The Lymphatic System: What It Does — And How To Keep Yours Healthy
As an integrative physician, I've long been intrigued by the power and strength of the lymphatic system. But it's not something most people are familiar with, though that's beginning to change. There's a lot of information circulating about the lymphatic system these days, and, lately, some of my patients have been coming to me with questions and wanting clarification. So here are some facts and crucial information to know about the lymphatic system.
Lymph and the lymphatic system: The facts and basics.
The first and most obvious question is: What is the lymphatic system? Before that, I guess you might want to know what "lymph" is. Well, lymph is a fluid that has no color, and it contains white blood cells, which are our key immune cells. Lymph covers the tissues in our body, and it has its own drainage system, which is called the lymphatic system. There is an intricate system of lymph capillaries (basically small little drainage pipes) that collects all the fluid that occupies the spaces between different tissues in the body. Those little capillaries connect to larger pipes, called lymph vessels, which lead to lymph nodes.
Many of you probably know what a lymph node is; when you have a sore throat or a cold, you might notice that you feel some small circular bumps under the surface of your skin that go away after the cold resolves. Those are lymph nodes, and that is a sign that your immune system is fighting something on your behalf. In the lymph nodes, the lymph fluid is cleaned by a special kind of white blood cell called a lymphocyte. After that happens, what is left drains into one of our major veins (the subclavian veins for those of you who are interested). Then the fluid mixes in with the blood, and circulation proceeds, and the whole process repeats itself.
Lymph is an amazing substance and is similar in composition to the blood plasma. It brings proteins, excess fluids, bacteria, cancer cells, and fats to the lymph nodes for processing. The word "lymph" is derived from the name of Lympha, the ancient Roman God of fresh water.
The lymphatic system and our health.
Now that we know what lymph and the lymphatic system are, it's important to know just how this system influences our health and how we can keep our individual lymphatic systems healthy. The lymphatic system helps with the fluid balance in our body, and it also plays a role in lipid metabolism and the immune system while influencing a wide variety of conditions, from infections to inflammatory diseases to metabolic diseases and cancer1. The lymphatic system is a superhighway for lymphocytes and immune cells, which are directed to region-specific lymph nodes; it is here where our immune system comes into contact with pathogens, microbes, and other things that get it revved up. What makes the lymphatic vessels a superhighway2 as opposed to just a regular highway is that it actively participates in affecting the immune system itself by participating in the immune response rather than just serving as a simple roadway.
There are a number of conditions involving the lymphatic system that can affect our health. Lymphedema is a condition in which you might get swelling in your face, arms, legs, or abdomen as a result of fluid not draining well into the lymphatic system. Lymphadenopathy is another common condition, which basically means that there are lymph nodes that are found during a physical exam3. It's possible that this may even be one of the first signs of cancer, especially if there are abnormally enlarged lymph nodes (like in lymphoma); however, the most common cause of lymph node enlargement and lymph nodes that can be detected on a physical exam is an infection. Sometimes people may also have an enlarged spleen or splenomegaly because the spleen is a major immune organ.
Another example of a lymphatic disease is LAM or lymphangioleiomatosis4; this affects women of childbearing age, and it is a condition that affects the lungs in which muscle-like cells uncontrollably grow in other tissues and organs. These cells interfere with the normal functioning of the lungs and grow in the lymph nodes, lungs, and kidneys. When the brain's lymphatic system is impaired5, there may be implications for the development of neurovascular, neurodegenerative, and neuroinflammatory conditions in addition to brain tumors and injuries. These are just a few of the major diseases and conditions that can affect the lymphatic system.
How to maintain a healthy lymphatic system.
By now, many of you are probably just wondering what you need to do to maintain a good, healthy lymphatic system. Don't worry, the recommendations are not too far off from what you should be doing to optimize your health and wellness in general! Here are my top six integrative health tips for maintaining a strong lymphatic system that go way beyond wearing compression stockings:
1. Drink plenty of water.
Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine, which can dehydrate the body. Remember, lymph comes from the word "lympha," which means fresh water. We want to keep the water flowing nice and fresh, and we want to avoid the river from drying out and becoming stagnant.
One of the best things we can do for our lymphatic system is to move on a regular basis. The more you are contracting and moving your muscles and joints, the better the lymph will flow. Remember: While the lymphatic system is a circulatory system like the blood vessels we all have, there is no heart to drive the lymphatic system, so we have to move and exercise to make the lymph flow nicely.
3. Eat a colorful diet—free of processed foods.
Eat a diet full of colorful vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants, avoiding processed and fast foods in addition to sugar-filled foods and drinks. This will help your overall health and your detoxification ability and will help keep the lymph clean and flowing while boosting your immune system's ability to do its job. Various bioflavonoids found in foods are able to reduce edema or swelling and improve lymph flow. Maintaining good gut health and a resilient gut microbiome are certainly key factors in obtaining optimal health on a number of levels.
4. Experiment with manual manipulation like lymphatic massage.
Lymphatic massage and other manual manipulation therapies can also be helpful. Lymphatic pump treatment done by osteopathic physicians can improve lymph and immune health6. Mechanical massage, manual lymphatic drainage, and connective tissue manipulation have also shown to be helpful, particularly with reducing regional fat mass and thickness in those with cellulite7. Another technique I recently learned about is called Rolfing, and this is a form of deep-tissue massage aimed at getting the whole body to work together in harmony. As you can see, the message here is the same as with exercise: Get the lymph moving and flowing nicely. Here's how to find a certified practitioner near you.
5. Try dry brushing.
This is a technique that is reported to help get the lymphatic system moving and remove toxins from your body. All you have to do is purchase a special brush and methodically brush your body gently. The scientific literature to support this practice is limited, but there is not much downside other than skin irritation. So if you enjoy it and it makes you feel better, then it is not unreasonable to consider including it in your regimen.
Stress reduction and relaxation are also key ingredients of optimizing lymph flow. Just think of this as exercise for your circulation. In this case, laughing and deep breathing could be considered forms of exercise because you are using and contracting your muscles. As we discussed above, this helps keep the circulation going. Doing yoga, tai chi, qigong, or other movement-based practices would be an added bonus!
At the end of the day, the lymphatic system is important and plays a key role in our health8. While there is good science to back many of the health claims reviewed here, there are still some areas where more research is needed to clarify the benefits of certain practices. Generally speaking, however, many of the treatments designed to address better lymphatic drainage and flow are consistent with recommendations for optimal health, anyway.
As always, you should still consult your health care practitioner to see what might work best for you, as there are some situations where certain practices may not be ideal or safe for your particular circumstances and health conditions. If you start by eating healthy, avoiding toxins, and moving more, you will be well on your way to keeping the ancient Roman deity Lympha happy!
Marvin Singh, M.D is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California, and a Member of the Board and Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine. He is also trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Singh completed his residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Health System followed by fellowship training in Gastroenterology at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. Singh was trained by Andrew Weil, M.D., a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.
Singh is currently the Director of Integrative Gastroenterology at the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute at UC Irvine. He is also currently a voluntary Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSD in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health; prior to this, he has been a Clinical Assistant Professor at UCLA and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Singh is a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and many other societies. He is actively involved in the American Gastroenterological Association. He is one of the editors of the textbook of Integrative Gastroenterology, 2nd edition (a Weil Series text) and has written several book chapters and articles.
He is dedicated to guiding his clients toward optimal wellness every step of the way, using the most cutting edge technologies to design highly personalized precision based protocols. Towards this end, he founded Precisione Clinic and wrote the book Rescue Your Health to bring the best in preventive medicine to his clients.