The lymphatic system plays a pivotal role in powering our immune system, transporting nutrients to cells, and disposing of toxins and waste. It is credited with improving heart health, lowering cholesterol, and helping to avoid and recover from cancer.
Dr Gerald Lemole, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery at Christiana Care Health Services in Delawere, USA, has discovered a link between the health of the lymphatic system and chronic disease. Dr Lemole studied the importance of the lymphatics in reducing atherosclerosis, or chronic inflammatory response of the arterial walls.
Researchers have since learnt the importance of the lymphatic system in helping maintain a healthy heart. Because cholesterol is transported through the artery walls via the lymphatic system to the liver to be metabolised, the lymphatics need to be kept clear to enable cholesterol to travel easily and not build-up on arterial walls.
How the lymph system works
The lymphatic system is a network of glands, nodes, ducts and vessels which carry lymph fluid. Lymph fluid is formed when interstitial fluid, the solution which transports nutrients from the blood to the cells and removes waste, enters the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing interstitial fluid from tissues, absorbing and transporting fatty acids and fats to the bloodstream, and triggering and amplifying our immune response when infection is recognised.
The lymphatic system does not have a pump like the heart; instead lymph fluid is primarily moved by muscle contractions.
Fighting cancer cells
Survivors of breast cancer are only too aware of the importance of lymphatic drainage in diagnosis, treatment and recovery. The proximity of breast tissue to lymph nodes located in the armpits means that nodes are often removed with cancerous cells, necessitating ongoing management of the lymphatic system.
Because of its close proximity to many of the body’s tissues, the lymphatic system is responsible for carrying cancerous cells between the various parts of the body. Intervening lymph nodes can trap the cancer cells and destroy them; if they are not successful, the nodes become the site of secondary tumours through a process called metastasis.
Cancer survivors often develop lymphedema, localised fluid retention caused by compromised lymphatics, due to the lymph nodes being damaged or removed. People with lymphedema or other lymphatic system problems are at heightened risk of infection, coupled with an impaired ability to fight infections and heal wounds.
Strengthening our bodies’ defenses
Stimulating the lymphatics with exercise, deep breathing and massage combined with herbal supplements and improvements in diet will boost the lymphatic system’s waste removal ability. Dr Lemole recommends moderate aerobic exercise, not only to ensure the free-flow of lymph fluid but to strengthen the heart. Yoga is also highly recommended for its unique emphasis on twists and inversions which help to stimulate and move lymph fluid, and its encouragement of deep breathing.
As the largest organ of the body, the skin performs an important eliminative purpose for toxins and waste, alongside the kidneys and liver. Dry skin brushing helps stimulate the lymphs to expel stagnant waste matter and resolve inflammations.
Start at the soles of the feet and brush upwards onto the legs, torso and back before moving onto your hands and arms. Skip your face but don’t forget the back of your neck and your scalp. The largest area of lymph fluid collection is just below the collarbones which makes this area particularly conducive to brushing.
Supporters of skin brushing claim that it improves skin softness and quality, reduces skin infections, irritations and colds, and heightens circulation and your level of sensory stimulation.
The Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) technique to encourage the flow of lymph towards the lymph nodes was created in the 1930s by two Danish therapists. It is easy to self-apply and its effectiveness is realised with frequent massages.
Favoured herbs for cleansing the lymphatic system include Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Astragalus (Astragalus Membranaceus), Cleavers (Galium Aparine), Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) and Wild indigo root (Baptisia Tinctoria). The lymphatics must work harder and are more prone to congestion when you eat excessive and partially-digested proteins, excessive sweets, highly-refined foods, and dairy products, so you may wish to limit these to ensure the best of lymphatic health.