You might have heard of your lymphatic system, but what exactly is it and what does it do for you?
Your lymphatic system is a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together to move a fluid called “lymph” through your bloodstream. This system works throughout your entire body to remove waste from cells and regulate your immune system.
As plasma flows through your body and delivers nutrients to cells and tissues, and seeping into capillaries and tissue, the lymphatic system collects excess fluid, which is now lymph, from the tissue and moves it back to the bloodstream.
Your lymphatic system helps you out in key ways:
- It helps you maintain the fluid levels in your body
- It absorbs fat from your digestive tract
- It protects your body against foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi
- It transports and removes waste products and abnormal cells from the lymph
Your lymphatic system consists of many parts:
Lymph: The extra fluid from your cells and tissues, plus other substances including proteins, minerals, fats, nutrients, damaged cells, cancer cells, and foreign invaders.
Lymph nodes: Bean-shaped glands that cleanse lymph as it moves through them and filters out damaged cells and cancer cells. You have about 600 lymph nodes scattered throughout your body.
Lymphatic vessels: The network of micro-vessels (capillaries) and tubes throughout the body that moves lymph away from the tissue. The vessels collect and filter lymph at the nodes as it moves toward the collecting ducts.
Collecting ducts: Vessels that keep the lymph moving in one direction, which then connects to the subclavian vein and return lymph to your bloodstream.
Spleen: Your largest lymphatic organ located on your left side under your ribs and above your stomach, which filters and stores blood and produces white blood cells that fight infection or disease.
Thymus: Located in the upper chest beneath the breast bone, it matures a specific type of white blood cells that fight off foreign organisms.
Tonsils and adenoids: Your body’s first line of defense, these organs trap pathogens from the food you eat and air you breathe.
Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue in the center of certain bones such as our hip bone and breastbone where white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are made.
Peyer’s patches: Small masses of tissue in the mucous membrane lining your small intestine that monitor and destroy bacteria in the intestines.
Appendix: Containing tissue that can destroy bacteria before it breaches your intestine wall, scientists also believe the appendix helps repopulate our gut with “good bacteria” after an infection has cleared.
Your lymphatic system can be affected by many conditions, including conditions impacting the vessels, glands, or organs. Some of these conditions develop before you’re born, as a child, or as a result of disease or injury. Some conditions include lymphadenopathy (enlarged lymph nodes), lymphedema (swelling or accumulation of fluid), or cancers of the lymphatic system.
A poorly functioning lymphatic system can result in congested lymph vessels. Some symptoms of a stagnant lymphatic system include:
- Brain fog
- Itchy, dry skin
- Stubborn weight gain
- Chronic sinusitis, sore throat, colds, and ear issues
- Breast swelling with your menstrual cycle
- Swollen glands
- Cold hands and feet
What causes an imbalance in your lymphatic system?
The common answer: stress. When your body experiences stress, hormonal changes happen. Over time, this will lead to inflammation that clogs up the lymphatic system.
Stress is common in the digestive system, and the lymphatic system is closely related with your gastrointestinal tract. Your gut associated lymphatic tissues (GALT) are the largest collection of lymphatic vessels in your body and they surround your gastrointestinal tract.
The GALT is located close to the intestinal villi, where nutrient absorption happens. To maintain a balanced microbiome and uphold the integrity of the intestinal lining, a healthy intestinal lymphatic system is necessary.
So how can you rebalance a congested lymphatic system and keep it healthy?
- Stay hydrated Lymph is 95% water, so more hydration will keep it moving. Try sipping warm, purified water throughout the day and drink some freshly-squeezed lemon water first thing in the morning. Avoid sugary drinks or juices, alcohol, or too much caffeine.
- Choose anti-inflammatory foods Healing your gut will go a long way towards healing your lymphatic system. Follow a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet to help repair your gut lining and balance the microbiome. Opt for omega-3 fatty acids, leafy-green vegetables, fat-soluble vitamins A & D, and balanced probiotics.
- Eat raw red foods Naturally red foods like pomegranates, cherries, cranberries, and beets help boost your lymph movement. Eating these foods raw will help break down toxic buildup and combat free radicals, while the fiber helps promote regular elimination and cleansing of the intestinal villi.
- Avoid tight clothingWearing tight-fitting clothes or restraining garments, like a bra with an underwire, can prevent your lymph nodes from draining properly. Choose looser clothing, especially when you’re sleeping.
- Move your lymph Boost your lymph movement with physical activity and massage. Moving physically involves rhythmic tensing and relaxing your muscles, which will help decongest and propel fluid through your lymphatic channels.
Dry brushing and lymphatic massage also help encourage movement.
- Practice mindfulness As we mentioned, stress is the biggest contributor to lymphatic congestion. So it’s important to have techniques for coping with stress on a daily basis.
Slow, deep breathing exercises will help relieve tension and anxiety while moving your diaphragm and ab muscles to move lymph.
In addition to breathing, practice mindfulness through techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, or spending time in nature.