This winter and early spring season has seen its share of flu and respiratory illness. People who rarely get sick were down for the count. It seems an opportune time to check in with our lymphatic system, which is crucial in combating illness by removing waste and toxins from the body.
Function of the lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is our drainage system. Lymph (clear fluid containing a type of white blood cell called lymphocyte) travels through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances that can cause infection. If you’ve ever had a clogged sewer system you know how unpleasant, foul, and toxic it is. When your lymph system doesn’t move and becomes clogged or blocked, it’s just like a clogged sewer, backed up with toxins. These toxins (including viruses and bacteria) then remain stuck in the lymph nodes, often causing swelling, stiffness, and possibly infection and illness.
Lymph nodes are small structures that filter lymph and store white blood cells that help fight infection and disease. They are analogous to a waste water treatment plant, “cleaning up” incoming fluid. Lymph nodes are located along the network of lymph vessels found throughout the body, with clusters found in the underarm, pelvis, neck, abdomen, and groin. Within the lymph nodes are specialized cells called macrophages, which engulf and destroy microbes, cell debris, and damaged cells in the lymphatic stream, and lymphocytes, which mount an immune response to pathogens and other foreign matter in the lymphatic stream. Key organs involved in the lymphatic system are the spleen, tonsils, thymus, and bone marrow. Lymphatic vessels form a one-way system in which lymph flows toward the heart. As the lymph is transported, it is filtered through the lymph nodes that cluster along the lymphatic vessels. Lymph nodes help rid the body of infectious agents and cancer cells carried to them within the lymph. Thus, the lymph nodes act as filters to cleanse lymph before allowing it to reenter the blood. Lymph nodes can become swollen and tender if they are overwhelmed with bacteria and viruses or if lymph fluid builds up because it is not being drained. But there are some simple things you can do to prevent build up and keep your lymph flowing!
Is my lymph moving freely?
When the lymph system is working as it should, lymph flows through the body and the filtered fluid is returned to the bloodstream. When part of the lymph system is damaged or blocked, fluid cannot drain from nearby body tissues. Fluid then builds up in the tissues and causes swelling. Undrained lymph can cause inflammation, infection, auto-immune disease, rashes, congestion, and more. Symptoms of lymphatic congestion include:
- Rings get tight on fingers
- Soreness and/or stiffness in the morning
- Recurring sore throat
- Continuously swollen tonsils or lymph nodes
- Itchy skin or rashes
- Retaining water
- Breast swelling or soreness with each cycle
- Dry skin
- Slow to heal
- Brain fog
- Cold or swollen hands and feet
Do you experience any of these symptoms? Almost every one of these health concerns can be linked to poor waste removal in the lymphatic system.
How do I keep my lymphatic system flowing?
Red-staining foods tend to be great lymph-movers. Berries, cherries, pomegranate, red beets, Manjistha (herb), and cranberries were all traditionally used as dyes and as natural lymph moving and detoxifying agents. Also beneficial are turmeric, neem, and the pith (white part) of oranges, grapefruits, and pomegranates. Throughout the year eat green food such as leafy greens and sprouts and include plenty of fiber, in the spring eat plenty of berries and cherries, and get your share of red beets in winter.
Hydrate! One of the most common causes of lymph congestion is dehydration. Drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day to filter out toxins. Sipping hot or warm water throughout the day is especially helpful for sweeping toxins out. Lemon water also helps move lymph by breaking down uric acid build up. You can enjoy lemon water (1/2 lemon in a few ounces of warm water with a teaspoon or so of olive oil) in addition to your daily intake of water, not as a replacement for it. I like to have a small glass of lemon water first thing in the morning during the change of seasons, especially when spring and autumn begin.
Move your body
About 3 liters (over 12.5 cups) of lymph enters the bloodstream every day. The movement of adjacent tissues in propelling lymph is very important. When physical activity increases, lymph flows more rapidly. Conversely, inactivity, like sitting at a desk all day, or immobilization can hinder the flow of inflammatory material from a badly infected body part.
Expand and Flex to move lymph
One way to move lymph is through muscle contraction so just about any full body movement will help to move lymph but there are some movements that are particularly helpful. Squeezing and pumping action such as repeated expansion (opening the body out or upward) and flexion (bending and bringing everything in toward your torso) and yoga twists or inversions, are especially good at stimulating lymph flow. The sequence of yoga poses below, illustrated by yoga teacher Dave Lind, is a great way to move lymph!
Extended side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana) ©Donna Lind Photography
Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) ©Donna Lind Photography
Upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) ©Donna Lind Photography
Marichi’s pose (Marichyasana III) ©Donna Lind Photography
Also, many forms and flows of martial arts create flexion and expansion and are great for moving lymph and helping the body detox.
Take a deep breath, or three
Another way to move lymph is via respiratory movement, or deep abdominal breathing. Take a quick break every hour or two for 3 deep diaphragmatic breaths throughout the day. Filling the lungs with air presses the diaphragm down to “massage” abdominal organs and this pumps lymph.
Any activity that requires walking or running, especially when arm movement is involved, will get your lymph pumping. Movements such as burpees, jumping rope, gymnastics, and using a trampoline or rebounder will stimulate your lymph system quite well. Try doing windmills with your arms a few times while you walk, or anytime you feel inspired. In essence, move your body to move your lymph.
Get a massage!
You don’t have to tell me twice. Massage can move lymph*. Get a professional massage or try a DIY lymph massage by gently rubbing skin toward your heart. You can do this anywhere on your body but underarm and breast massage can be especially beneficial. Also try skin brushing before you shower (start with feet and hands and brush toward your heart).
Finally, ladies, let it all hang out. Go braless occasionally (anytime you’re home and certainly while you sleep). This gives the lymph around your underarms and breasts more space to move.
Clearing lymph is especially important during a detox so that toxins don’t get stuck and recirculate in your body. It is important to note that you can have a wonderful diet and exercise regimen but if your colon isn’t moving (if you’re constipated) the toxins can be reabsorbed into your body. Your colon should be moving 6-12 inches of mass daily (8-12 inches for most people). Once you start detoxing and/or get your lymph flowing, you want the toxins to flow out, not back around your body. For more information on your detox organs and pathways, stay tuned for my upcoming blog article or contact me at EnergizeBodyandMind@gmail.com.
The biggest drain we have in our body is the lymphatic system. If it remains clogged or sluggish for too long, this forces us to adapt to an environment of toxins that stress and weaken immunity and other important pathways of detoxification. As we all age, it is the ability to detoxify well and eliminate waste efficiently that will determine longevity and optimal health. Get flowing.
* If you are sick or have cancer check with your doctor before getting a massage.