The Lymphatic System: Your Immune System and Detox Hero
Do you sometimes feel sick and tired when you start eating clean or when undertaking a detox diet? This may be a sign that your lymphatic system is not working effectively. The lymphatic system is often overlooked, but it is an important player in the process of keeping your immune and detoxification systems in check. The lymphatic system is a network of organs, lymph vessels, cells, and nodes that works alongside your circulatory system. It is designed to provide a variety of detoxification functions, acting like your body’s garbage collector, removing waste, debris, and disease components such as viruses, bacteria, toxic matter, and even cancer cells. As part of the immune system, it fights infection by producing white blood cells, our internal protection against foreign invaders. When lymph is not flowing well, you may end up with an accumulation of waste and toxins that compromises the body’s ability to maintain a healthy state. Feeling sick and tired when starting a clean diet and lifestyle may be a sign of a sluggish lymphatic system that can’t keep up with the demands of removing toxic waste from your body.
What is lymph?
Lymph comes from the excess fluid that is squeezed out of the blood vessels and into your tissues. From your tissues, the fluid moves into the lymph vessels, where it is called lymph. The lymph vessels sit right beneath the skin surface and lead to lymph nodes, where the fluid is filtered and sent back into circulation. Lymph contains primarily white blood cells (part of your immune system), but depending on where the lymph vessels are located in the body, it can also have proteins and fats as well. Toxins are also deposited from your circulatory system into the lymph vessels to be filtered by the lymph nodes. We produce about 3 liters of lymph per day, so if we didn’t have a well functioning lymphatic system, we would swell up and look like the Michelin man! You may see this in people with breast cancer, when lymph nodes are removed or radiated. Their arms often swell up with fluid, because lymph flow has been compromised.
Lymph nodes also help us fight infection by making white blood cells. The nodes are concentrated in the groin, neck, and armpits, and around the heart, lungs, and intestines. We’ve all felt our lymph nodes. They swell up on your throat when you have a sore throat or in your groin if there is a lower body infection. This is your immune system working hard. Nodes swell in size to accommodate the amount of white blood cells needed to fight off infection in that region. In addition to the lymph vessels, nodes, and white blood cells, the other parts of the lymph system include the tonsils, adenoids, appendix, and Peyer’s patches in the intestines, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. These all work together to keep the body from becoming overwhelmed with infection or disease.
The Lymphatic System
Unlike blood circulation, which is actively moving because of the heart’s pumping action, lymphatic drainage is part of your body’s passive drainage system. The lymphatic system drains all the excess fluid or lymph that leaks out of your blood vessels into your tissues. Most of the lymph flows up, against gravity, towards the neck, so the lymphatic system must rely primarily on the body’s musculoskeletal system to circulate. Through movement and muscle contraction, the lymph fluid is able to circulate and do the immune work it needs to do to help prevent disease.
Signs of a congested lymphatic system
Some of the signs that lymphatic fluid is not moving effectively and that toxins may be building up in your body are:
- Swollen glands
- Puffiness in eyes or face
- Swelling in the fingers (tight rings) or ankles
- Bloating or holding on to water
- Sinus infections
- Skin issues, such as dry or itchy skin
- Soreness or stiffness upon waking
- Weight gain and extra belly fat
- Breast swelling or tenderness
- A sense of fogginess in the brain
- Worsened allergies
- Food sensitivities
- Increased colds or flu
Here are some easy activities that you can incorporate into your day to help “move” and drain lymph, so that it doesn’t accumulate in your body’s cells. The best activities to encourage lymph drainage are movement, deep breathing, rebounding, massage and skin brushing, each of which I’ll describe below.
- Movement - Lymph vessels are activated when you move your body. All exercise and any activity that moves the arms, legs, and torso will help to move lymph. This is why, with jobs that require sitting for most of the day, it’s important to get up and move at regular intervals. Prolonged sitting negatively impacts the lymphatic system as well as the heart, brain, and musculoskeletal system (1,2,3). If you sit most of the day for work, set a timer to get up every hour to take a short walk and move your lymph. As you may have heard it described, “sitting is the new smoking.”
- Deep Breathing - Do you check on your breathing throughout the day? Are you a shallow or deep breather? Many patients I see are literally holding their breath a good part of the day, which affects their ability to calm the nervous system, get oxygen to their tissues, and move their lymphatic fluid. Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, can help to move lymph through the chest and around the liver area. Try breathing in through the nose slowly to a count of 5, allowing the abdomen to come out, pause, then breathe out slowly through the nose or mouth, also to a count of 5, allowing the abdomen to come back in. 5-10 repetitions of this will help you reap the benefits of relaxation, better-oxygenated blood, and improved lymph flow. A good way to remind yourself is to do a series of 5 deep breaths every time you use the bathroom.
- Rebounding – Rebounding, or bouncing on a trampoline, is an absolutely amazing way to improve lymphatic drainage and strengthen your immune system. It also boasts major benefits for many other functions of the body, such as improving bone mass (think preventing osteoporosis), digestion, cardiovascular status, balance, and strength. It takes only 7 minutes of gentle bouncing, which is much easier on the joints, for the lymph to drain and recirculate, thus increasing your ability to fight infection or even cancer. All you need is a mini-trampoline. I highly recommend purchasing one with a support bar to prevent falling, especially if you have any balance issues or are deconditioned. Your feet don’t even need to leave the surface, just the act of going up and down will get the lymphatic valves to open and shut, which increases the lymphatic system pumping activity throughout your body. You may feel the muscle-toning benefits (gluts, quads, hamstrings, and calves) almost immediately. You get what you pay for, so look for a mini-trampoline that has at least 32 springs, a stable base and sturdy frame, preferably made of steel. They range in price from $40- $500 on Amazon. Start by standing on the trampoline, feet hip distance apart, arms by your sides (or one arm holding on to the bar) and lightly bounce up and down with a slight bend in the knees. Start with one minute and build slowly from there. As you get comfortable and build more strength and endurance, you can start doing jumping jacks or light jogging in place. A great way to break up your sitting would be to put a timer on and do a minute or two of rebounding every hour. Remember to hold on when stepping on and off the trampoline and do so carefully. You may feel slightly off balance for a few steps, so take it slowly. I have a mini-trampoline in my office and I alternate between doing this or my treadmill to keep lymph moving and improve oxygenation to my brain. *As when starting any new exercise program, it’s best to consult with your physician—especially if you have any pre-existing illness or limiting physical condition.
- Massage - Lymphatic massage or lymphatic drainage therapy can have a profound effect on moving and draining excess lymph from body areas (4). This incredibly light massage uses a skin pressure of no more than the weight of a nickel as these vessels sit right beneath the skin surface. I can personally vouch for lymphatic drainage as an effective way to decrease any swelling in the face, arms, and/or legs, especially after an injury or surgery. Schedule a massage with a certified lymphatic drainage therapist. Go to Upledger Institute to find such a therapist: https://www.iahp.com/pages/search/index.php
- Skin Brushing - Dry skin brushing promotes lymph flow and improves skin tone, which includes reducing the appearance of cellulite. All you need is a natural bristle brush and about 5 minutes before getting into the shower to effectively move your lymph. Check out this YouTube video to see how it’s done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoTBP_WJy9E
Other ways to clean up your lymphatic system
To optimize lymph flow, it is important to incorporate a few other lifestyle changes:
- Eat a clean, whole foods diet, as organic as possible, and drink lots of clean water each day to continually flush toxins.
- Limit tight fitting clothing that may cause redness or indentations on the body. Remember, the lymph vessels sit directly beneath the skin surface, so they are easily compressed. According to lymph drainage therapists, women need to limit their time in all bras—regular, underwire, or sports bras—as these impede the flow of lymph. Go braless as much as possible and never sleep with a bra on. The arm, breast and chest area all drain into the armpit lymph nodes, so excessive pressures here will restrict drainage and lead to a buildup of toxins.
- Use cosmetics and skin care products that are free of chemicals and perfumes. Your skin is an organ of elimination and absorption, so adding more chemicals to your body will increase the overall toxic load.
As you can see, the lymphatic system is one of the body’s immune and detox system heroes. When lymph is flowing well, it helps to maintain a healthy and balanced state in the body. Incorporate some of the easy activities and lifestyle changes I’ve outlined here into your daily routine to improve immune and detoxification function. With a little bit of work each day, you can keep your immune and detoxification systems going strong.
1. Daneshmandi H., et al. (2017) Adverse Effects of Prolonged Sitting Behavior on the General Health of Office Workers. Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Jul;7(2):69-75. doi: 10.15280/jlm. Epub 2017 Jul 31.
2.. Thosar SS., et al.(2015) Effect of prolonged sitting and breaks in sitting time on endothelial function. Medical Science Sports Exercise. Apr;47(4):843-9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000479.
3. Wheeler MJ., et al.(2017) Sedentary behavior as a risk factor for cognitive decline? A focus on the influence of glycemic control in brain health. Alzheimers Dementia (N Y). May 2; 3(3): 291-300. doi: 10.1016/j.trci.2017.04.001. eCollection 2017 Sep.
4. Lopera C., et al.(2017) Investigating the Short-Term Effects of Manual Lymphatic Drainage and Compression Garment Therapies on Lymphatic Function Using Near-Infrared Imaging. Lymphatic Research and Biology. Sep; 15(3): 235-240. doi: 10.1089/lrb.2017.0001. Epub 2017 Jul 27.