All About the Lymphatic System
What’s the one system in the body connected to everything else and essential for cardiovascular health, immunity, and detoxification?
Hint: We don’t talk about it much, and we need to talk about it more.
It’s the lymphatic system!
Maybe you’ve heard about lymphatic massage or jumping on a trampoline to move lymph.
Still, most of the time, we don’t dive into lymph in medical conversations, even though dysfunction in the lymphatic system contributes to a host of symptoms and chronic disease.
And promoting lymph flow and restoring lymphatic health may be key pieces to healing.
Today’s article will cover the lymph system in detail.
You’ll learn more about the answers to these questions:
- What is the lymphatic system?
- What’s the difference between lymph, lymph nodes, and lymphatic drainage?
- What does the lymphatic system do?
- What goes wrong with the lymphatic system?
- How can you improve and support the lymphatic system?
What Is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system, or lymphatic drainage system, is a network of vessels, nodes, and organs that move a water-based fluid called lymph.
The flow of lymph through the lymphatic system is analogous to blood flow through veins.
However, unlike the cardiovascular system, where the heart pumps blood, lymph moves based on a pressure gradient and by body movements and muscle contractions.
The lymphatic system is composed of:
- Lymph vessels – tubes that transport lymph
- Lymph – the colorless, watery liquid that transports nutrients and waste from cells back to the bloodstream
- Lymph nodes – lymphatic tissue that houses immune cells and filters lymph. There are around 600 lymph nodes in the body.
- Lymphatic organs – organs containing lymphatic tissue include the spleen, thymus, tonsils, Peyer’s patches in the small intestine, and the appendix
- Lymphocyte – a type of white blood cell that includes B cells and T cells and is part of the immune system. Lymphocytes are concentrated in the lymphatic system and found in the blood and other tissues.
- Lymphatic muscles – composed of muscle cells specific to the lymph system that contract to move lymph
You’ll find the lymphatic system throughout the body, including the brain, where it plays a critical role in how the body functions.
What Does the Lymphatic System Do?
A primary role of the lymphatic system is to remove toxins and waste from cells.
It’s a critical part of the body’s clean-up crew!
Because the lymph system connects to all other systems in the body, it plays many essential roles, including:
- Maintains fluid balance and homeostasis
- Protects the body from pathogens
- Transports fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive system into circulation
- Restores protein and fluid from spaces between cells back into circulation
A relatively new discovery about the lymphatic system is that it exists in the brain and nervous system – called the glymphatic system, where it clears waste and may be necessary for preventing dementia.
Learn more about the connection between the lymphatic system and the glymphatic system in the brain here.
What Goes Wrong with The Lymphatic System?
We use the word drainage to talk about the lymph draining back into circulation.
When this drainage system gets slow, sluggish, or clogged, it impacts the body’s ability to detoxify and maintain balance.
Symptoms and disease may result.
Symptoms of poor lymphatic drainage include:
- Swelling and water retention, especially in the ankles
- Digestive issues, including constipation
- Frequent infections, including colds
- Chronic fatigue
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Many non-specific symptoms
Over time, poor lymphatic flow may contribute to the development of disease.
Conditions linked to poor drainage include:
- Accelerated aging
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart failure
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Organ failure
- Parkinson’s disease
Damage to the lymphatic system, along with poor flow or drainage, increases inflammation and contributes to metabolic changes in the body that influence the disease process.
However, restoring flow may have the opposite effect and is a crucial feature for disease prevention.
13 Ways to Improve Lymph Flow
Optimizing the lymphatic system optimizes all systems in the body, including the cardiovascular system, immune system, nervous system, digestive system, endocrine system, and more.
By improving lymphatic flow, inflammation decreases and helps prevent all chronic diseases.
The good news is that many wellness habits naturally support lymphatic drainage, and you may be doing many of them already.
Here are 13 ways to optimize lymph flow and support total body wellness:
1. Increase movement and exercise. Muscle contractions increase lymph flow. Walking, rebounding (jumping on a trampoline), yoga, and any movement you love and do consistently is supportive.
2. Get a massage and bodywork. A particular type of massage, called lymphatic massage, targets the lymphatic system and supports restoring lymph flow. However, acupuncture and other types of massage and bodywork are also supportive.
3. Practice deep breathing – There are many benefits to deep breathing, but one is engaging the diaphragm, which stimulates the largest lymph vessel.
Incorporate deep breathing into your day by taking 5-10 deep breaths before meals, while you are stopped at a red light, or practicing specific breathing exercises like those you’ll discover with HeartMath.
4. Wear loose clothing. Tight-fitting clothing may constrict or inhibit lymph flow, so feel good knowing when you’re wearing clothes that make you feel free and comfortable, in loose-fitting clothing and undergarments that you’re doing something kind for your body.
5. Stay hydrated. Since lymph is composed primarily of water, dehydration can slow down drainage. Be sure to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water each day and including electrolytes.
6. Sleep well. During sleep the body repairs, heals, and detoxifies. Even though you aren’t moving at night, many lymphatic functions are accelerated.
Some suggest sleeping on your left side so that gravity can help with lymphatic drainage.
Check out Dr. Shippy’s top sleep tips here to improve your sleep.
7. Relax in the sauna. Taking a sauna, and specifically using an infrared sauna, promotes sweating, detoxification, and lymph flow. If you don’t have access to an infrared sauna locally, consider investing in an infrared sauna for your home or a portable option.
8. Meditate. Meditation relaxes the body, allows for deep breathing, lowers stress, and increases lymph flow. With so many mind-body benefits to this practice, understanding the benefits to the lymphatic system may motivate you to make this more consistent.
Check out the Muse device for meditation support.
9. Eat whole foods. Eating a nutrient-dense Paleo diet provides the nutrition needed to support the lymph system and reduces toxins and processed foods that can make the system sluggish. Learn more about the benefits of whole foods and the Paleo approach here.
10. Increase polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidant compounds found in plant foods that protect cells, boost immunity, support the microbiome, and stimulate lymphatic flow.
Some foods high in polyphenols include:
- Green tea
- Red grapes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Herbs and spices
- Chestnuts and hazelnuts
- Exceed Greens + Reds Grain-free Superfood powder
11. Reduce toxin exposures. Chemicals and toxins clog up the system, burden detoxification pathways, and interfere with lymph flow and filtration in the lymph nodes.
While we can’t eliminate all the toxins we contact, we can significantly reduce them with simple actions like filtering drinking water, filtering indoor air, being mindful of consumer items we choose, eating organic food, and learning more information about avoiding toxins on the blog.
12. Try dry brushing. Dry brushing, or skin brushing, is an ancient ritual using a skin brush with course bristles to brush the skin. Brush using long strokes from the extremities toward the heart to stimulate lymphatic movement and blood flow.
13. Use hot and cold therapy. After you dry brush, hop in the shower, and alternate hot and cold water. Just like taking a cold plunge after sitting in a sauna or hot tub, ending your shower with cold water invigorates the body, boosts immunity, lowers inflammation, and, you guessed it, stimulates lymph flow.
As we improve lymph flow and support the lymphatic system, we work to restore and maintain balance throughout the body.
One reason that healthy habits like eating well, exercise, deep breathing, and bodywork are so effective at preventing – and even reversing – disease, may have to do with the lymph system itself.