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I recently wrote about the vestibular system and all of the benefits from large motion activation. This isn’t the only bodily system that large movement helps. We also have a lymphatic system that is closely tied to our overall wellness and immunity to illnesses.
And this time of year, a little extra immunity comes in handy!
What Is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system includes organs and tissues that help eliminate waste products, toxins, cancer cells, and other substances. The parts of the lymphatic system are:
- Lymphatic vessels – These vessels are all over the entire body, typically close to the skin.
- Lymph nodes – These are where invaders go to be filtered. White blood cells attack and destroy these invaders in the lymph nodes. That’s why they are often swollen when we have a cold.
- Lymphocytes – These are a type of white blood cell and the main cells of the lymphatic system. There are two main kinds of lymphocytes: T cells and B cells.
- Tonsils, adenoids, appendix, and Peyer’s patches (found in the intestines) – These are lymphatic tissue with the main job of protecting against bacterial infection.
- Thymus, spleen, and bone marrow – These produce various white blood cells.
The lymphatic system works by moving fluid (called lymph or lymph fluid) around the body. This fluid sweeps away cellular waste, invaders, and toxins to the liver and kidneys to be processed and eliminated.
The lymphatic system supports every system in the body including the digestive system, nervous system, and respiratory system. It has an important role in:
- The immune system – The lymphatic system produces, stores, and carries white blood cells through the body in the lymph fluid.
- Fluid balance – It maintains fluid balance between tissues and blood. The cardiovascular system leaks fluid and the lymph system absorbs and redistributes excess fluid.
- Fat and fat-soluble vitamin absorption – The lymphatic system regulates this absorption and delivers nutrients to the cells).
The lymph system does not have a built-in pump to move lymph fluid through the body the way the cardiovascular system does. Instead, it is squeezed through the body by muscle contractions and other movements.
Signs of Lymphatic Congestion
The main function of the lymph system is to remove waste from cells and dump it at the kidneys and liver for elimination. If the system is congested and not flowing well, it doesn’t eliminate cellular waste. Cells can become overwhelmed by the buildup of waste.
Symptoms of lymphatic congestion can include the following:
- Infection (e.g. more frequent colds)
- Development of cancer
- Sore throat
- Brain fog
- Weight gain
- Skin issues
- Inflamed tonsils
Because the lymphatic system relies on bodily movement to pump lymph fluid, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to lymphatic congestion. Other things that can contribute are a toxic environment, poor diet, stress, and dehydration.
How to Boost the Immune System by Activating the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is responsible for moving white blood cells through the body. When the lymphatic system is congested the immune system can’t use those white blood cells to fend off illness. Activating the lymphatic system can help move the lymph fluid through the body so white blood cells and other immune cells can do their job.
Here are some ways to activate the lymph system:
Rebounding has gained popularity since the 1980s. At that time NASA was coming out with studies that showed rebounding was more gentle on the body then running on a treadmill. Their studies also showed that rebounding was more beneficial than treadmill running.
When you bounce on a rebounder, several things happen:
- An acceleration action as you bounce upward
- A split-second weightless pause at the top
- A deceleration at an increased G-force
- Impact to the rebounder
As mentioned earlier, the lymph system doesn’t pump on its own. It needs physical movement to pump the fluid. Rebounding is one way of doing this since the up and down allows gravity to help with the circulation of lymphatic fluid. Additionally, studies show that the increased G-force of rebounding helps increase lymphocyte activity, which helps the immune system.
If you don’t have a rebounder, these are some of my favorites.
Exercise is always a great thing to include in a healthy lifestyle but it can be especially important for the lymph system. Since the lymph system moves in reaction to muscle contractions, exercise is a perfect way to keep the lymph system moving.
While it’s generally understood that exercise can help lymph move in the body, it wasn’t understood what intensity of exercise was best. It turns out, according to a 2010 study that just 1 minute of 1.5 mph walking can improve lymphatic flow. (I’ll bet playing with kids in the backyard does the same!)
Many of the lymph vessels run just below the skin. Proponents of dry brushing claim that brushing the skin regularly helps stimulate the normal lymph flow within the body and helps the body detoxify itself naturally.
How to Dry Brush the Skin
- Choose a brush. A soft one usually works well for those new to dry bushing.
- Starting at the feet, I brush the bottoms of my feet and up my legs in long, smooth strokes. I always brush toward the heart where the lymph system drains.
- Brush toward the center of the body so that fluid doesn’t get caught in the limbs.
- Repeat the same process with the arms, starting with the palms of the hands and brushing up the arm toward the heart.
- Brush in a circular clockwise motion on the stomach and armpits.
- Repeat the process on the abdomen and back.
- Switch to the face (use a softer brush).
- Don’t brush too hard though! A soft and smooth stroke often works best. The skin should never be red or sting (slightly pink is okay).
See this post for my full dry brushing routine as well as the brushes I use.
Wave vibration therapy is gaining popularity and has been heavily studied for its health benefits. During wave vibration therapy you stand on an oscillating plate that produces low-level vibrations. These vibrations activate multiple systems in the body including the circulatory, nervous, lymphatic, and muscle systems. Wave therapy can help get the lymphatic system moving which helps detox the body. These are found in many gyms and are even available for home use.
Saunas have been part of traditional cultures for centuries for good reason. Saunas have a number of benefits including helping improve circulation and detoxification. Heat and sweating mimic the benefits of exercise in some ways. Heat triggers the circulatory system to move faster (to eliminate heat). This increased circulation also helps the lymph system move and excrete toxins. Infrared saunas are especially good for this.
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Many natural health gurus agree that lymphatic massage is a good way to help move fluid through the lymphatic system. This helps the body detox, heal injuries, and protect the body from illness. A 2009 systematic review found that lymphatic massage may be beneficial in reducing swelling and drainage issues after sports injuries. However, they concluded that more research is needed.
Of course it’s not every day that massage is in the weekly schedule, so I try to get the benefits of massage at home whenever I can.
It’s important to stay hydrated for many health reasons but drinking enough water can also help with the lymphatic system. The lymph fluid holds the majority of the water that is in the body. If we’re dehydrated, our lymph fluid can become thick and can’t move as easily through the body. So, drinking enough water (to thirst) is a good way to keep the lymph system working well.
Tip: Try an electrolyte drink if water isn’t enough to keep you hydrated.
Just like blood vessels, lymphatic vessels contract in response to cold and dilate in response to heat. Alternating the two can help these vessels move through the body. Alternating hot and cold water in the shower (hydrotherapy) is one way to do this.
Research published in Industrial Crops and Products show many essential oils are antibacterial and antioxidant which may help the lymphatic system function.
Some of the essential oils best for lymph drainage are:
- citrus oils like grapefruit, lemon, and orange
- bay laurel
- ginger root
To use essential oils for the lymph system dilute 2 to 4 drops of essential oil in .5 oz of carrier oil and use as a massage oil on the body. Two benefits in one!
Diet and Lifestyle
No healthy living list is complete without a note about diet and lifestyle. A healthy diet is generally one of the most influential changes we can make to improve health whether we’re talking about lymph drainage or weight. Because the lymph system is responsible for sweeping away toxins, it makes sense to avoid putting these unsavory substances into the body as much as possible.
- Choose healthy protein (grassfed, organic, wild-caught, etc) as much as possible.
- Buy organic produce when possible. If you can’t buy all organic choose organic from the dirty dozen produce list. Additionally, you can use a produce wash to remove some of the pesticides from conventional produce.
- Choose low-VOC furniture and household paint.
- Eat the rainbow (but especially red!) – A study published in Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences found that beetroot and carrot juice helped lymphocytic leukemia patients have increased vigor. It also improved biochemical parameters.
- Choose natural household cleaners (or make your own!).
It’s amazing how many people don’t breath deeply but it’s so important for health. One interesting way that deep breathing can be beneficial is that it helps move lymphatic fluid through the body. Deep breathing improves oxygenation. Shallow breathing and low oxygenation can cause stress on the body which can mean lower energy, increased muscle tension, and lowered cellular metabolism. But relaxation (from healthy oxygenation) is good for lymph flow. Additionally, the act of breathing itself acts as a lymph pump.
- Breathe in through the nose and fill the abdomen with air, then the chest
- Keep shoulders down
- Breathe out through the mouth and empty the chest first, then the abdomen
Bonus: Deep breathing can also help improve relaxation and reduce stress!
Lymphatic System: Bottom Line
The lymphatic system has an important role in the health of the body. A healthy lymphatic system can help support a healthy immune system. Activating the lymphatics system so it can do its job is fairly easy but can make a huge difference!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried any of these remedies? Which works best for you?
- Desai, P., Williams, J. R., Prajapati, P., & Downey, H. F. (2010, September). Lymph flow in instrumented dogs varies with exercise intensity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20863266
- Vairo, G. L., Miller, S. J., McBrier, N. M., & Buckley, W. E. (2009). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755111/
Chemical composition and antibacterial and antioxidant properties of commercial essential oils. (2012, August 31). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926669012004475?via=ihub
- Douillard, J. et al. LifeSpa Staff. (2018, July 31). 6-Step Plan to Decongest your Lymph | John Douillard’s LifeSpa. Retrieved from https://lifespa.com/6-steps-to-decongest-your-lymph/
- Breathing: The Overlooked Exercise. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.lymphedemaresources.org/breathing.htm