Your body is much more than skin and bones. In fact, skin is part of your immune system and provides little-to-no structural support. Sure, you have tendons that connect your muscles to your bones; and there are ligaments, which hold your joints together. But the anatomical picture isn’t complete without your fascia.
What is fascia? By definition, fascia is a web-like sheet of connective tissue that envelops your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels, organs and cells. It is literally everywhere, working like a cocoon to contain all parts of the human body – head to toe!
Peeling Back the Layers: What is Fascia & What Does it Do?
The makeup of fascia
Think of fascia as a patchwork quilt. It’s one continuous sheath made of various pieces that are woven together. In some areas, the quilt is thin and the strands are loosely connected. In other parts of the body, fascia is thick and smooth. Fascia expert Layne Coffee, COO of ADB Innovations, LLC, describes fascia as “pantyhose meets cotton candy with a very sticky texture.”
Oddly enough that cotton-candy quilt is strong and supportive enough to hold together your entire body – skin, bones, muscles and all. The fact is, fascia has a protein-packed ingredient list. The primary makeup of fascia is collagen, but it also features an abundance of flexible elastic fibers. Each layer of fascia has a slightly different ratio of collagen to elastin. This is largely because they serve different functions.
Taking a closer look at these layers will help you better understand fascia as a whole.
The layers of fascia
When a blanket is wrapped around you, it has no clear end or beginning. Fascia is the same way, which makes categorizing a sticky subject (no pun intended). Health and medical professionals have yet to agree upon one classification system. However, designating fascia based on its positioning seems to be widely accepted. With that said, there are three distinct layers of fascia: superficial, deep and visceral.
1. Superficial fascia
This is the layer found just underneath your skin. The International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork likens the structure to “that of a honeycomb consisting of non-densely laid-down collagen.” It’s mostly made up of areolar connective tissue, which is a mixture of collagen, elastic and reticular fibers. Superficial fascia also features varying amounts of adipose tissue (read: fat).
This layer serves as a soft passageway for lymph, nerve and blood vessels. When the superficial fascia becomes compressed or restricted, those vessels are then compressed and restricted. It also plays a role in the movement of skin. In some cases, fascia can trap fatty tissue beneath the skin, creating the appearance of cellulite.
2. Deep fascia
As its name implies, this lies deeper than superficial fascia and is the most extensive layer of the three. Deep fascia encases your muscles in a thick, gray-toned membrane with a high concentration of elastic fibers. The elastin gives this layer its resilience. It is also rich with sensory receptors, which is why a deep-tissue massage or other myofascial release hurts so good.
What’s undeniably good about deep fascia is that it protects your muscles and soft tissue structures. It also acts as a barrier in the event an infection has penetrated your skin and superficial fascia. Thanks to deep fascia, the infection won’t spread to your muscles.
3. Visceral fascia
This is the deepest layer of fascia, as it covers all your organ systems. In fact, each organ has its own type of visceral fascia. The brain’s visceral fascia is known as the meninges, the heart has the pericardia and the lungs have pleurae.
Generally speaking, visceral fascia is made up of elastic and collagen fibers, though the exact distribution of each varies from one area to the next. The pericardia, for instance, is composed of very few elastic fibers, while the esophagus has the highest concentration of elastin. Overall, the main function of visceral fascia is to comfortably suspend all these organs within their cavities.
The functions of fascia
Each of these layers has a unique role within the body, but the overall functions of fascia include:
- Provides structural support
- Protects muscles and organs
- Reduces friction
- Transmits pain signals
Understanding its Importance: How Does Fascia Impact Your Health?
The Fascia Research Society says, “Fascia is the most pervasive, but perhaps least understood network of the human body. No longer considered the ‘scraps’ of cadaver dissections, fascia has now attracted the attention of scientists and clinicians.” Indeed, fascia has become a biological buzzword of sorts and researchers will continue to explore its potential. But there is already so much evidence proving fascia plays a key role in the body’s strength, stability, flexibility and overall movement.
Consider something as simple as bringing a glass of water to your mouth. This involves flexing your elbow, which contracts your biceps. Thanks to the intertwining fibers of fascia, your biceps are intimately connected to your triceps, chest, neck and shoulders. So not only have you used your bicep muscle, you’ve now engaged neighboring parts of your body.
If that’s what happens when you take a sip of water, imagine the ripple effect of walking your dog, working at a desk all day or working out at the gym. There is a symbiotic relationship between your muscles and your fascia; when one contracts, so does the other. While this harmony is healthy – and necessary – it can also be the catalyst for injury.
Fascia-related injuries are not at all uncommon. You may be (too) familiar with plantar fasciitis. This condition is characterized by inflammation of the fascia in the sole of your foot, which leads to stiffness and pain. This is a classic example of fascia thickening in response to repeated stress, such as running or playing basketball.
Of course, fascia doesn’t just affect your muscles. Tight visceral fascia, for instance, can have a serious impact on your organ systems. Also, recall that blood vessels and nerves run through your fascia. As Coffee explains, even the slightest misalignment can strain your fascia line, which can create nerve issues and restrict blood flow.
6 Ways to Keep Your Fascia Healthy
Fascia’s natural response to chronic stress is to thicken and become stiff. Thankfully, you can reverse this uncomfortable state of affairs with some focused TLC. To restore and maintain the health of your fascia, make sure you’re consistently following these tips:
1. Be mindful of your body alignment
“Anything you do that’s not in perfect alignment can cause damage [to your fascia],” notes Coffee. Unfortunately, bad habits are hard to drop. Most people don’t even know they have poor alignment, because your body has simply adapted over the years.
Coffee suggests standing in front of a mirror to check your natural posture, and then start treating what you see. For instance, do you notice your shoulders slouching and your head coming forward? The gravitational pull on your neck can cause the fascia to recoil, leading to back pain. Once you’ve recognized the issue, make a conscious effort to correct your posture throughout the day. This will relieve some of the tension on your fascia and help move it into a healthier position.
2. Steer clear of inflammatory foods
Food that causes distress within your body will signal the nervous system. Over time, this puts tension on the fascia surrounding your nerve vessels and can lead to physical discomfort all throughout the body.
You could follow an anti-inflammatory meal plan if that helps, but the main takeaway is to avoid any foods that disagree with your body. If you have an allergy to nuts or a sensitivity to gluten, certainly omit them from your diet. This doesn’t just apply to allergies, though. Any food that disrupts your digestive system or irritates your skin should also be put on the chopping block.
3. Use proper exercise form
A regular exercise routine helps prevent adhesions or restrictions within your fascia. Exercising also strengthens your muscles and joints, making it easier to maintain a healthy body alignment. But none of that matters if you don’t use proper form during your workouts.
In order to strengthen and grow muscles, you need a steady supply of nutrient-rich blood. When you run flat-footed on concrete or squat with all the weight in your toes, you are putting undue stress on your body. This puts tension on your fascia, which then compresses your blood vessels. Use proper form, and you’ll avoid compensation patterns and unnecessary force.
4. Warm up before exercising
You know you should warm up before a workout. It helps prepare the muscles for movement, which is exactly the same reason it’s good for your fascia. Loosening those connective tissues will improve your mobility, making it easier to run, jump, lunge or lift.
No matter what type of exercise you do, Coffee encourages you to get the fascia hot before impact. One of her quick tricks for runners is to simply stand in the sun for five to 10 minutes. If it’s cold or cloudy, try the nearest sauna, or use a tool like the FasciaBlaster, paying special attention to your feet and shins.
5. Start a bodywork routine
Being sedentary causes those connective tissues to stick together, which is why you want to keep the body moving. That said, excessive movement or high-intensity exercise can also cause adhesions and sticking points. So what do you do? Whether you’re an avid exerciser or not, a bodywork routine can help iron out the kinks and improve your overall mobility.
Bodywork includes stretching, myofascial release or any other form of treatment that improves the health of your fascia. Ashley Black, creator of the FasciaBlaster and author of “The Cellulite Myth: It’s Not Fat, It’s Fascia,” recommends 30 minutes of active recovery for every hour you spend exercising. If you’ve just finished an intense workout, shoot for 45 minutes of bodywork.
For some, rolling out the yoga mat twice a week helps stretch and balance the body. Those who can’t find relief on their own, however, may want to seek help from a bodywork professional.
6. Stay hydrated!
Just like your skin, fascia loses elasticity when it’s dehydrated. Lack of fascial stretch and flexibility directly impacts the mobility of your muscles and joints, which puts you at risk for injury. Thirsty fascia is also vulnerable to fraying, thereby threatening the integrity of your fascia, as well.
The easiest thing you can do to keep your fascia healthy is consume more water. The National Academies of Sciences determined that the adequate intake (AI) for adult females is 2.7 liters per day and 3.7 liters per day for adult males. This doesn’t mean you need to drink that many liters in water. Many of the foods you eat – fresh fruits and veggies, in particular – contribute to your total water consumption.
At the end of the day, “you want your fascia to be supple and open,” says Coffee. By following these tips and bringing more awareness to your body, you’ll have no problems achieving exactly that!