Why Your Lymph System May Need Some TLC
Though I rarely get whatever viral thing is going around anymore, I was felled by a nasty virus (an adenovirus, I think) on January 13, exactly one week before Trump’s inauguration, and was quite ill with it for over a month. I called my virus “Donald Trump” since it seemed that fear and grief about his impending reign had weakened my immune system, allowing the virus to take hold. Then I took a two-week trip that unexpectedly involved a great deal of inactivity with little opportunity for exercise and came home with a garden variety cold. A whole lot of being inactive and sick for me.
At various times last week, I felt a strange kind of dull pain on my left side. In that lung? In the lower part of my heart? I couldn’t say exactly where it was located but it was something new and scary. So I mentioned it to my chiropractor when I saw her over the weekend. She did some lymphatic drainage massage in that area. My sinuses, which I’d thought had completely recovered from the two viruses, started draining, I immediately felt my energy improve, and the pain was gone.
Turns out, not surprisingly when I think about it, that the lymph had become stagnant on my left side (and probably elsewhere too) and she’d gotten it moving again. She reminded me that I know a bit about how to do lymphatic drainage on myself and recommended doing some daily. I’ve taken her advice.
Since I’m aware that most of us don’t know much about the function of lymph in the body, I decided to make this post (my first in a long while) about the lymphatic system.
Lymph is a clear-to-white fluid containing white blood cells (especially lymphocytes – the cells that attack bacteria in the blood) and fluid from the intestines called chyle, which contains proteins and fats. The clear liquid inside a blister is lymph. (MedLinePlus, 2017)
The lymphatic system transports nutrients to the cells and collects the cells’ waste products. It is made up of lymph fluid, lymph nodes, bone marrow, organs (thymus, spleen, appendix, tonsils, adenoids), lymphoid tissue in the small and large intestines (called Peyer’s patches), capillaries, vessels, and ducts that transport lymph and fluids secreted by glands through the body. This system is responsible for removing cellular debris, large proteins, foreign bodies, pathogenic agents (bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, etc), and excess fluid from the extracellular spaces. The lymph system is a major player in the body’s immune system, defending the body against harmful agents and destroying accumulated wastes. (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017), (MedLinePlus, 2017), (Science Clarified, 2017) & (Zimmerman, 2016)
As our blood moves through its circulatory system and reaches the capillaries, a portion of the blood’s plasma seeps out of the capillaries and into the spaces surrounding the cells. This plasma, at this point called tissue fluid, consists of water and dissolved molecules small enough to fit through the small openings in the capillaries.
Tissue fluid delivers needed nutrients to cells while also collecting waste products from the cells. Some tissue fluid gets returned to the blood capillaries via osmosis. Other tissue fluid enters capillaries that are part of the lymphatic systems and becomes known as lymph. (Science Clarified, 2017)
Lymph nodes are soft, small, round, or bean-shaped structures. They usually cannot be seen or easily felt. They are located in clusters in various parts of the body, such as the:
Inside the center of the chest and abdomen
The ones around our lungs and heart are located deep inside the body. The ones in our armpits and groins are closer to the surface.
Our bodies contain approximately 400 – 1,000 lymph nodes, with more than half of them located in the abdomen. These nodes are reservoirs that act as a purification system. They:
Make immune cells that help the body fight infection
Act as filtration and purification stations for the circulating lymph
Capture and destroy toxins
Trap cancer cells and destroy them
Concentrate the lymph, re-absorbing about 40% of the liquid present in the lymph
– (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017) , MedLinePlus, 2017), (Science Clarified, 2017) & (Zimmerman, 2016)
The thymus gland is located in the chest, under the sternum, between the lungs, just above the heart. This small organ stores immature lymphocytes and produces a hormone called thymosin, which stimulates the development of disease fighting T cells and prepares them to become active T cells. T cells help destroy infected or cancerous cells. (Zimmerman, 2016)
The thymus’s dual function as both an endocrine and lymphatic gland gives it a significant role in our long-term health. Fortunately, the thymus has produced all our T cells before we reach puberty when the gland becomes smaller.
The thymus helps protect the body against autoimmunity (a condition created by chronic inflammation in the body that causes the immune system to turn against itself or other tissues in the body). (Sargis, 2014)
In mammals, the bone marrow is a primary site where lymphocytes develop. Unlike the thymus, the bone marrow doesn’t atrophy at puberty and keeps producing lymphocytes as we age. (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011)
The spleen, our largest lymphatic organ, is located on the left side of the abdomen just above the left kidney. It is part of our immune system, involved in the production and removal of red blood cells. When it detects dangerous bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms in the blood passing through it, the spleen and the lymph nodes around it create white blood cells called lymphocytes which produce antibodies to kill the intruders and stop infections from spreading. People who have lost their spleen to disease or injury are more prone to infections. (Zimmerman, 2016)
The human appendix is a narrow pouch of tissue about four inches long and about a quarter of an inch in diameter. It extends from the lower end of the cecum, between the small and large intestines. Like the rest of the digestive tract, it has an inner mucosal layer; but unlike the rest of the intestine, the submucosal layer of the appendix contains masses of lymphoid tissue, suggesting it plays a role in the immune system in addition to the digestive system. (Taylor, 2017)
While it has long been thought that the appendix is vestigial and useless to modern humans who don’t live on a diet of raw foods, recent research has shown that the appendix is indeed useful, that it serves as a “backup factory” for beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut that promote digestion and protect the body from illness.
“Not only was it recently proposed to actually possess a critical function, but scientists now find it appears in nature a lot more often than they had thought. And it’s possible some of this organ’s ancient uses could be recruited by physicians to help the human body fight disease more effectively.
“Your appendix may serve as a vital safehouse where good bacteria can lie in wait until they are needed to repopulate the gut after a case of diarrhea. Past studies have also found the appendix can help make, direct and train white blood cells.
“The appendix appears in nature much more often than previously acknowledged … in Australian marsupials such as the wombat and in rats, lemmings, meadow voles, and other rodents, as well as humans and certain primates.
“If the good bacteria in your colon dies, which could happen as a result of cholera or dysentery, for instance, it appears your appendix steps up to help recolonize your gut with good bacteria.” (Mercola, 2009)
The tonsils are large clusters of lymphatic cells located in the pharynx (the membrane-lined cavity behind the nose and mouth, connecting them to the esophagus). The American Academy of Otolaryngology describes the tonsils as the body’s “first line of defense as part of the immune system. They sample bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the mouth or nose.” (Zimmerman, 2016)
For a large part of the 20th century, children in the US were likely to have their tonsils removed – often for no good reason. I vividly remember being subject to this surgery when I was five (not a good memory) and getting rewarded with strawberry ice cream while I was recovering. While the surgeon was in there, he also removed my adenoids.
“A generation or two ago, taking out a child’s tonsils often was the first line of defense against chronic throat infections and breathing problems. Today, as doctors have studied the tonsils’ purpose and have developed stronger antibiotics, it often is the last.
“In the 1930s, tonsillectomies were performed as preventive measures. By the 1960s and ’70s, close to 2 million were performed in the United States each year. The American Academy of Otolaryngology estimates that now fewer than 600,000 tonsillectomies are performed annually.” (Washington Times, 2000)
Although not done in the 1930’s, a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy were advised by my pediatrician even though I wasn’t having chronic throat infections or breathing difficulties.
The adenoids are a mass of soft tissue located in the roof of the mouth where the nose and throat connect behind the soft palate. They are a part of the immune system and, like lymph nodes, are composed of lymphoid tissue. As with the lymph nodes, white blood cells circulate through the adenoids to help fight off infections and other foreign invaders. Typically, the adenoids shrink during adolescence and may disappear by adulthood. (WebMD, 2017)
The lymph system also performs a second important function. Fats that have been absorbed in the small intestine enter lymph vessels located there. Those fats are then carried through the lymphatic system back into the blood circulatory system. (Science Clarified, 2017)
After the lymph has collected the emulsified fats from the small intestine and has been propelled along via tiny valves inside the vessels of the lymphatic system, it is collected into the thoracic duct (the largest vessel in the lymphatic system).
The thoracic duct is the major vessel in the lymphatic system. It begins near the lower part of the spine and transports lymph that has collected emulsified fats from the small intestine. This duct runs up the body, emptying the lymph back into the blood through a large vein near the left side of the neck. Without the adequate movement of the body, the lymph moving upwards in the thoracic duct becomes stagnant and lymph accumulates in the body. (Innovate Us, 2013)
A VIDEO ABOUT THE LYMPH SYSTEM
Here’s a short video describing the lymphatic system:
WHERE THE TROUBLE CAN BEGIN
While the blood has a pumping heart to create enough pressure to propel it into and along the arteries, the lymphatic system isn’t connected to the heart and has no pump of its own to move lymph around the body. Instead, it relies on muscular contractions to create a pumping action. The lymph system contains millions of tiny one-way valves which allow lymph fluid to circulate, flowing in only one direction – usually upward, against gravity.
And this is where we get into trouble. Most of us sit a lot and don’t get adequate exercise to keep our lymph circulating efficiently.
WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM GETS SLUGGISH
When your lymphatic system becomes congested or your lymph nodes are swollen, your body will feel sluggish, stiff, achy, maybe even in pain. Your joints may feel painful or weak.
Your kidneys and liver will become toxic because the toxins delivered to them for excretion are unable to be processed efficiently by these purifying organs. This toxicity may lead to digestive disorders, frequently catching whatever virus or bacterial thing is going around, hormonal imbalances, poor circulation, and weight gain.
Your immune system will eventually become compromised because it requires an efficient lymphatic system to keep the body in good health – – and you’ll be on your way to cooking up some unpleasant autoimmune diseases and conditions. Even cancers. (Benjamin, 2017)
“The American medical community historically ignores lymph stagnation as a possible cause of disease. Despite this, the following conditions are examples that are reported to improve through improved lymphatic drainage:
“Allergies, prostatitis, chronic sinusitis, heart disease, eczema and other skin conditions, fibrocystic disease, chronic fatigue, repetitive parasitic infections, MS, edema, lupus erythematosus, inflammation, high blood pressure, bacterial infections, viral infections, puffy eyes, low back pain, cancer, ear or balance problems, arthritis, headaches, cellulite, excessive sweating and obesity.” (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017)
SOME SERIOUS DISEASES AND DISORDERS OF THE LYMPHATIC SYSTEM
LYMPHADENOPATHY, enlargement of the lymph nodes caused by blockages of lymph fluid there (LYMPHEDEMA). Symptoms of lymphadenopathy include a feeling of fullness in the arms or legs; a reduction in flexibility in the wrists, hands, and ankles; noticing that clothes, rings, and wristwatches have become too tight. Swollen lymph nodes can also be felt in the neck, armpits, and groins. Causes of lymphadenopathy are usually infection, inflammation, or cancer. (Zimmerman, 2016)
LYMPHOMA, which develops when lymphocytes grow and multiply uncontrollably, is a blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system. The two main types are Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin:
HODGKIN LYMPHOMA (HL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow affecting the lymphatic system. It is one of the most curable forms of cancer. If HL is left untreated, the cancerous cells crowd out normal white cells and prevent the immune system from fighting infection.
NON-HODGKIN LYMPHOMA (NHL) generally develops in the lymph nodes and lymphatic tissues. In some cases, it also involves the bone marrow and blood. NHL refers to a diverse group of blood cancers that share a single characteristic in how they develop. It is further classified into a variety of subtypes depending on whether they are slow growing or aggressive. (Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, undated)
CASTLEMAN DISEASE is a group of serious inflammatory disorders causing lymph node enlargement and perhaps resulting in multiple-organ dysfunction. Without being classified as cancer, it is similar to lymphoma and is often treated with chemotherapy. (Zimmerman, 2016)
LYMPHANGIOMATOSIS is a condition in which multiple tumors (lymphangiomas) or cysts form on vessels in the lymphatic system. These tumors can cause pain, difficulty breathing, or other symptoms depending on where they are located. (PatientsLikeMe, 2017) & (Zimmerman, 2016)
Clearly, you want to avoid developing any of these diseases and conditions!
WAYS TO GET YOUR LYMPH MOVING
PROFESSIONAL LYMPHATIC DRAINAGE MASSAGE
Practitioners of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) massage using a variety of rhythmic, gentle pumping actions to move the skin in the direction of the lymph flow. Getting regular lymphatic drainage massage from a professional is very beneficial for keeping stagnant lymph moving. Any deep tissue massage is helpful, but lymphatic drainage massage is specifically designed to get the lymph moving around the body so impurities are removed and fresh hydration and nutrients are flushed through the system. (Benjamin, 2017) & (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017)
Fortunately, there are also quite a few things you can do yourself to get your lymph fluids moving so they can do their important jobs and keep you healthy. Here are some of them:
Exercising creates a pumping action with the muscles that move lymph fluids, circulating them to your liver and kidneys so they can be filtered by these organs and excreted from the body. Good exercises include walking briskly and high intensity workouts, or both, every day to get your lymphatic system moving. (Benjamin, 2017)
“An exercise plan for anyone at risk for or diagnosed with lymphedema includes some combination of flexibility and stretching exercises: strength training, aerobic exercise that uses the upper body, helping with weight loss and encouraging deep breathing, which in turn helps lymph move along.” (BreastCancer.org, 2017)
Chronic dehydration slows and stagnates the flow of lymph. The lymphatic system consists mostly of water so a dehydrated body causes it to slow down. If you’re dehydrated, the system will be unable to filter its lymph properly or remove chemicals and toxins through the liver and kidneys. Remember that you can be dehydrated even if you don’t feel thirsty. (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017)
Breathing calms your heart and nervous system, improves mood, calms OCD-type racing thoughts, alters your brainwaves (for the better!), and also helps your lymphatic system properly drain and purify your body.
By taking adequate, calm breaths in through your nose, you’re providing your body enough oxygen to work with. Oxygen and hydration are essential to keeping the lymphatic system clear of impurities. Exercise also promotes adequate breathing. (Benjamin, 2017)
Rebounding – jumping on a trampoline – gets your heart and respiration rate up. This easy up and down movement uses the force of gravity to move lymph around the body. (Benjamin, 2017) If you don’t have a trampoline, you can put your hands against a wall or sturdy piece of furniture and jump up and down in place.
“It is claimed that rebounding is so efficient in stimulating the lymph flow that some call it ‘Lymphasizing’.” (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017)
Laughter, as they say, is great medicine. It’s also an effective method for helping your lymphatic system. When we laugh, we take deeper breaths that stimulate the lungs, circulatory system and other organs that work in harmony with the lymphatic system. (Benjamin, 2017)
If nothing strikes you funny enough to actually LOL about, try some Laughter Yoga.
Laughter Yoga can be done by yourself too. Maybe while showering. It doesn’t add any extra time to your morning routine and can vastly improve your whole day.
DOING LYMPHATIC DRAINAGE ON YOURSELF
You’ll learn how to do an effective head and neck lymphatic drainage massage on yourself in this video by Heather Wibbels, LMT:
Another video by Heather shows how to do lymphatic drainage on your arms:
How to do self lymphatic drainage on your breasts:
Another of Heather Wibbels’ videos shows how to perform lymphatic drainage massage on your abdomen and trunk.
You can Google self lymphatic drainage to find other videos on how to drain the lymph from puffy under eyes, stopped up ears, swollen legs, and other body parts.
HOT + COLD SHOWERS
This invigorating technique consists of switching the water in your shower between very hot and very cold – emulating a Finnish sauna in which you sit in the hot, steamy sauna and then run outside naked into the snow or dip your body in near freezing water.
The temperature changes stimulate movement in your lymphatic system and blood circulation by expanding and contracting vessels in each system. Said to be quite rejuvenating. (Benjamin, 2017)
EAT RAW FRUITS
The acids and enzymes in raw fruits eaten on an empty stomach stimulate lymphatic system drainage – grapes, lemons, limes, grapefruit, apples, etc. Adding essential oils of these fruits to your water bottle to drink throughout the day also stimulates lymphatic drainage and digestive detoxification. (Benjamin, 2017)
APPLY ESSENTIAL OILS TOPICALLY
Applying essential oils – lemon, ginger, peppermint, and rosemary – to the lymph node rich areas of your body is also good for stimulating lymphatic drainage. (Benjamin, 2017)
Please send a comment to share other ways you know of to stimulate the lymph system.
The body contains almost twice as much lymph as blood: about 6-10 liters of lymph compared to 3.5-5 liters of blood. (DiagnoseMe.com, 2017)
Benjamin, D. (2017). 10 Ways To Empty Your Lymphatic System From Toxins Causing You To Feel Weak. See: https://healthywildandfree.com/10-ways-to-empty-your-lymphatic-system-from-toxins-causing-you-to-feel-sick-fat-and-weak-immunity/
BreastCancer.org. (2017). Lymphedema and Exercise. See: http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/lymphedema/exercise
DiagnoseMe.com. (2017). Lymphatic Congestion. See: http://www.diagnose-me.com/symptoms-of/lymphatic-congestion.php
Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2011). Lymphatic system. See: https://www.britannica.com/science/lymphatic-system
Innovate Us. (2013). What is the function of Thoracic Duct? See: http://www.innovateus.net/health/what-function-thoracic-duct
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (undated). Lymphoma. See: https://www.lls.org/lymphoma
MedLinePlus. (2017). Lymph system. See: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002247.htm
Mercola, R. (2009). Your Appendix is Useful After All. See: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/09/17/your-appendix-is-useful-after-all.aspx
patientslikeme. (2017). Lymphangiomatosis. See: https://www.patientslikeme.com/conditions/1737-lymphangiomatosis
Sargis, R.M. (2014). An Overview of the Thymus: The Gland that Protects You Long after It’s Gone. See: https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-thymus
Science Clarified. (2017). Lymphatic system. See: http://www.scienceclarified.com/Io-Ma/Lymphatic-System.html
Taylor, T. (2017). Appendix. See: http://www.innerbody.com/image/dige03.html#full-description
Washington Times. (2000). Once-routine tonsillectomy now performed as last resort. See: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2000/oct/1/20001001-012109-2030r/
WebMD. (2017). Picture of the Adenoids. See: http://www.webmd.com/children/picture-of-the-adenoids
Zimmerman, K.A. (2016). Immune System: Diseases, Disorders & Function. LiveScience.com. See: http://www.livescience.com/26579-immune-system.html
© Copyright 2017. Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Comments submitted prior to 8/25/2021
This excellent post is very timely. I’ve recently done some lymph massage to address an issue and it worked beautifully. Thank you for this most informative blog!