• Julie Douglas

The Body: Lymphatic System

Updated: Jan 3

The Lymphatic system introduces the first part of my educational series on The Body. Read ahead to find out the importance of our great recycling system and how to support it through lifestyle and herbal approaches.

I am so happy to see more hype and information being shared about the importance of the Lymphatic system. Lymphatic Health=Immune Health, and so much more!

The lymphatic system is like the recycling system of the body. It’s made up of a collection of one way tubes called lymph vessels that begin in the tissues and, like the veins, drain waste products and water. This lymph fluid is filtered and cleansed by lymph nodes, and eventually returned to the blood. The Lymphatic system protects the body from outside organisms, cleaning up toxins and destroying abnormal cells, which is why it’s a big part of our immunity.

A deeper look:

The lymphatic capillaries are similar to our blood capillaries, just much more permeable. Interstitial fluid flows through these capillaries, once inside the lymph vessels this fluid is called Lymph, which is formed from plasma. This fluid contains waste products from the cells, hormones, fat that is broken down in the bowel and needs to be carried to larger blood vessels, as well as bacteria, viruses, toxins, and damaged or abnormal cells including cancer cells.

The lymph fluid then filters through lymph nodes throughout your body, which contain lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infections). When you’re fighting an infection, you’ll notice your lymph nodes become swollen, this means your immune system is working hard to produce more lymphocytes to fight the invading pathogen.

After filtering through the lymph nodes, this fluid is returned into your blood stream, darning into large veins close to your heart. This helps maintain blood pressure by removing excess fluid around your body, which helps swelling and edema.

The lymphatic system doesn’t have it’s own pump like blood, which is moved throughout our body by our heart. Instead, it is pushed through one-way valves when your lymph vessels are squeezed by your muscles, and by gravity if the vessel is above the heart. This means that exercise, massage, and movement are so important to healthy lymphatic drainage and a properly working immune system!

Now that we know the important job of the lymphatic system, we can talk about signs and symptoms that will come up if your lymphatic system isn’t functioning optimally.

One sign that your lymphatic system needs attention is fluid retention/edema, and if it’s a severe case, lymphedema. This means your body is holding on to the lymph fluid and waste products are getting reabsorbed. This presents as swelling in the legs and extremities, puffiness in the eyes and face, bloating in the abdomen, breast tenderness and swelling, and swollen nodes. Damaged lymph vessels can regrow from vessels remaining in the area, thus good drainage can be reestablished.

Other symptoms include:

Fatigue, headaches, nasal and sinus congestion, skin issues such as dry and itchy skin, soreness and stiffness upon waking, sore & painful joints, constipation, breast issues like fibroids, pain and lumps, weight gain in the belly, brain fog, impaired wound healing, worsened allergies, food sensitivities and increased colds, flu and infections. . Impaired lymphatic function can also lead to more severe conditions and diseases, including cancer and tumors.

NCBI published an article this year, which states that lymphatic dysfunction may contribute to the pathophysiology of rheumatic and various autoimmune diseases. Understanding the lymphatic system in the context of autoimmune diseases has the potential to provide insight into disease mechanisms and new approaches to treatment.

Start now:

Physical exercise and movement. Since our Lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump, it relies on our muscles to contract and move the lymph fluid through the vessels. Any movement that involves arms, legs, and the torso will help push this fluid along. Bouncing or “rebounding” is also a wonderful way to get the flow goin’. You can use a trampoline or exercise ball. A lot of us have jobs that require sitting for long periods of time, this impacts the lymphatic system as well as the musculoskeletal system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. Set a timer to alert you to get up and move every hour or so, or switch your office chair out for an exercise ball.

Seasonal changes are a perfect time to assist the body in removing catabolic wastes and toxins. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it’s getting colder, people are catching a sniffle, we’re eating heavier foods. Our clothes are more constricting, which cuts off circulation therefore restricting lymph drainage.

Cold weather also means dry skin for a lot of folks, which is why I love to incorporate both Dry Brushing and Gua Sha into my self-care. These techniques are perfect for assisting lymph flow in different ways and helping with rough, dry skin. I’ll discuss Gua Sha in the following post! In later series on the Liver I’ll also talk about common skin issues.

Dry brushing helps exfoliate away dead skin cells and unclog pores which helps open up the skins detox pathway (it IS our largest organ after all) and encourages skin cell renewal. “Health Gurus” (eyeroll) like to claim dry brushing and Gua Sha reduce cellulite, but let’s face it- cellulite is SO normal and is NOT an indicator of a healthy body, but no shame if you want to give dry brushing a try on your pretty body dimples. I love to dry brush before bathing, I alternate dry brushing with Gua Sha and try to do each at least once a week.

Deep breathing: Breathing deep has the ability to calm the nervous system, get oxygen to your tissues, and move the lymphatic fluid helping to eliminate waste. Pressure changes in the Thorax during breathing also help pump the lymph. Try this: Sit in a comfortable position. Breathing through your nose, fill your belly up with air for a count of 4 seconds. Pause at the top of the breath, then through the nose slowly exhale for the count of 5. Pause. Repeat several times.

Water- seems obvious, but an important reminder to stay hydrated. Room temperature/warm water (or tea infusions) are preferable over cold or iced beverages. Our digestive system has to work extra hard bringing food/beverages up to the body’s temperature, this takes the energy away from breaking down and assimilating nutrients and digesting fats.

Diet- A major factor I want to point out is that the quality of food we’re eating can greatly impact our lymphatic system. Since the lymph collects & cleans out waste, it’s important to try and lighten the toxic load of chemicals, pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, and processed foods. I realize not everyone has access to organic food, but looking into what foods are less heavily sprayed and getting higher quality proteins/fats can help.

One role of the lymphatic system is to absorb fats from the small intestine and transport them to the venous circulation. The small intestine is covered in fingerlike projections called villi. Lymph capillaries called lacteals in the center of each villus absorb the fats from the intestine. The lymph capillaries merge to form lymphatic collecting vessels, which have walls and valves similar to veins. These lead to the lymph nodes, which then work their magic to filter the lymph before returning it back to the blood.

Bitters are great to incorporate into your diet for one billion reasons, but in this case they can help take the load off the lymphatic system. Bitters stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is sent to the gallbladder where it is stored and released. Bile breaks down fats! One way to get Bitters into your diet is taking a Digestive Bitter tincture. I make a special blend with local/organic bitter herbs as well as herbs that are classified as carminatives, meaning they help with gas, bloating and upset stomach. More on Bitters coming up when I address Digestion & Liver health as part of my series on THE BODY.

Gua Sha tools, hand made by Julie and her father

Gua Sha is a massage technique originating in TCM & Ayurveda. Gua Sha translates to “skin scraping”. A tool is used to “scrape” the skin, starting at the extremities using short rhythmic strokes with emphasis on movement towards the heart. Different strokes for different folks. I like to start by oiling my body and tool with Lymph Love body oil, or if I’m using it on my face I go for my Seabuckthorn & Rose Facial Serum. You only need to use light pressure, since the interstitial fluid/lymph is located just below the skin surface. If I’m feeling real Sadistic or getting into trigger points, I’ll apply more pressure. Do what feels right.

Did you know I make one of a kind Gua Sha tools? Last year my dad and I started crafting these tools out of exotic scrap wood (which he refers to as Gumby Shumbies). We make three different sizes in a variety of shapes and wood grains.

The smaller size is perfect for the face, neck and breasts. Medium can be used on all of those areas, plus the rest of the body. Large is best for adding more pressure and using it on larger areas of the body, or on a partner.

Used on the face, Gua Sha stimulates blood flow and circulation to the skin, as well as stronger skin elasticity and tone. The increase in blood and lymph flow will tame puffiness and ease sinus pressure and congestion from allergies. More circulation to the skin surface also means a decrease in dark circles under the eyes, since this issue is ultimately due to fluid retention. As I mentioned above, this pairs perfectly with the Seabuckthorn and Rose Facial Serum.

Gua Sha releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas. This stimulates new oxygenated blood flow to the area, thus promoting metabolic cell repair, regeneration, healing and recovery. This technique is also great for Myofascial release and breaking up lactic acid in the muscles after working out. Best paired with Lymph Love Breast & Body Massage Oil on my Etsy.

Using this technique on the breast and armpit tissue is extremely beneficial for all genders, especially ones who suffer from Fibrocystic breasts & have a family history of breast cancer, lumps & cysts. Our armpits and breast tissue contain many lymph nodes, if the flow gets stagnant this can cause a lot of issues down the road. Bras & tight clothing can also restrict the flow, so my advice to you: free range your boobies.

These tools are best used directly on the skin with an oil, ideally an oil that’s infused with medicinal herbs like my Lymph Love Breast Massage Oil or if using on the face, the Seabuckthorn and Rose Facial Oil.

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