There’s a good chance you haven’t thought much about your lymphatic system. Maybe your cancer survivor aunt has to wear a sleeve because her lymph nodes were removed and her arm swells when it’s hot outside. Maybe you remember how hard your lymph nodes under your ears felt that time you had the flu.
YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM IS LINKED TO OVERALL HEALTH.
Our lymphatic system is the road system for white blood cells and stretches from head to toe. For some reason though, it's not top-of-mind for most people.
The reality is, we should be showing love to our lymphatic system every day.
Your lymphatic system is critical to accessing the nutrients you eat, fighting off pathogens, and getting waste away from your cells and out of your body. Here’s what you need to know about your lymphatic system and how to keep it working efficiently.
WHAT IS LYMPH FLUID AND THE LYMPHATIC SYSTEM?
Think of your lymphatic system as a second circulatory system that’s just as vital as your blood circulatory system. Your lymphatic system has four crucial functions:
- Transport fat to your cells for energy and nutrients
- Produce and circulate immune cells
- Remove excess fluid from your tissues
- Transport toxins to your elimination systems like sweat and urine for excretion
The scientific community is starting to pay more and more attention to lymph as we come to understand more about its role in everything -- how clearly we think, how much energy we have, how well we fight off colds, how puffy our eyes look in the morning...the list goes on.
COMMON PROBLEMS WITH THE LYMPH SYSTEM
When your lymph flows your cell membranes get the fats they need to work properly, and fat-soluble vitamins reach their destination to do their jobs. Cellular waste and toxic compounds move to your sweat and urine for excretion, instead of hanging around one particular organ for too long (and possibly damaging tissues). Immune cells can get to in injury or infection site right when they’re needed.
You run into problems with your lymph system when it becomes slow and stagnant. Some indications that you have sluggish lymph flow includes:
- Puffiness or swelling in your face or extremities
- Water retention and bloating
- Stiff joints or sore muscles in the morning
- Brain fog
- Skin problems
- Swollen lymph nodes, and more
You can support your lymph flow with things like diet, movement, breathing, temperature, stretching and more. Details, coming up.
HOW TO MOVE YOUR LYMPH AND KEEP IT FLOWING
You have three times as much lymph fluid as blood, and your network of lymphatic vessels is just as intricate and expansive as your network of arteries, veins, and capillaries. The thing is, your heart works hard to pump your blood, but there’s no lymph pump. Your lymphatic fluid relies on movement, gravity, and a push-and-pull vacuum system to make its rounds.
Here are 12 ways to keep your lymphatic system flowing efficiently.
GET A MASSAGE REGULARLY.
You feel refreshed and light after a massage for a reason -- your cells just had a spring cleaning. It doesn’t matter whether you’re getting a Swedish massage, a deep tissue massage, a sports massage, or a detox massage. Muscles are only part of the equation, and the rest of the benefit lies within the lymphatic system. Massage therapists are highly trained in the direction of lymph and the location of lymph nodes, so your lymphatic system is activated during and after a massage no matter what.
That’s why your massage therapist will always tell you to drink extra water after your treatment -- they just increased your lymph flow, so you’re eliminating toxins and cellular waste extra efficiently. Drinking water will help you excrete them through urine. Which brings us to...
HYDRATION IS THE ANSWER FOR EVERYTHING, EVEN YOUR LYMPHATIC HEALTH.
Just like household plumbing, thin lymph flows, thick viscous lymph slows. Drink at least a ½ oz of water per pound of bodyweight daily to keep all of your systems flowing.
Is hydration a challenge for you? Many people report inconsistency in their hydration efforts. It's all about finding what works for you: a favorite bottle that goes everywhere with you, scheduled breaks to enjoy tea or flavored (not sweetened) water, or daily rituals that start your morning focused on hydrating. Make a plan, make it a priority.
OPTIMIZE YOUR FAT DIGESTION.
Bile turns big globs of fat that you swallow into smaller globules of fat that your cells can use. In some cases, your bile can become thick and sticky, which isn’t as effective as thin bile. A few reasons your bile may become too thick to do its job include:
- You’ve been on a low-fat diet
- You’ve been eating a lot of oxidized, damaged fats or trans fats
- You have a history of gallbladder problems or your gallbladder has been removed
When your dietary fat hasn’t been properly broken down, it ends up in your lymph fluid and can slow or clog your lymphatic flow. If you suspect you have trouble digesting fats, you can look into supplements that are designed to aid fat digestion and improve your bile quality.
An easy way to get your bile flowing is to eat bitter tasting foods like leafy green vegetables, and chew them slowly. The bitter taste signals to your digestive system that a meal is coming, which wakes up your bile production to prepare for digestion.
LYMPHATIC DRAINAGE SELF-MASSAGE IS A THING.
You can do lymphatic drainage massage on yourself. You can find hundreds of video tutorials on whole-body self-massage that focuses on lymph flow, or for specific concerns like puffy face and neck or tired legs. These work best if you do them with some amount of regularity.
Rebounding is the grown-up word for jumping on a trampoline. Usually, rebounding involves using a small personal trampoline that you can easily stash away behind the sofa or under the bed. If your kids have a big trampoline out back, that will work too, and as a bonus, you’ll have a few jumping buddies to join you. Aim for 15 minutes total, and split your time into 3-5 sessions of a few minutes per day.
COLD THERAPY OR CRYOTHERAPY IS EXCELLENT FOR LYMPH.
Exposing yourself to brief periods of cold is possibly one of the best ways to move your lymph. Abrupt drops in temperature will contract your lymphatic vessels, and the fluid inside them has to go somewhere. As it gets pushed along, the cellular waste it has been carrying gets dropped off in your urine for excretion. When you go back to normal room temperature, your lymphatic vessels expand to their normal size, which acts as a vacuum and pulls the fluid forward even more. So, you get the benefit during your cold blast and for a time after.
If you’re in the mountains of Utah like we are, you have free cryotherapy right outside your door during the winter months (just wear gloves and boots because your fingers and toes get colder faster). For everyone else, treat yourself to three minutes in the cryochamber, or switch your shower to cold for a few minutes. You can also dump a bag of ice into a cool bath and do a short soak, as long as you have someone checking on you -- it’s rare but possible that you could go into shock.
DRY BRUSHING IS JUST THE SURFACE OF LYMPH.
Dry brushing awakens the lymphatic fluid that’s just under your skin. First, you’ll need to pick up a dry brush -- stores like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s usually have a variety to choose from for just a few dollars. Look for a long wooden handle and natural bristles.
How to dry brush: before a shower, brush your skin starting at your toes and bottoms of your feet, and use small flicks of the wrist to work your way up. Brush toward your heart. Then, shower to slough off the dead skin and to get your lymph flowing even more.
SAUNA (THEN COLD SHOWER) TO DOUBLE DETOX.
Even though you step into the sauna to raise your core temperature on purpose, your body scrambles to lower it to its favored 98.6 degrees. That’s where the magic happens. Your heart pumps faster and increases your blood circulation. Your increased heart rate makes you breathe faster and more deeply, which moves your lymph. Your pores open and you sweat, which takes all of those toxins that your lymph has been collecting and dumps them outside, where they belong. You can double down on your detox if you take a cold shower right after using the sauna.
DEEP BELLY BREATHING ACTUALLY WORKS.
Deep breathing is one way to give your lymph a nudge, and it’s free and there for you whenever you feel like doing it. You can set a timer at your desk to take a series of deep breaths, or to do a five-minute deep breathing exercise a few times a day. You can find guided deep breathing exercises online if you need help getting started.
EXERCISE IS GREAT FOR MOVING YOUR LYMPH.
Your blood has a pump to keep it going, but your lymph depends on you to move around so it can do its job. You don’t have to run for hours or do a high-intensity session to get the benefit. Your lymph will thank you if you take a walk around your neighborhood, stretch for 15 minutes, or do a quick bodyweight sequence.
Your lymph sits when you sit. If you have a desk job, set a timer that reminds you to get up and stretch, jump, or do a few air squats and chair dips to keep your lymph fluid happy.
Bonus points: if you do a bikram yoga (aka hot yoga) class, you’re combining sauna, deep breathing, and stretching into one!
LADIES, DITCH THE UNDERWIRE.
You have a high concentration of lymph vessels in your breast area. Underwires can slam those vessels shut, leaving the lymph fluid underneath with nowhere to go. Because breast tissue is vulnerable to tumors, you want your self-cleaning mechanisms working efficiently at all times. We’re not going to go as far as saying that underwires cause cancer, because there are a lot of factors that go into breast cancer. But when it comes to self-healing and keeping everything running smoothly, stay out of your body’s way when you can.
Wire-free bras have come a long way, and you can find a supportive (and pretty!) style in most any size.
INCORPORATE HERBS THAT SUPPORT YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM.
Certain herbal formulas can help support healthy lymph flow. Look for high-quality formulas containing ingredients like:
- Devil’s claw
- Red root
Avoid relying on supplements alone. The best way to do it is to combine a few methods and see how you feel.
We don’t want to add extra things to our to-do lists, but when it comes to lymph flow, it’s too important to ignore. Start with one or two practices that take just a few minutes, then add additional steps as they become habit. Some of these take no effort or extra time at all. Others you can combine for maximum benefit. Treating yourself to a massage every now and then doesn’t hurt, either.