Strengthening Our Ligaments and Tendons Through Nutrition

Back in April of this year, I took part in a CPSDA sport dietician’s conference. My role was with PowerBar, and educating the dieticians on our products, what’s new, how their athletes can use them, etc. While there I was able to listen to some of the presenters speak on various topics. The one of most interest to me was by Dr. Keith Baar from UC Davis. He presentation was about ligament health, but specifically how we can use nutrition to strengthen our ligaments post surgery. It was quite fascinating and my goal here is to summarize his talk so that others can hear this pretty cool topic.

What is a ligament?

Ligaments attach bone to bone. Or from wikipedia: a short band of tough, flexible, fibrous connective tissue that connects two bones or cartilages or holds together a joint.

Ligaments attach two stiff tissues (bone is pretty stiff). The stiffer the ligament, the stronger the attachment.

What is a tendon?

Tendons connect muscle to bone. Or from wikipedia: a flexible but inelastic cord of strong fibrous collagen tissue attaching a muscle to a bone.

Tendons attach a compliant (stretchy) tissue to a stiff tissue. They protect muscle from injury, so a stiff tendon is not always a good thing.

How they help with exercise:

1. The greater the passive stiffness in a muscle tendon, the greater your strength, power, speed and economy/efficiency.
2. However, the greater the passive stiffness the greater the rate of muscle injury from exercise. We can increase the stiffness from exercises like plyometrics and strides.
So you have a negative and a positive, all in the same thing. It’s all about balance. And sometimes, that balance is skewed in one direction and you tear that tendon or ligament. Typical tears include ACL, LCL, MCL. Sometimes, surgery is the only option.
Dr. Baar and the other researchers in his lab set out to look at the effect of loading on ligaments, the stretch cycle, etc. They even engineered their own ligaments to test different tensile strengths and see the reaction. Pretty cool. They also looked at female hormones specifically, and how that related to the stretch cycle, and injury prevention or causation. I’m not going to go into that now, however he did find that women have great laxity (flexibility) in their knees at ovulation, due to estrogen being high, thus leading to more ACL ruptures. Estrogen appears to decrease ligament stiffness.
So I’m sure you’re asking where the nutrition part comes in…here it is:
Collagen: the most abundant protein in the body and is the major component of our connective tissue (skin, tendons, muscles, etc.). Collagen is also called Gelatine/Jello. We’ve all had jello, which is collagen. Those that are vegans will not and do not consume collagen or Gelatine since it is derived from animal products. Unfortunately they can stop reading as what I’m going to go into is only about collagen.
Collagen is found in protein rich foods like beef. The collagen that is found in foods must be broken down by the digestive system, and then absorbed into the small intestine-then it’s reassembled to create our connective tissues. As we age, collagen decreases, our muscles and skin sag, our cartilage becomes thinner and weaker and we have hair loss.
What Dr. Baar and his team discovered was, when you add collegen (with Vit. C) into your daily diet at very specific times, it improved collagen synthesis. The reason why vitamin C is added, is that it is  needed for collagen synthesis. You might remember hearing about sailors getting scurvy. Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds, which particularly affected poorly nourished sailors until the end of the 18th century (wiki). Yikes. It’s one reason they carried lemons and limes on their ships.
They tested this out with numerous athletes. Each time giving them a combination of collagen and vitamin C before their post surgery rehab sessions. It turns out, it worked. It made their tendons and ligaments stronger, allowed the body to recover post surgery, and prevented any re-tearing in the future. The recipe for collegan squares, is just orange juice jello squares.
Here is their recipe:
Gelatin Recipe
Gelatin can be just added to a shake (2-5g) or made into Jello
For the Jello recipe, take
-5 packets (4g each) of Knox®
-2 Cups of juice (orange)
-1,000 mg of vitamin C
  • Boil 1.5 cups of the juice while you dissolve the gelatin and vitamin C in the remaining 1/2 cup.
  • Mix the hot juice, put in the fridge and let cool.
  • Cut into 10 pieces.
  • Eat one piece 30-60 before training or physical therapy.

I made this just to see how it tasted. It tasted just like orange jello. If you are post surgery, or even in rehab for a tendon/ligament tear, this is worth a shot.

If you give this a shot, let me know how it turns out. I hope it helps!

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