What is lymphatic system?
Your lymphatic system is a key part of your immune system. It also acts as a transportation system and helps maintain fluid balance in your body. It acts together with the cardiovascular system, picking up undesired items left behind in the tissues, e.g. waste, toxins, viruses, bacteria or excess fat that weren’t allowed back into the blood capillaries, and deals with them.
Although it isn’t moved about by a pump such as the heart, the clear, yellowish fluid called lymph circulates throughout the body propelled by breathing and physical movement and filters the collected fluid through lymph nodes. The most prominent lymph nodes are located under the jaw, in the armpits and in the groin, but there are many smaller nodes throughout the body. The lymph nodes are both points of analysis and further sorting, as well as immediate response.
This is where you find certain types (B and T) of white blood cells (lymphocytes). B lymphocytes produce antibodies – targeted “scouts” which are released into the blood stream and attach themselves to their own single, specific targets called antigens if they encounter them in the body, and thus trigger immune response. T-lymphocytes (or T-cells) attack directly. There are killer T-cells that kill body cells which have become infected, damaged or cancerous (actually, the lymphatic system is known to detect and wipe out potential cancer in your body without you ever being aware of it). Another type of T-cells sets other parts of the immune system in action to get rid of whatever threatens the health of your organism. All this activity goes on all day, every day, and is the reason your lymph nodes sometimes swell when you’re fighting a bigger infection.
The entire lymphatic system is much more than just the nodes and the vessels, it includes tonsils (germ trap and front-line battle ground), spleen (filtering organ extraordinaire, home of B- and T-lymphocytes and a recycling place for red blood cells), thymus gland (training ground for immature T-cells), the appendix (filter and early response post active in the prevention of some deadly diseases), of course the system of lymphatic vessels and other elements, all forming a fascinating, intricate and sophisticated shield.
It is clear it’s in our best interest to keep the lymphatic system in excellent shape. And while it is still being researched and new information keeps coming up, there are many things you can easily do to support this key champion of your health.
What are the signs that your lymphatic system may be in need of help
Most of these symptoms are also present in / symptoms of other conditions, consult your physician when in doubt.
- Swelling in arms and legs (lymphedema)
- Swollen glands
- Increased frequency of infections (sinus infections, flus, colds etc.)
- Feelings of stiffness, especially in the morning
- Your hands fall asleep in the night
- Swollen hands or feet
- Dry or itchy skin
- Foggy brain
- Puffy face
- Increased sensitivity to certain foods
What to do to get your lymphatic system functioning smoothly
- Stay hydrated – just don’t overdo it! Contrary to current social hype, drinking 4 liters of water is not a great idea for your body. Your blood becomes too diluted, carrying less electrolytes and nutrients per fluid ounce. A good general recommendation is to drink 5 – 8 cups / 1.5 – 2 liters per day – or more if you’re sick or exercising or sweating in the height of summer. A very good rule of thumb is to drink when you’re thirsty – the body can regulate itself very nicely when healthy, as shown for example in this study. Your pee is a good monitoring system – if it’s totally clear, you drank too much, if it’s too dark, you’re drinking too little. A nice pale yellow color is where you’re headed. Don’t forget that for example B vitamins (or certain food colorants) can alter your pee color so take that into consideration.
- Dry brush. Lymphatic system is present in almost every tissue of the body and lymphatic capillaries also come close to the surface of the skin. One way to support the circulation of the lymph can be dry brushing – gently brush your skin with a simple inexpensive natural brush, going smoothly from the soles of your feet towards the heart, nice smooth strokes up your legs, several times per area, then your arms starting at your fingertips, and on the torso towards your armpits, you can go circular on your belly. If you’ve had nodes removed or suffered from lymphoma or some other disruption of the lymphatic system, consult your doctor first on how to do this.
Best time to dry brush is before your bath or shower which will then remove any detached dead skin cells.
- Take a deep breath – or ten? Breathing is how lymph keeps moving throughout the body even when we sleep. Tradition and many experts agree that diaphragmatic breathing helps the lymph moving nicely is deep. Diaphragmatic breathing basically means that you breathe with your stomach. When you inhale, you push your stomach out to increase the volume of the chest cavity, then you exhale fully through your mouth. If you can, do this somewhere nice with fresh air – a forest, a park… Even one series of ten deep breaths like this per day should help you.
- Take it easy. Stress is a big factor in overall health, perhaps bigger than we allow ourselves to believe, and the lymphatic system is not immune to its destructive influence. Chronic stress can alter the pathways of lymphatic system – as proven by this 2016 study, even contributing to cancer progression. Stress can come from various things – not only being overworked as we’ve learned to perceive it, but also from being too bored in life perhaps, or not having any goal – and it can of course be caused by the people in our lives. If there’s anybody in your life that occasionally has you wondering why you even keep in touch with them because almost every time they leave you feeling worse than before – axe them. Choose yourself – and if that feels too selfish, choose those that love you and depend on you being fit and happy. Do things that make sense to you and that make you enjoy life and its many thrills! It might help to include the following powerful stress-release activities in your regular schedule – a walk in a forest, or perhaps a nice swim?
- Take a walk, go for a swim. Even a few minutes promotes overall circulation. If you at all can, take a walk every day, if you can walk in a forest, it’s even better. The Japanese have perfected forest enjoyment to a fine art (naturally) and studies suggest that forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) is quite beneficial – for instance here. Another great way to get your circulation going, with minimal impact on your joints and maximum stress-relieving enjoyment, is swimming or some other form of water exercise, such as aquaerobics. The gentle pressure of water even supports lymphatic drainage and aids your cause further.
- The Scottish Shower! This is an excellent wake-up, super boost of immunity and a generally beneficial thing – almost comparable to the power of a mother’s hug. It takes a bit of courage at first, but you’ll love how you’ll feel afterwards. The principle is to alternate hot and cold streams of water. You start with hot water, warming your body nicely, then treat it to cold water for a short while, warm it up again, then again cold and so on, always ending with cold water. In the beginning, you can start with lukewarm rather than cold water if you fear your neighbors might call the police for all the screaming. If you have the time, money and inclination (and don’t suffer from heart or vascular problems, severe osteoporosis or varicose veins or unless you bruise very easily) this is a very good spa procedure that even your local sauna might offer. Here, the water is applied by another person in a strong, massaging stream from about 3-4 yards/meters away with a hose, starting with the extremities, following up with the back and torso, saving the stomach for the last. It boosts your immune system and improves circulation and cellular metabolism, thus supporting detoxing and releases muscle tension. Enjoy!
- Eat healthy. Although the lymphatic system isn’t the body’s main drainage/detoxing system, it still deals with removing waste. So it makes sense to keep its proverbial hands as free as possible – this is especially true if you have problems sweating. Also, clean nutrition is good for your overall health, thus supporting your lymphatic system from the sidelines.
Lots of green salads and vegetables is always a good idea in general, but for your lymphatic system, beetroot is especially good, ideally raw. If you do not enjoy the taste of raw beetroot, it’s surprisingly tasty when you juice it together with apples and/or carrots.
- Avoid tight clothes. The flow of lymph has nothing but our breathing and body movement to propel it, it’s therefore best not to restrict it with tight pants, socks, tummy-holding grandma panties or any constraining clothing in general. Although if you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema (swelling caused by poor circulation of the lymph), your doctor may recommend some form of compression garment (for instance for your ankles and calves) to encourage the lymph to move out of the area.
- Try yoga or tai-chi. Whether you decide to join a local club or choose one of the many instructional videos online, the benefits of yoga or tai-chi are twofold. Concentrating on the slow, yet very precise movements beautifully cleans up your head, helping you release stress – a major player in problems of the lymphatic system. The exercise itself also mechanically helps the lymph flow through your body, there are even specific poses targeted at the lymphatic system.
- Hop on a rebounder. A rebounder is the tiny trampoline. The up and down movements and the split second of weightlessness when you’re up aids the flow of lymph very nicely, besides giving you the chance to strengthen your core muscles, improve your circulation and bone density (surprisingly, it’s good for people with osteoporosis, provided it’s done safely) and generally cheer you up. It’s a little like running, just with less stress put on the joints and bones. You should bounce around 15 minutes per day in total, but you can (and sometimes have to) break this up into several sessions – you’ll be surprised how demanding this mild looking hopping is. Here is an article which suggests specific rebounder exercises to support your lymphatic system.
Again, consult your doctor before you start if you’re resolving already existing problems. If you’re looking for a milder impact or get very dizzy, try bouncing on a stability ball (the huge ball that you can even use instead of a chair occasionally and do your bouncing while working!)
- Lymphatic drainage. This would be performed by a trained lymphedema specialist. It’s a massage specifically targeted at getting the lymph moving. You will usually need a series of lymphatic drainage massages rather than just one or two, most places offer a whole course of this therapy for a package price. This treatment is disrecommended if you suffer from cellulite or some form of skin infection.
- Test yourself / Get tested for food allergies or sensitivities. If you’ve had long-standing problems, this might be one approach to try. Sometimes we are sensitive or mildly allergic to certain foods and never really notice because the reaction isn’t very violent or even immediate, yet it can be a repetitive source of irritation and extra stress for the organism and its immune system. You can either have this test done by a doctor, or you can order a home test that’s quite easy to do and will show you the results for most commonly used foods. If you find you do have immune reaction to some common food, you now have a very easy way to make things easier for your body by simply leaving out what irritates it.
- Choose natural deodorant rather than anti-perspirant. The most common anti-perspirants you find in the supermarket use aluminum salts to prevent your skin from releasing sweat. Let’s stay away from the arguments whether aluminum salts in anti-perspirants are a problem or not (and merely in passing reference the original study which found aluminum in Alzheimer patients’ brains and further research stemming from it). Going as natural as possible in these everyday products generally means less stress for your system, which is always a good idea. You might have to do a bit of testing because different things work for different people. Some for instance (me included) have no problem tolerating simple baking soda (yes, the powder) applied directly on the armpit, but it can cause irritation in many others. Its deodorizing effects are incredible – hours of exercise and wrestling huge guys left me personally miraculously non-smelly. Good news is that there are milder versions available in natural deodorants where the highly alkaline bicarbonate of soda is mixed into other substances, there are options which don’t use it at all – you really need to find what works best for you.
On this note, you might also want to look at your body cream, if you’re using some, and consider switching to more natural options without parabens, conservatives and other potentially problematic chemicals.
- Consider switching to fluoride-free toothpaste. Especially if you live in an area with fluoridated water. The most important role of tooth brushing is the mechanical removal of plaque build-up anyways, and by making small changes, you can greatly support your dental health, see for example our article on dental health here. As with deodorants above, if you already have problems with your lymphatic system or are concerned for its overall health, it may be safer to choose the less stressful options for your organism. In higher concentrations, fluoride is a known neuro- and cyto-toxin and for instance sodium fluoride was shown in an experimental study to trigger apoptosis (programmed cellular death) of lymphocytes (white blood cells) in the spleen. You can simply choose one of the many, many options available in most stores, or have some alchemist fun and try making your own.
We hope you have found some tips that will help you on your journey to a healthier and cheerier you – we wish you all the best!
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