The lymphatic system is one of the most important systems in the body but possibly also the most overlooked. Your lymphatic system is a complicated network of tissues and organs that drains waste and fluid (lymph) from tissues, and one of its main functions is its role in immunity.
What is it?
Lymphatic vessels generally run parallel to our arteries and veins and contain lymph fluid, a clear and colourless fluid which is primarily composed of lymphocytes and other white blood cells which fight off infection. Lymph nodes are bean-like organs scattered along lymphatic vessels; there are between 600-700 lymph nodes throughout our bodies.
What does it do?
Lymph fluid picks up bacteria, viruses, toxins, cellular debris and other waste products and transports them to our lymph nodes where this fluid is filtered and foreign particles are destroyed – this is why when you have an infection your glands can become sore and swollen. This also means that the lymphatic system plays a key role in detoxification. Your tonsils, spleen, thymus and adenoids are all part of your lymphatic system. The spleen is the largest organ of the lymphatic system; if you have ever been to see a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner then you have probably heard of your spleen! The main function of the spleen is to produce white blood cells and destroy old red blood cells and platelets (the cells which make our blood clot).
What happens when it isn’t working properly?
Stagnant lymph can cause all sorts of problems including reduced immunity, general fatigue and sluggishness, puffiness and swelling, cellulite, swollen glands, eczema, acne and other skin conditions, arthritis, tonsillitis, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, recurrent infections and more.
How do we support it?
Unlike your blood which is moved around your body by the beat of your heart, your lymph does not have a pump to do this. The only way for lymph to move is via muscle contraction. Therefore exercise is extremely important to get your muscles contracting and your lymph moving!
Other ways to support your lymphatic system include –
- Dry body brushing – take a natural bristle brush and dry brush skin in small circular motions starting from your hands and feet and moving upwards towards your heart (this is the direction that lymph naturally flows).
- Drinking enough water – “enough water” means 2-3 litres per day. Our lymph is made from fluid – it is 95% water – how are we going to make something if we don’t have the ingredients for the recipe?
- Avoiding lymphatic stagnating foods – this includes dairy, sugar and wheat
- Consuming foods that promote lymph flow – such as dark leafy greens, seaweed, garlic, linseed/flaxseed, chia, avocados, cranberries, walnuts, brazil nuts and almonds.
- Avoid putting toxins into your lymphatic system. Some of our major lymph nodes are in our armpits – most commercial deodorants contain aluminium and other toxins which gets sprayed directly into our lymphatic system via these axillary (armpit) lymph nodes. Many researches believe that this can heavily contribute to breast cancer. Use a natural deodorant, or one that is aluminium-free at the very least!
- Herbal teas are an easy way to increase your water intake but there are also certain herbs that promote lymphatic flow such as echinacea, calendula, poke root, red clover, cleavers and burdock – find these in your health food store or speak to your naturopath or herbalist about creating an individualised mix for you.
- Yoga works in multiple ways to reduce lymphatic congestion, and even more gentle forms of yoga such as yin yoga causes muscular contraction to relieve lymphatic congestion and accumulation of toxins.
- Lymphatic drainage massage is a gentle form of massage used to stimulate the flow of lymph around the body, in turn supporting the immune system and detoxification.
- In the naturopathic practice of iridology, people with blue eyes or who have small white spots called “tophi” in the coloured section of their eyes are more likely to suffer from lymphatic stagnation, and so lymphatic support is extra important for these people.
Supporting the lymphatic system is important to keep your immune systems firing and support detoxification of bacteria, toxins and waste, in order to keep you well. And all it takes it drinking enough water, gentle exercise, avoiding certain foods, and eating a few more whole-foods in order to keep your lymph happy!