In this article I give an introduction to the Lymphatic system, what it is, why it is so important and how you may support this to promote better health and wellbeing.
The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system in the body and serves the very important function of detoxification and fighting infection. It also helps remove excess fluid from tissues and helps absorb fat from around the intestine.
The lymphatic system transports lymph, a clear fluid, containing infection-fighting white blood cells, via a network of lymphatic vessels and organs.
Lymph is derived from fluid surrounding the cells of the body, containing waste products from cellular processes. It also comes from excess fluid (plasma) from the arterial blood circulatory system, after it has deposited nutrients and oxygen to the cells. Most of the plasma (approx. 85%), returns to the venous blood circulation for transport back to the lungs for oxygenation. The remaining 15% (which may be up to 3L per day) becomes lymph.
Unlike blood, which flows throughout the body in a continue loop, lymph flows in only one direction — upward toward the neck, along the lymphatic vessels which have one way valves. It relies on muscular contraction, to move the lymph effectively, since it doesn’t have an active pump.
Lymphatic vessels are connected to lymph nodes, where the lymph is filtered and cleansed to remove toxins, infection, cancer cells, waste and other unwanted debris and materials from cellular processes.
Lymphatic vessels then connect to two subclavian veins, which are located on either sides of the neck near the collarbones, and the cleansed fluid re-enters the circulatory system.
There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the human body, either located deep inside the body, such as around the lungs and heart, or closer to the surface, such as under the arm or groin. These swell when we are fighting infection while they are producing white blood cells called lymphocytes, which produce antibodies that specifically kill foreign bacteria, viruses or other infections. The tonsils, adenoids, spleen, bone marrow and thymus are also part of the lymphatic system involved in detecting and fighting infections.
So the lymphatic system is very important for maintaining our health and wellbeing. Without a correctly functioning lymphatic system excess fluids and toxins would build up around cells creating dis-ease, fatigue and illness.
Whilst the lymphatic system runs throughout the human body, it was thought that the brain lacks a lymphatic system, as it has never been observed, until research was published in the journal of Nature just two years ago in 2015. We still have much to learn about the human body and this discovery has implications for our understanding of neurological conditions, which have an immune component.
Maps of the lymphatic system: old (left) and updated to reflect the new discovery published in 2015.University of Virginia Health System.
Factors such as stress, tension, dehydration or lack of physical activity can cause lymph vessels to become clogged with protein and lymph flow to stagnate or stop. This can result in tissue swelling (oedema) or excess fluid build up around the cells (lymphoedema) usually of an arm or leg. As toxins accumulate, cells are not able to function optimally, manifesting in colds, joint pain, infection and dis-ease.
Primary Lymphoedema can occur in some individuals born with a poorly functioning lymphatic system and is less common than Secondary Lymphoedema, which can occur as a result of surgical removal of lymph nodes for cancer treatment in approximately 20% of patients, or as a result of injury or infection. The swelling can be quite debilitating and uncomfortable and affect quality of life.
Efficient activation of the lymphatic system will increase the volume of flow and hence improve the body’s ability to cleanse and detoxify.
So how can we support the lymphatic system to improve lymphatic flow, to improve detoxification, reduce swelling and improve the immune system?
- Physical exercise is key to aiding good lymphatic flow, such as walking or swimming. Rebounding on a small trampoline is also a fun, popular and effective way to do this. The up and down rhythmic bouncing causes the one-way valves to open and close simultaneously increasing lymph flow many times over. Deep diaphragm breathing is also important.
- Drinking plenty of water prevents slowing and stagnation of lymph flow.
- Dry skin body brushing always towards your chest in the direction of lymph flow, avoiding sensitive areas or broken skin, will help rid your body of toxins and improve your immune system. This also has the advantage of exfoliating the skin for a healthy glow.
- A specialised Reflexology technique for lymph drainage (RLD) promotes lymph flow.
RLD is a particularly non-invasive and relaxing treatment usually on the feet. This is used effectively to reduce lymphoedema in patients who have had lymph nodes removed after breast cancer surgery and to reduce pain associated with lymphedema. RLD has the advantage that it is away from any area of surgery and is also known to improve mood and a sense of wellbeing.
Finally, cold water immersion is very beneficial as it causes lymph vessels to contract, forcing your lymphatic system to pump lymph fluids throughout your body, flushing the waste. Research studies have also shown this to help treat depression symptoms and boost metabolism for weight loss too !! ….. ice bucket challenge anyone !
Images before and after Lymph Drainage Reflexology (RLD) treatment on the foot in a secondary lymphoedema patient.
Article written by Tracy Mills for Local People Magazine issue Sept 2017. Tracy is a full time holistic therapist, passionate about helping you improve your health, wellbeing and quality of life. Her main treatment is Reflexology for promoting relaxation, improving mood and sleep and is an experienced practitioner of RLD.
Structural and functional features of central nervous system lymphatic vessels. Louveau A, et al Nature. 2015 Jun 1.
Use of reflexology in managing secondary lymphoedema for patients affected by treatments for breast cancer: A feasibility study .Whately, J et al. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Volume 23, May 2016, Pages 1-8