Most people have only a vague notion of what their lymphatic system is or does, so I decided to provide an overview of this marvel of your anatomy and physiology, along with a few tips to care for the health of your lymphatic system naturally.
The lymphatic system lives a bit in the shadow of your cardiovascular system, but they are very closely connected. In fact, you could argue that they’re different aspects of the same. The lymphatic system has two major functions: regulation of fluids and removal of waste; it is also an important component of the immune system.
A sophisticated drainage system
Lymph fluid and the lymphatic vessels and organs, namely the lymph nodes, are found throughout the body. To a large extent, they mirror the location and course of our blood vessels. When blood traveling through arteries has reached its destination, some of it forms interstitial fluid, which bathes all cells in our body; some of it re-enters the blood circulation in the capillary bed and, along with gases and waste products, is returned to the heart through the veins. But some of the fluid, metabolic byproducts and possible pathogens are absorbed by the lymphatic system.
Lymph nodes serve to inspect and destroy some of the collected debris before the lymph is transported back to the subclavian veins (under your collar bones), where it joins the general circulation. Lymphocytes, white blood cells residing in the lymph nodes in high concentration, are involved in this process. That’s why, when you’re fighting an infection, your lymph nodes may swell up from the hard work they’re doing to protect you.
The flow of lymph depends mostly on the unique structure of the lymph vessels to fight gravity because the lymphatic system does not possess a pump of its own, unlike the cardiovascular system. So, when the lymphatic system is not functioning optimally, you may notice swelling in your arms and legs, and even your face and trunk. Some of this water retention is normal (though by no means comfortable) as you progress through pregnancy, in part because the weight of the fetus impedes the return of lymph through your groin area. It usually resolves after your baby has been born.
A report card on your health
Numerous health conditions can affect the health of your lymphatic system, such as cardiovascular, pulmonary, or gastrointestinal diseases. Edema, the retention of fluid visible under your skin, can be an early sign of impaired kidney function, which depends on several hormones and proper blood pressure.
If your lymph flow is sluggish and the lymph nodes overburdened, you are also at higher risk of accumulating toxins and waste products in your body or becoming more vulnerable to infections. Lymph nodes can also be affected by cancer, which sometimes leads to the surgical removal of some nodes involved in draining the area where a tumor is found. This can result in a condition called lymphedema.
By now, you probably have a slightly better appreciation for how vital the lymphatic system is and how hard it’s working for you. So, let me tell you about a few things that you can do to support this fabulous unsung hero.
Natural strategies for better lymphatic health
One popular self-care practice is dry-brushing. You take advantage of the fact that the lymph can easily be stimulated at the level just underneath the skin. Brushing daily or several times per week, in the general direction of the heart, can invigorate the flow and also feels really good. It’s recommended that you stimulate the areas containing lymph nodes first because they should be active and ready to receive the fluid that’s now traveling through the lymph vessels at an accelerated pace. For the more adventurous among you, it may be worthwhile learning more about a certain kind of self-massage to promote lymph flow. A recent book by Lisa Levitt Gainsley, a certified lymphatic therapist and teacher, will provide sufficient information to get you started safely and learn several useful routines.
If your concerns around lymphatic health are more serious, it’s worth seeking out a professional therapist experienced in lymphatic drainage techniques, especially if you are a cancer survivor.
When your feet and legs are swollen, the last thing you long to do is probably walk around much. But dancing, biking, swimming and, yes, walking all activate the muscles in your legs (not to mention your heart and lungs) which then function like a lymph (and venous) pump to help return fluid to the circulation. Infrared saunas and light therapy can be helpful, too. Start slowly and observe how your body responds. More is not necessarily better, at least not in the beginning.
Chinese medicine has been very tuned in to the health of our body fluids for thousands of years. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy can have a noticeable beneficial effect on edema and lymphatic flow, sometimes even soon after treatment. Both herbal therapy and acupuncture are, of course, approaches that require the advice of an experienced professional practitioner to provide maximum benefit and avoid any harm.
Every journey begins with a first step
But you can get started right away with a lymph-friendly strategy in your kitchen. A shift away from processed foods to a real-foods diet, heavily focused on a wide variety of vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, will be a game changer in little time. Many culinary herbs and spices have the nice side-effects of stimulating your digestion and metabolism, and by extension your lymphatic health. Some of these delicious friends also have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and even immune-boosting properties. You can start with ginger and garlic, then branch out to other herbs, vegetables and roots (such as burdock) to cleanse and reboot. These foods in their unprocessed form are also rich in vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients that promote good health. Lightly steaming or stir-frying often makes these nutrients more digestible.
Regular care of your lymphatic system through self-massage, movement, healthy nutrition and professional care can make you feel (and look) like you shaved a few years off your actual age. Might work better than a face lift!
© 2021 Christiane Siebert