and lecutured often on meditation and telomeres, so I won’t go over that here, other than to say: do it. Now what about meditation and the health of the Matrix!? Above, I mentioned that stress, trauma and repetitive motion and dehydration are stimulus for increasing the thickness and usually the dysfunction of the matrix. Another one that is rarely talked about is excess sympathetic tone. In English, that is a chronic state of over ampedness that is so rampant in our society. Caffeine as coffee, tea, or in our youth “energy drinks” are ubiquitous. So is rushing, not enough time, and a chronic drive to “do something” with little break. The addiction of 50 million people to sleep aids is the sad testimony to our desire to live more, do more and be more. How’s that working out for you!?
Sympathetic tone is another stimulus that tells the matrix to thicken and make more of itself. As the layers thicken, so does the potential for adhesions in those areas. Chronic stress is a stimulus for increasing the thickness of your matrix in a pathologic fashion. Meditation works, because it raises parasympathetic tone, the opposite of sympathetic tone and decreases the formation of matrix adhesions.
Now, take poor postural habits, dehydration (and antihistamines that dry you out), caffeine and other sympathetic nervous system stimulants, immobility for long periods of time, hopefully interspersed with some physical fitness and of course low consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids like fish oil, and you have the recipe for all kinds of adhesions and ultimately, scar tissue and arthritis.
I am not done offending people yet.
It may seem obvious that some kind of movement therapy like Yoga or Pilates would be a great choice to improve the situation and indeed, this, along with telomere health, is why we mention them in our book.
But caveat emptor.
I have met more than one high level Yoga or Pilates instructor who is injured in the same fashion as an athlete or older person, for much the same reason: biomechanical and postural reasons. Same things with their students, although in truth many people start Yoga or Pilates for that very reason- to fix a chronic problem, so we cannot always blame the instructor for students who are already damaged. But we can blame them for teaching people before they are truly ready. The bottom line is, lots of people have postural issues that should be fixed to the degree possible, before they ever dream of Yoga or Pilates, or the like. The instructors should actually not allow those people to do Yoga or Pilates until those dysfunctions are fixed, or at the very least, should spend a long time on the limited movements that would bring these people from ground zero to improved postural health. From what I have written above, you can see the problem. First, not all instructors are body workers, although most usually claim to have some experience in the field. Next, you would have a hard time making a living if you told over half your students, “Sorry, you and I need to spend a year or two fixing your biomechanical issues and avoiding the stuff that caused them, until you have healthy functional posture in a dynamic, moving state. So we are going to do exactly 4 poses for the next year and by the way, no more weight lifting or running, because I would rather see you gain 30 pounds than continue to injure yourself. Don’t worry, when you are better, you can start all that stuff again! In the meantime, if I teach you the way most people do, you’ll just cheat the poses and the form and either hurt yourself worse, or make no real progress with what is really causing you problems.”
As you can see, it takes a very special person on both sides of the client/provider equation for that to happen the way it needs to. One question you might ask of an instructor is, what does he or she do to stay healthy. Most good instructors will admit they go for body work themselves, to stay healthy. Now of course, I realize that not one Yoga or Pilates instructor reading this blog does anything but the wonderful things I just said. But, there are a lot people out there who are clueless, both students and instructors, who will do more harm than good.
So, in a nutshell, here’s how to keep you matrix healthy:
- Get up and move!
- Stay hydrated.
- Fix your posture and understand this takes time and will be uncomfortable, physically and emotionally.
- Take your fish oil.
- Try to reduce your sympathetic tone by avoiding excess stimulants and unnecessary stress.
Is it worth it?!
I have often said that I think degenerative arthritis is a combination of poor nutrition (primarily low Omega 3 and poor hydration) and long term responses to biomechanical postural defects. So yeah, it’s worth it. After all, what is the point of living to 150 years old if you are glued in one spot!
See you on the Telomere Edge!