Our lymphatic system is an often overlooked but integral part of our health and wellbeing. With the exception of bone marrow, the lymphatic vessels touch nearly every part of our body. So why hasn’t there been much talk of the lymphatic system so far? Because it’s still kind of new! The lymphatic vessels were identified around 300-400 BC, so we’ve known they exist for a while. However, they were left out of much of mainstream medicines research until the late 20th century and, in fact, it was only 2015 when an article was published with the recent discovery of lymph vessels in the central nervous system.
So why are our lymphatics important?
Let’s start with the basics. Our lymph system consists of lymphatic fluid, lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. They carry fats, waste, immune system molecules and fluid around the body. It is connected to, yet still separate from, the cardiovascular system (our blood vessels). There are now over 50 genes that we recognise play a role in the lymphatic system. That’s huge! You’ve all heard of lymphatics probably through the removal of lymph nodes from the armpit area in cases of breast cancer. In this instance, we see problems with fluid and swelling in the affected arm, sometimes life-long. This should give you a clue as to one of its main functions, and that is to regulate the movement of fluid from the tissues back into the bloodstream.
However, the lymphatic system does so much more than that. It plays quite an important role in the immune state of our body. It transports molecules responsible for an immune response around the body. The lymph vessels are also responsible for the handling of dietary fat and fat-soluble vitamins. Our gut, lungs and skin have a very large amount of lymphatic tissue, which gives you another clue to its function. Not only are all of those areas (gut, lungs, skin) key to ‘keeping guard’ for our immune protection, but the areas where we have lots of lymph vessels is where we can see issues popping up when our lymphatic system is under stress.
Two examples include fat deposits and sagging skin, or accumulation of fat in the liver when the lymphatic system is impaired. The liver makes at least half of the body’s lymph fluid and of course, is our major detox organ. Hello… there’s another clue as to the importance of the lymphatic system – detoxification. The lymph fluid will carry waste products away from the tissues. Where does it go then? The main location where the lymph fluid gets dumped into the bloodstream is via the jugular vein and subclavian vein (neck and shoulder). So the lymph collects fluids, wastes and other molecules and drops them into our venous system. Having then entered the main circulation they can be recycled or eliminated through the kidneys.
We want our lymphatic system to work well every day, and we’ll get onto that in a minute, but there are times when we really need a tip-top lymphatic system. That is when we have been unwell with an inflammatory or infective condition (ie. when our immune system is under stress). The lymph will carry away debris and inflammatory cells from our tissues allowing the repair to happen. A well-functioning lymphatic system has been shown to improve healing while also decreasing the amount of time this takes.
How do I know if my lymphatic system is in need of some attention?
You may see the signs very obviously, such as accumulation of fluid in your arms or legs or cellulite deposits under the skin. The functions and locations of the lymphatics give us a clue, as they have a huge role in the gut, liver, respiratory and immune systems:
- Slow recovery from illness / higher frequency of infections
- Feeling toxic
- Liver problems
- Brain fog/mood issues
- Sinus issues (a large amount of lymph tissue is in the sinus cavity)
- Digestive issues, bloating, constipation
How do I support my lymphatic system?
The trick with your lymphatic vessels is to know that lymph fluid does not move around the body the way blood does. You see, blood is pumped by the heart and even when you’re sitting quite still, your blood is moving around your body, providing oxygen and nutrients to your cells. This does not happen with the lymphatic system. The lymph vessels have no pump and when you are sitting still you have very little, if any, the flow of lymphatic fluid. Given all the things that the lymphatics do, we sure do want it to be moving around our body.
How does lymph fluid flow I hear you ask? With movement... The absolute best way to have strong lymphatic performance is to move your body. As your muscles pump, contracting and relaxing, the lymph fluid is massaged and pushed through its vessels. You may also have heard of lymphatic drainage massage. This is a common way of manually moving lymph around the body and is commonly used by people with diseases or conditions that affect their lymphatic system.
For the majority of us the basics of self-care and wellbeing will not only set you up for long-term health, but also look after our lymphatic system. These include:
- Movement – to pump the lymphatic fluid through its vessels.
- Diet – a good diet will decrease the toxic load to be cleaned up, support our lymph producing liver and support our immune system. So in this way we work with our body and all its systems to keep them (and us) at their best.
- Hydration – this is mechanical in nature. We need to keep our vessels, be they lymph or blood, plump and full of fluid to have good flow and movement.
- Deep breathing and nasal breathing – there is a lot of lymph tissue in the sinus and lungs. In fact, the sinus lymph tissue filter a lot of airborne toxins before they enter the body. It also helps us engage the relaxation system of our body.
There are a few activities that have been shown to be especially useful for encouraging flow of lymphatic fluid around the body. These include:
- Rebounding – here at Kultured Wellness we LOVE rebounding. In fact, this will be a blog post all of its own in the near future. Rebounding pumps the lymphatic fluid around your body as you contract and relax those big leg muscles. It gets air flowing through those sinus’ which are heavily fed with lymphatic vessels. It’s another detox tool for your kit. If you are stuck at a desk all day you can get up every hour and have a bounce. The best offices have rebounders in them, like our office here. ☺
- Dry Brushing – as mentioned before, the skin has a lot of lymphatic tissue and we can see poor quality skin and sagging skin with fat deposits if our lymphatics are not working well. Dry brushing manually moves lymph fluid encouraging a flush out of waste and debris. I have attached a video here that discusses all you need to know about dry brushing.
In a nutshell:
- The lymphatic system plays a role in our waste management, detoxification, immune system, fat handling and fluid movement in the body
- When you look after your lymphatics, you look after your mind, your immune system, your digestion, your sinuses, your liver and so much more
- Poor lymphatics have been associated with such diseases as heart disease and obesity
- We require good lymphatics to recover from any inflammatory and immune insult
- Some core elements of health such as diet, movement, relaxation and hydration are key to good lymphatic function
- We can add especially lymph loving activities into the mix such as dry brushing and rebounding for an extra performance boost.