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The lymphatic system and your health

Reviewed by Dr. Mary James, ND

With so much focus on the best way to detox, why don’t we pay more attention to our lymphatic system health? It’s your body’s natural detox system that helps clean up after almost all of the other systems in the body. Many of us may not realize what our lymphatic system is – much less the role a healthy lymphatic system plays in a strong digestive, detoxification and nervous systems.

good lymphatic system elements on wooden board

In the last few years, there’s been more and more research about how your lymphatic system naturally detoxifies your body and protects you from infection and disease. In fact, our lymphatic system is just as important as our blood system, the other main circulatory system in our body. Here is the latest on how you can boost the health of your lymphatic system, as well as your overall health.

What is the lymphatic system?

lymphatic system labeled

As part of your immune system, the lymphatic system is a network of vessels, nodes and tissues that cleanses nearly every cell in your body by removing toxins, metabolic waste and more.

Lymph vessels move lymph fluid through 500 filtration and collection points — your lymph nodes. Lymph tissue also helps to fight infection by generating and storing white blood cells. Other important parts of the lymphatic system include bone marrow, the spleen, tonsils and thymus gland.

Keeping the lymphatic system moving is important, especially since it doesn’t have its own central pump. Instead, fluid movement relies on the movement of our muscles through contraction and the pumping action of deep breathing.

Problems caused by chronic lymph blockages

If the lymph system gets blocked or overrun lymph fluid backs up. This chronic lymph blockage can cause swelling, joint pain, nausea and fatigue, as well as the symptoms listed below.

Stagnant lymph can be stored within lymph nodes for a long time but will eventually become too toxic for the body to manage. Any extreme blockage – which may be due to illness or toxic overload – may cause lymph fluid to back up, leading to swelling in surrounding tissue, a condition which is called lymphedema.

Back up of lymph fluid can also restrict the system’s ability to eliminate more serious concerns, such as bacteria and cancerous or diseased cells from organ tissue. Viral infections, bacteria and cancerous cells move through the lymph fluid, where they are targeted and destroyed in the lymph nodes — when the system is able to do it.

Symptoms of chronic lymph blockage

The lymph system cleans almost every one of your body’s cells, so when you have a chronic lymph blockage, you will feel it quickly and can suffer symptoms throughout your entire body. Symptoms of chronic lymph blockage include:

  • Worsened allergies and food sensitivities
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Joint pain and arthritis
  • Frequent cold and flu infections
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Breast tenderness and fibrocystic breasts
  • Sinusitis
  • GI issues including loss of appetite
  • Muscle cramping, tissue swelling
  • Acne
  • Cellulite
  • Fatigue
  • Mental fuzziness
  • Depression/mood irregularities
  • Heaviness in the abdomen

How to keep your lymphatic system healthy

One of the best ways you can help keep your lymphatic system moving is through lymphatic massage. Because lymph fluid moves slowly inactivity or lack of movement can severely restrict its flow.

On an everyday basis, regular lymph massage (especially around the abdomen, axillary nodes, and breast) can be great to help maintain lymphatic health. There are several different types of lymph massage, and we suggest you visit a certified massage therapist to learn more about the type that may be right for you.

In addition – whether you have symptoms or not — the following steps can help keep your lymph system moving and working at its best.

12 ways to boost your lymphatic system health

1. Cut down on toxic food. Don’t make your lymphatic system work harder than it has to. Making better food choices is the number one step for so many health benefits. And when it comes to your lymphatic system, by cutting down on or avoiding processed food, you can dramatically decrease your body’s toxic burden. Also, try to eat organic whenever possible, and do your best to eliminate simple sugars and carbohydrates that always seem to creep into our diet even when we’re trying to avoid them!

2. Try a short-term cleanse to ease your liver and kidney burden, which in turn will decrease pressure on your spleen. To get started, we recommend finding a simple two-week cleanse that will work with your lifestyle.

3. Dry brush your body before showering to boost circulation, stimulate the lymph nodes and help your body remove waste. The goal is to brush each part of your body towards your heart in small strokes, so start at your feet and brush upwards to your torso. When you get to your arms start at your hands to work upward. The chest is where the lymph system drains so it’s best to brush your chest in a circular motion. Use firm pressure, but be sure not to press too hard to avoid causing any pain or discomfort.

4. Identify food sensitivities or allergies that could be causing problems with your digestion. Experimenting with an elimination diet for a few weeks will help you cleanse your system of possible food irritants such as gluten, soy or corn.

5. Try a probiotic. Probiotics are the “good” bacteria found in your body naturally that help your body get rid of “bad” bacteria. In addition to digestive support, research on probiotics shows that they provide benefits for weight loss, improved mood and reduced allergies.

6. Take a medical-grade multivitamin to support your cellular function, digestion, and elimination.

7. Hydrate! — drink at least six to eight 8 ounce glasses of purified or filtered water per day. Hydration will help keep the bodily fluids running properly and give you many other health benefits.

8. Breathe deeply. Deep breathing stimulates your lymphatic system. To get the most benefit, breathe from the diaphragm, not shallowly from the chest. Also, focus on breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. In addition to helping your body get rid of toxins, deep breathing is a wonderful way to reduce stress.

9. Get regular physical exercise. Just five minutes of intense exercise a day is a great way to get your lymph system pumping. Walking, stretching, swimming, yoga and other moderate activities are helpful, too. Find any activity – or a mix of activities – that you really enjoy and want to do every day.

10. Sweat in ways other than exercise. A weekly sauna or steam bath is a luxurious way to facilitate a healthy sweat. Sweating helps with the detoxification of the body and supports lymphatic function.

11. Avoid aluminum-based antiperspirants which block sweating and add to your toxic load. Instead try a natural, or at least aluminum-free, deodorant – you may be surprised how much better they have gotten if you tried them years ago!

12. Get a comfortable bra. Underwire bras and or those that are too tight can restrict lymph flow. Try to go bra-free for at least 12 hours a day, and don’t sleep in one. If this isn’t comfortable, another option is wearing a stretchy camisole that offers some support.

Your lymphatic system is one of the best detoxification systems you have. By adding some or all of the simple steps above, you’ll help make sure your lymph fluid flows freely and purges the poisons in your body.

Last Updated: January 14, 2022
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