We have an intricate network of connective tissue running throughout our body that serves a higher purpose than just holding us together. Ian Craig explains why.
According to Thomas Myers, who wrote a lovely book called Myofascial Lines, there are three networks within the body which hold it together and allow it to function as synchronously as it does: the nervous system, the vascular system, and the network of connective tissue. In this way, 70 trillion cells can live together harmoniously withing the confines of our body.
A COMMUNICATION NETWORK
The connective tissue network spreads out from the spine to create a protective net around all the cells, structures and systems. There are Front Lines, Back Lines, Lateral Lines, Arm Lines and Spiral Lines that make up this network: the Spiral Lines are shown in Figure 1. All of the three networks communicate with each other: the nerves carry sensory information in and out of the body; our blood vessels constantly circulate oxygen and nutrients; and the connective tissue system communicates mechanical information via the matrix of fascia, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bones.
As you can quite clearly see from Figure 1, our feet are actually connected to our head! Body workers such as massage therapists, chiropractors and physios are increasingly becoming aware that for any injury that occurs, any part of the body’s mechanical or chemical system could be contributing to that imbalance. I will leave the mechanics to the body workers, but I want to let you know how to keep your connective tissue healthy.
WHAT CONSTITUTES CONNECTIVE TISSUE?
If we focus specifically on the connective tissue as the basis of the fascia, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bone plus the structure that binds muscles together, we can see that it is potentially a major source of injury for the outdoors athlete, whether elite or recreational. Let’s break this tissue down further to see what it’s made of – perhaps we can understand how to use nutrition to our advantage. The matrix of connective tissue is made of collagen fibres, elastin fibres, fluid, immune cells, stem cells and carbohydrates calles ‘GAGs’ (glycosaminoglycans). I will focus on two of these structures, which can be supported nutritionally.
Collagen, as the structural unit of connective tissue, is the most abundant protein in the animal world, constituting more than 30% of the total protein of the human body. It is found mostly in fibrous tissues like tendons, ligaments and skin, but also bone, cartilage, blood vessels, the gut and muscles. It is made out of three amino acids (proteins) and vitamin C is vital for the cross-linking of collagen fibres. It is the cross-linking that gives collagen its strength and stability.
The collagen in healthy tissue is strong and organised and on a basis of weight is nearly as strong as steel. However, collagen fibres in scar tissue are smaller and more random and at best can achieve only 80% of normal strength. Since the scar tissue is weaker than surrounding healthy tissue, it will become susceptible to further injury, which makes it even more important to optimise collagen repair or even better, to reduce the likelihood of injury in the first place.
In order to support collagen nutritionally, well-absorbed dietary proteins are extremely important: amino acids are required for collagen synthesis within connective tissue, muscle synthesis and metabolism, and blood flow.
Vitamin C is needed for the structural strength of collagen and has consequently been used to treat many collagen disorders. Vitamin C, along with Vitamin E and other antioxidants are also essential to buffer the consequences of oxidative stress, which is likely to be prevalent during injury. Foods high in Vitamin C include bell peppers, broccoli, papaya, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi fruit and oranges.
In terms of supplements, a protein powder such as whey or soya or rice, might be useful. Additionally, hydrolysed collagen powder, which will provide the appropriate amino acids for collagen repair in an easily absorbable form, may be useful. Vitamin C can also be supplemented to support collagen, but be aware of the ongoing debate about antioxidant supplements. Some researchers think that excess quantities might actually impede recovery from training injury.
GAGs are vital for the hydration of connective tissue within tendons, ligaments and cartilage. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate (common joint supplements) are major components of GAGs, making them vital for the synthesis of new connective tissue during the healing process.
With respect to cartilage repair, glucosamine supplementation has gained most of the research attention and 2 000 mg has been shown to significantly reduced joint pain and improve function in as little as eight weeks, but chondroitin is also recognised for beneficial joint functional. Sulphation (from the sulphur in either of these products or from MSM) is also important to optimise GAG synthesis for healthy cartilage.
Other experts may recommend higher dosages for these supplements where they are necessary.
In addition to providing sufficient protein through your diet, ensuring sources of vitamin C, and potentially supplementing glucosamine or chondroitin it is important to eat a diet that is rich in plant foods. Not only do fruits and vegetables boost your daily level of antioxidant, which are important to reduce tissue damage, but they also help to decrease levels of inflammation that might be associated with hard training and injury. Aim to fill at least half of your plate with vegetables at meal times and the other half with protein and carbohydrate-rich foods. When you’re out in the country, try and minimise your reliance on packaged products (although the quality of snack bars are improving). Include snacks like fruit (dried or fresh), nuts and dried meat such as biltong plus healthy sandwiches or lunchboxes.