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Taller in the morning? The secret of the midnight-drinkers

If you ever happened to measure yourself in the evening and then again the following morning, you may find that you had gained a bit of height overnight. Strange but true. Even after we have reached our maximum adult height, when our bones are no longer developing or lengthening, there are changes. The changes are fluctuations occurring on a daily basis; we are often shorter in the evening than we were that same morning.

image - and creative commons

could it be that we are

shorter in the evening

and yet miraculously

taller in the morning?

Of course this begs the question, what controls this oscillation? What happens during the day that can compromise our height? And then what happens overnight that that may compensate for this loss? Could it be a chemical process? Or circadian rhythms, like wakefulness or metabolism? Or maybe a mechanism influenced by the moon or tides?

No, none of the above.

A few bits and pieces worth knowing

The spine is a column at the back of the trunk that keeps us upright [it also bends and twists, but that's another story.] The spine stretches up from the back of the pelvis all the way to the back of the neck, finally attaching to the back of the skull. It is made up of a long chain of alternating vertrabrae and discs.

schematic diagram of vertabrae and discs of lower back, i.e.lumbar spine

It's a perfect relationship;

bones provide the structure

and the springy discs

absorb impact and shock.

The vertebrae are made of bone and are hard, and the discs have some jelly-ish stuff in the middle and are softer. The discs cushion and catch the impact of the load from above and absorb the shock transmitted from below.

It goes like this: hard-bone, soft-disc, hard-bone, soft-disc, hard-bone, and so on, all the way up and down. There are 24 active vertebrae and 23 discs.

It's a perfect relationship; bones provide the structure and the springy discs absorb impact and shock.

During the day

Any situation in which the trunk is upright puts pressure downwards on the spine, in particular on the discs. This happens even in simple sitting.

And when we are standing, walking, running or jumping the contact of each footfall, sends shock from the feet and legs up the spine, which the spongey discs catch and absorb. The more 'inflated' the discs are, the better they are at receiving and absorbing shock, and conversely the more squashed they become, the less able they are to protect us from impact. So it's clear that we want to maintain the discs as round and expanded as possible throughout the day. Now before I discuss how we do this, let's consider for a moment what happens to the discs when we are not weight bearing and upright in any way.

At night

When we are lying down something quite extraordinary happens. Whereas during the day the discs absorb shock, at night they absorb fluids. They are hydrophilic, which literally means they are lovers of water. Indeed whilst we are lying asleep and oblivious, the discs are quietly sipping-in fluids from the surrounding tissues and slowly swelling to a healthy, bouncy elasticity, thereby increasing their size. And this is what adds the morning centimetre or two to our height.

detail from Starry night - Vincent van Gogh

At night whilst we

are lying asleep

and oblivious, the

discs are quietly

sipping-in fluids

from the surrounding

tissue and slowly swelling to a bouncy elasticity

Whilst it is wonderful that every night the discs regenerate by bathing in and drinking up fluids, actually the situation is not ideal. This mechanism fails to compensate for the extra disc compression that results from pandemic levels of sitting, slouching and slumping that are a feature of modern life. As I mentioned above the rounder and more spongy the discs are, the better they are at absorbing shock; and ideally, we humans, want to be shock-resistant throughout the day. Extra pressure often causes disc-damage and a failure of the discs to fulfill their shock-absorbing role. So how can we avoid the compression that squashes the discs too much? What can we do to maintain the morning height, even as the morning becomes afternoon and then evening?

pandemic levels of sitting, slouching and slumping are features of modern life. These positions lead to unhealthy disc compression and damage

Defying gravity

Well it boils down to the old human dilemma of resisting gravity. Gravitational pull is very useful for keeping our feet firmly on the ground, but we need to reach up and away from that force when it comes to keeping our posture tall.

Every time you slouch or slump you are squashing your discs. And every time you lift your trunk up from your pelvis you are taking the pressure off the discs, and giving them a better chance to stay bouncy and elastic. It is difficult to imagine the spine and its components, so here are a couple of ideas to help you avoid overly-compressing your discs:

1) Imagine, that instead of vertebrae and discs, you have a vertical concertina [accordion or bandoneon] in your back.

At times it is stretched out and at others compressed.

Take a moment to check how stretched up and out the spinal accordion is at this very moment. Identify where exactly the folding-in is occurring. Now open your spine upwards from that point. [You may notice your chest opening and a change in your breathing]

Ideally the vertical accordion is pulled out and up as much as possible.

2) As you stand and walk, firstly imagine the boney ring of your pelvis is an anchor.

Phoenician anchor found in the eastern Mediterranea, off the coast of present day Ashkelon

A long tough rope is attached to the back of your anchor-pelvis all the way up to your head.

And now imagine your head is a helium balloon, pulling your spine up away from the anchor of your pelvis and lifting the spine and upper body towards the sky .

Gabriela Cohen

registered osteopath

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