The lymphatic system makes up part of the immune system and it is working round the clock for you to remove toxins, invaders and waste products from the body. You can think of it as the body’s drainage system. It also works to produce immune system cells and antibodies, and helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and fatty substances from the digestive tract to the bloodstream. It includes a huge network of capillaries, vessels, lymph tissue, nodes and ducts, as well as the spleen, thymus and tonsils. Lymphatic tissue is also present in the digestive tract and when you are in a state of ‘rest and digest’, you may notice it at work. This amazing complex system cleanses and detoxifies your body, but it needs your support to help it to function well. Once you learn how to keep your lymph flowing, you will notice wonderful benefits such as improved immunity, healthier skin, increased energy levels, mental clarity, and better digestion.
The lymphatic system is a subsystem of the circulatory system, but unlike the blood circulation and its ‘pump’ (the heart), it relies on movement to keep it flowing. It also differs to the circulatory system in that it is a one-way system. Lymph fluid only ever travels in one direction, towards the heart. Hundreds of lymph vessels are situated all around the body and some are closer to the surface of the skin so can be stimulated by things like massage and dry body brushing. The deeper vessels rely on muscle contraction. Lymph nodes filter out toxins, by-products from various organs and foreign particles that have entered the body from the outside. You may have noticed a swelling in one of the lymph nodes in the neck or armpits when you’ve had a virus or have felt run down. There are two lymph ducts which are known as the great lymphatic vessels. These drain lymph fluid into the circulatory system to then be eliminated. Things that restrict the movement of lymph include tight clothing, sitting for long periods and certain injuries and diseases. There’s more to the lymphatic system, but for now this should give you a basic understanding so you can be aware of the workings of this system and the ways you can further support its functioning.
What causes the lymphatic system to become overloaded?
Within your body, there is a constant process of repair and renewal happening. Two of the major systems that are part of this process are the cardiovascular system and the immune system (the lymphatic system is part of these). They are at work, ridding the body of anything that could potentially cause you harm and bring your body out of balance - out of homeostasis. When you eat unhealthful foods, put chemicals on your skin, inhale pollution, go through a period of stress, live a sedentary lifestyle, or do anything that sends the body out of balance, these systems must work extra hard, and they may become so overloaded that they can’t cope with the demands of the repairs needed. This is when your vitality fades away and disease and illness are highly likely to occur. And even if there is no apparent disease, you’ll likely not be feeling at your best. These things not only impact our physical health but our mental, emotional, and spiritual health too.
What can you do to nourish and support your lymphatic system?
When you eat healthful foods, avoid chemicals on your skin, limit your exposure to other avoidable toxins, manage stress effectively and nourish your body with plenty of water, movement, and healing modalities such as massage, meditation and yoga, the body’s systems will be more at ease. They will function much better and you will experience heightened feelings of wellbeing and vitality. When the lymphatic system is at ease and functioning well, it makes it more able to handle the things you can’t always avoid, such as toxins from household materials, certain foods, air pollution or having to sit or stand for longer periods than you’d like to due to work or other commitments. Nourishing this system is like keeping your car serviced and maintained. If you let it dry up, don’t use it, never replace the oil etc., it will be sluggish and let you down. Why is it so many people don’t give their own ‘vehicle’ the care and attention it needs to function well? It is often down to a lack of knowledge and understanding. That’s why I write these posts, to help you to live well. If you have the knowledge, this becomes your superpower and puts you in better control of your health.
My top tips:
This is not just by drinking lots of water. See my previous post for more useful info and tips.
Professional massage therapy is a great way to stimulate the lymphatic system and manipulate the body into an intense detox. Of course, there are many other benefits to massage as it initiates the parasympathetic nervous system and has a healing effect on the body holistically. Massage therapy for me is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. This is one of the reasons I trained in it. I realised and learned about the benefits for myself and wondered why it wasn’t more mainstream. I always make sure I keep up with having my own regular full body massage treatments, and its part of my self-care non-negotiables. If you’d like to, you can book a lymph stimulating, full body massage treatment with me here
I also give myself Gua Sha facial treatments at home, which is great for lymphatic drainage of the face and neck. Drain outwards from the nose to ears and downwards for best results. Remember lymph fluid flows towards the heart.
Reverse the negative effects
If I’ve been on my feet all day and have that throbbing feeling in my legs, I do legs up the wall pose as soon as I’m home. This instantly relieves this feeling and reduces any swelling that is caused by a build of lymph fluid. This is one example of many, to counteract the effects of lifestyle factors affecting the lymphatic system. Another example that is more well-known is wearing flight socks. These can prevent or ease swelling from a build up of fluid in the legs during a long flight.
Consume detoxifying foods and drinks
This list could be endless, but I’ll recommend a few.
A fresh lemon and ginger infusion, beetroot juice or the wholefood, kiwi (an overlooked super superfood) rooibos tea, dandelion tea, cucumber, leafy greens, herbs and spices, flax and chia seeds and unsalted soaked nuts. Most plant-based wholefoods will support the lymphatic system. Eat clean for the majority of the time, avoid ultra-processed foods, and limit alcohol and caffeine.
This is so important for the lymphatic system, and for many other reasons too! We all know how important regular exercise is, and if you’re able bodied and not doing it, ask yourself why. If it’s because you don’t enjoy it, do something fun! I’m not a fan of the gym so I do my own regime at home. Its often very random, but its consistent. I have my own weights, boxing gloves, hula hoop and other equipment to support the movement I enjoy. My exercise routine always includes dance because I love it. I also love to walk in nature, but I certainly don’t do anything too vigorous outdoors. We are all unique in that we enjoy different types of movement. Find what works for you. It all counts, and I promise it’s worth the time and money investment if you’re prepared to commit to it. Aim for at least 30 minutes, 5 times a week. But also think about moving on some level every day to support the lymphatic system. Combining a mix of cardio with strength training and stretching is the best way to improve your overall health and fitness. Always warm up before exercise and cool down and stretch the body after.
Dry body brushing
This has multiple benefits, especially when it comes to the skin. It stimulates the flow of lymph in the superficial vessels that run closer to the surface of the skin. You can purchase a quality, reasonably priced dry skin brush by a brand called Hydrea. I’ve had one of their brushes for about 15 years and it’s still going strong. To further boost the benefits, you could take a cold shower afterwards.
We know movement is important for the lymphatic system, but so is rest and stillness. Note that I mentioned ‘rest and digest’ and how the digestive system is linked to the lymphatic system. Adequate rest supports this. Allow your body the time and space to digest your food and know when to stop. For a busy minded person this can be difficult, but it’s the key to a balanced life and stress reduction. If you’re chronically stressed (most people that are don’t realise), your lymphatic and other systems will not be working optimally. It is only a matter of time before this manifests into illness, be it mental or physical. For extra support and encouragement, you can find my guided meditations and podcasts on the Insight Timer free app.
I often tell clients that when it comes to natural healing and wellness, we really do get out what we put in. If you prioritise yourself and treat yourself like you would a loved one or friend, your life will improve in many ways. How about a new healthy habit? Give yourself the time and space to look after the one vehicle that is guaranteed to carry you through this life. Nurture it and support it in the ways that serve you and help you to feel good. Don’t forget to have fun and don't take the wellness craze too seriously! Trust me, I’ve been down that road and it took a while to get back.
Reference sites and further reading: