We’ve all heard of the lymphatic system, but few understand how it works or why and how a properly working lymphatic system is vital to the body. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that transport lymph throughout the body. Its responsibilities include cleaning the cellular environment, returning proteins and excess tissue fluids to the blood, providing a pathway for the absorption of fats into the bloodstream, and the production and transportation of antibodies (white blood cells called lymphocytes) throughout the body to fight infection.
Our blood contains red blood cells that deliver oxygen around the body, white blood cells that fight infections, platelets that help you stop bleeding if you get a cut, and plasma.
Plasma is the liquid portion of blood. It’s a yellowish liquid in blood that suspends the red blood cells and carries nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. Plasma contains water, salt, enzymes, immunoglobulins (antibodies), hormones, clotting factors, and plasma proteins.
Tissue fluid and blood are not the same, and not all of the contents of blood pass into tissue. Red blood cells, platelets, and some of the plasma proteins do not pass through capillaries. The resulting mixture that does get through is, in essence, blood plasma minus its clotting agents and some of its proteins.
Lymph was interstitial fluid before it became lymph.
The lymphatic system is made up of lymph capillaries, vessels, and nodes, the spleen, thymus, tonsils, Peyer’s Patches, and lymphocytes (white blood cells). Red bone marrow is also a part of the lymphatic system. We have hundreds of lymph nodes. Lymph nodes can be found all around the lungs and heart, in the gut, in the armpits and groin, and pretty much all over the body.
Blood pressure causes plasma liquid to leak into tissues, and this pressure causes excess fluid in those tissues to move into the lymph capillaries. As this fluid leaves the cells, it takes cellular waste products and used proteins with it. The lymphatic capillaries pick up approximately 20% of the fluid that was delivered to the interstitial space. The venous system picks up about 80% of the fluid in the interstitial space. The unique structure of the lymphatic capillaries permits interstitial fluid to flow into them but not out.
Blood pressure, temperature, activity of muscle and joints, diaphragmatic breathing, and pulsation of adjacent arteries all cause lymph to move up to the subclavian veins at the base of the neck. Valves and pressure keep lymph moving in the right direction. Along the way, the fluid is interrupted by lymph nodes that filter dust, cancer cells, pathogens, and other unwanted matter. Lymph nodes also produce lymphocytes (white blood cells). The spleen, tonsils, and red bone marrow help produce lymphocytes as well.
The spleen, which is about the size of our fist, is the largest lymphatic organ. It is similar in structure to a lymph node, but it filters blood, not lymph. The spleen contains two main types of tissue, white pulp and red pulp. White pulp is lymphatic tissue containing white blood cells – B and T cells. T cells attack pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses) while B cells make antibodies that fight infections. Red pulp tissue removes old and damaged red blood cells and stores platelets. It also produces red blood cells in unborn babies and when certain diseases are present.
The thymus is both a lymphatic organ and an endocrine gland. The thymus plays a major role in immune system development, starting before birth. Unlike other organs, the thymus reaches its functional peak, and largest size, during childhood. After puberty the thymus reduces in size, replaced by fat.
Tonsils are a familiar lymphatic cluster. Their position, hanging from the mouth and pharynx, allows them to be the first line of defense against inhaled and swallowed foreign bodies and toxins.
The final goal of the lymphatic system is to recirculate lymph back into the plasma of the bloodstream. There are two specialized lymphatic structures at the end of the lymphatic system, called the lymph trunks and ducts. Lymph ducts empty lymph into one of the subclavian veins. There are two lymph ducts, the right lymphatic duct and the thoracic duct. The right drains lymph from the right upper limb, the right side of thorax, and the right halves of head and neck. The thoracic duct drains lymph into the circulatory system between the left subclavian and the left internal jugular veins.
Lymphatic trunks are large lymph vessels that made up of the convergence of many efferent lymph vessels. There are five sets of lymph trunks.
- Jugular lymph trunks located in the neck
- Subclavian lymph trunks located beneath the clavicle
- Bronchomediastinal lymph trunks located in the chest
- Lumbar lymph trunks drain lymph fluid from the legs, pelvic region, and kidneys
- Intestinal lymph trunk receives chyle (lymph mixed with fats) from the intestines, and receives lymph from the stomach, pancreas, spleen, and the liver.
Lymphatic trunks drain lymph fluid into the lymph ducts, the final part of the lymphatic system.
For more on lymphatic system anatomy and function:
The Gastrointestinal Lymphatic System
After filtration by the lymph nodes, efferent lymphatic vessels take lymph to the end of the lymphatic system to recirculate lymph back into the plasma of the bloodstream. The intestinal lymphatic system serves vital functions in the regulation of tissue fluid homeostasis (keeping tissue properly hydrated), immune surveillance, and transportation of fats and other nutrients into plasma.
When the gut’s not healthy, the body is not healthy. A sluggish and toxic gut will slow the lymph’s ability to provide clean, infection-free blood, and fats will not as easily be absorbed and assimilated, causing weight gain and poor cellular health that can lead to an array of problems from diabetes to cancer.
Diseases and Disorders of the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system removes infections and other toxins from the blood. A sick body is a toxic and infected (or soon to be infected) body. Arguably, most every chronic disease and every infection is indicative of an overwhelmed lymphatic system. When the system is overwhelmed, the body is overwhelmed. With any chronic illness, getting well includes improving lymphatic function.
- Edema, or Oedema – Swelling that results when tissues cannot drain fluid into the lymphatic system quickly enough – see image above.
- Lymphedema – Caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, part of the immune and circulatory systems. Lymphedema is most commonly caused by lymph node removal or damage due to cancer treatment.
- Elephantiasis – Medically known as lymphatic filariasis, a condition characterized by enlargement of an area of the body, typically the limbs. It looks like a severe case of edema, and it is.
- Glandular fever – A type of viral infection that mostly affects young adults. Symptoms include tender lymph nodes.
- Hodgkin’s disease – A type of cancer of the lymphatic system.
- Tonsillitis – Infection of the tonsils in the throat.
- Lymphadenopathy – Occurs when the lymph nodes swell due to infections. Viral infections like measles, rubella, glandular fever, and HIV may also cause lymphadenopathy of the lymph nodes.
- Lymphadenitis – Inflammation of the lymph nodes usually caused due to infections.
- Filariasis – An infection of the lymphatic channels by a worm or parasite.
- Splenomegaly – Swelling of the spleen due to a viral infection like infectious mononucleosis.
Symptoms of a Sluggish Lymphatic System
Humans have twice as much lymph fluid in the body as blood. Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have a pump. In order to move, lymph relies on blood pressure and the relaxation and the contraction of the muscles and joints. Your lymphatic system can easily become stagnant, especially when it becomes overwhelmed with toxic debris. The combination of a toxic lifestyle and lethargy is a recipe for chronic disease.
All things in nature have a natural progression. When this progression is inhibited, health deteriorates. Think of a river. A healthy river runs clean and clear compared to stagnant water. Imagine them clogged and the resulting backup. Picture an engine and car oil, and you can equate our lymphatic system to an oil filter. Imagine how sluggish and constrictive the engine would be if the oil wasn’t constantly filtered. Sluggish lymph fluid is a breeding ground for infection.
Stagnant lymph interferes with every system of the body. Because lymph cleanses nearly every cell in the body, symptoms of chronic lymph blockage are diverse. While most people prefer to identify one specific cause of a disease, there are rarely fewer than three and can often be hundreds. The point is, if the body is unhealthy, the lymph is unhealthy, too. If the body is sick, the lymph is sick, too.
Symptoms of lymphatic congestion include:
- Rings get tight on fingers
- Skin is puffy, showing edema
- Soreness, stiffness, achiness in the mornings
- Lethargic, drained, sluggishness
- Bloating, water retention
- Itchy skin
- Bad skin (dryness, acne, premature aging, etc.)
- Breast swelling or soreness with hormonal cycles
- Brain fog
- Cold hands and feet
- Chronic headaches and/or migraines
- Chronic inflammation
Every one of these health concerns can be linked to other diseases as well, but any disease leads to a taxed lymphatic system, and a healthy lymphatic system is necessary to eliminate any disease.
How to Restore the Lymphatic System to Optimum Health
Doctors in Europe and in the Far East recognize the importance of lymphatic function and how it supports detoxification and every other system in the body, including the immune, digestive, and nervous systems. Natural practitioners know that poor lymph health underlies most health conditions from poor skin to cancer. By contrast, conventional practitioners in America don’t even consider the lymphatic system until a lymph deficiency shows up such as a swollen lymph node, cancer developing in a lymph gland, or obvious signs of lymph blockage. And of course, when something does go seriously wrong with the lymphatic system, western conventional doctors typically say the ailment is incurable. This is not true.
Be Careful What You Put On Your Skin
When the lymphatic system becomes sluggish it will “off-gas” through the skin. When unnatural fibers (like nylon or polyester) are worn and when chemical creams and soaps are applied to the skin, toxin release through the skin is inhibited. Much of the toxic load that should have been eliminated is re-absorbed along with some of the new toxins from the chemically laden clothes and skin products. This creates a backlog of needed detoxification.
A tight fitting bra and underwire bras will impede normal lymphatic flow. Make sure bras fit properly, and avoid underwires. Go braless whenever possible.
Wear natural fibers, and don’t put toxic chemicals on your skin. Almost every skin care product in the skincare isles is toxic. Most “all natural” moisturizer creams, and soaps are also toxic. With few exceptions (like essential oils), when it comes to skin care products, if you can’t eat it, don’t put on your skin. This also includes sunblock, deodorant, and laundry detergents.
Speaking of deodorants, they need to be all natural. Conventional deodorants, especially antiperspirants, inhibit lymph detoxification. On a side note, it’s no wonder, understanding how the body works, that antiperspirants do in fact lead to breast cancer. We need to sweat, and that sweat leads to an ecosystem of flora on the skin that can promote good health or bad health. Check out How To Make Your Own Natural Deodorant at Home.
The same needs be said about toothpaste and mouthwash. Lose the toxic stuff. Check out Heal Cavities, Gum Disease, Naturally with Organic Oral Care – Toothpaste Recipes Included.
Holistic Organ Health
Your body is a collection of organs that ideally work in harmony with one other. The lymphatic system keeps organs healthy, but an unhealthy organ, or many unhealthy organs, will overload the lymphatic system. Most people with a slow lymphatic system have a leaky gut. In fact, most people with any health problems have a gut that is overly permeable, allowing undigested particles, and toxins to enter the blood and lymph. See Gluten, Candida, Leaky Gut Syndrome, and Autoimmune Diseases for more on gut health.
The first step for almost anyone experiencing health problems should be to balance gut flora. If your body is toxic, your gut is toxic, and the microbes in there are not going to be your friends. As previously mentioned, the intestinal trunk receives the lymph from the stomach, intestine, pancreas, spleen, and liver. None of these organs will be well if the digestive system is in turmoil.
The diet for a healthy lymphatic system and a healthy human body includes far more fresh, raw vegetables than anything else. This how a healthy diet should look with the most often consumed foods listed first:
- Raw, fresh vegetables and herbs
- Raw fresh fruit
- Cooked vegetables
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes (all properly soaked, sprouted, etc.)
- Brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, millet, oats
Obviously, meat is optional. Most of us do not get enough water. Clean water is imperative for lymphatic health, too.
While there are supplements that help, a healthy body will not be achieved without the right diet. The right diet is the foundation of an effective detox. Check out Detox Cheap and Easy Without Fasting – Recipes Included for a recipe for salads and for a cranberry lemonade that will radically improve the body’s elimination of toxins. Salads, when made right, provide a plethora of synergistic nutrition that rebuilds the body while pulling out toxins (for instance, many vegetables and herbs chelate heavy metals). The cranberry lemonade, made with unsweetened cranberry juice and stevia, will help flush and detoxify the liver and kidneys, allowing the lymph to move much more freely.
Avoid all refined, processed foods. Cook and prepare all food at home. Do not eat out until all symptoms are gone and health is restored. At home, eat salads, cranberry lemonade, and fresh fruit. Make stir-frys for dinner.
Avoid vaccines, at least until the lymphatic system is running smoothly. Regardless of your vaccine stance, vaccines are toxic and they slow lymph.
The same is true for GMOs. GMOs harm healthy gut flora, and they need to be avoided. For more on vaccines and GMOs, check out People Against…
Foods That Support the Lymphatic System
Water, while not a food, is vital to life. A lack of water inhibits lymph from flowing smoothly.
Cranberries emulsify fat, which helps break down excess fat so the lymphatic vessels can carry it away. Cranberry also helps the kidneys, which helps with overall hydration. Avoid cranberry juice that has any added ingredients, and try to get some fresh, whole cranberries to juice whenever possible.
Leafy greens are cleansing. Chlorophyll, the green nutrient that captures sunlight, has powerful cleansing properties and beneficial effects on the blood and thus on lymph fluid as well. Look for dark greens like kale, spinach, wheat grass, barley grass, turnip greens, dandelion leaves, broccoli, and mustard greens.
Garlic boosts immune function, chelates heavy metals and some other toxins, and kills harmful microbes. Anything that boosts immune function will take a load off of the lymphatic system.
Ginger reduces inflammation, and like garlic, ginger is also antimicrobial.
Turmeric is related to ginger. It also helps reduce inflammation, thins the blood, improves circulation, and is a well known and very effective cancer fighter.
Fresh produce has many different benefits for the lymphatic system and the whole body, but enzymes are critical to good health. More enzymes in the diet means more enzymes are available to the body to break down food and fibrin, which allows for easier flow of blood and lymph.
Lymphatic Supplemental Support
Systemic enzymes help to restore lymphatic transport capacity and break down undesired excess proteins that contribute to swelling and inflammation. Systemic enzymes also remove debris throughout the body that slow down circulation.
Oregano oil supports digestion and the immune system. Oregano oil is absorbed directly into the lymphatic system from the digestive tract. The powerful antioxidants and antimicrobial properties can help clear up the intestinal lymph capillaries. Oregano oil also contains terpenes that dissolve fatty sludge in the lymph system and in the gall bladder.
Burdock is a powerful multi-system detoxifier that supports the liver, kidneys, digestion, and the lymphatic and endocrine systems. According to the University of Michigan Health System, burdock a blood and lymph purifier.
Wild indigo stimulates the glandular and lymphatic systems. This herb is an antimicrobial immune system modulator and lymphagogue that helps regulate immune and inflammatory responses.
Licorice root is one of the most broad-spectrum natural detoxifying agents known to herbalists. It has been said to gently rid the body of over 1,000 known toxins.
Echinacea alleviates congestion and swelling in the body, and it boosts the immune system. Echinacea will ward off bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. Echinacea helps strengthen certain kinds of cells in the lymph nodes called macrophages, which are responsible for getting the toxins out of the lymph.
Aloe vera is a natural cleansing food that encourages, supports, and increases lymphatic circulation.
Prickly ash bark is a traditional Native American remedy that boosts lymphatic function, stimulates digestion, and promotes joint health.
Red clover, cleavers, manjistha, bupleurum, rehmannia, and stillingia root are popular herbs for lymph stimulation and detoxification.
Other Ways to Stimulate the Lymphatic System
An inversion table is a padded table that allows one to invert upside down while strapped in by the feet. This decompresses joints and stimulates the lymphatic and circulatory system.
We all love a good massage, and a massage will help with the lymphatic system. But, a lymphatic massage specifically targets the flow of lymph in the body. With rhythmic circular movements at just the right pressure to stimulate the lymph, this kind of massage can encourage lymph movement. Lymphatic massage, when done correctly, has been proven to push up to 78% of stagnant lymph back into circulation, which mobilizes toxins for clearance, lessening the burden on the body.
Dry skin brushing is a technique commonly utilized in Ayurveda for assisting in lymphatic flow. The procedure uses a dry brush with coarse bristles to brush the skin gently towards the heart. This stimulates the sweat glands, opens up skin pores, and helps remove dead skin cells as it stimulates the movement of lymph and blood in underlying organs and tissues.
Rebounding is the practice of jumping on a trampoline for ten to thirty minutes. This stimulates the circulation of blood and lymph throughout the body. Numerous studies have proven its efficacy, and some believe there are many other benefits as well.
Other bouncing exercises like jumping rope, jumping jacks, and dance stimulate like rebounding. A hard surface makes for a better bounce to the system, but a trampoline is better for those who need to start with exercises that are more gentle.
Squats massage and stimulate internal organs and bodily systems. Humans were meant to squat and run regularly. Our body works better when we do.
Yoga increases the flow of the lymph. Inverted positions, stretching and contracting the core, and other positions involving stretching are all very beneficial to the lymphatic system.
Running and jogging get the lymph moving. Sweating and breathing heavily also improve lymph condition. Be sure to breathe properly!
To help clear out a sluggish lymphatic system, get more exercise, get a good massage, eat more produce and drink lots of cranberry lemonade. For chronic illness, a holistic approach that involves fitness, diet, and supplementation is in order.
Sometimes people seem to be doing everything else right, but their bodies won’t get healthy until they start moving. For a clogged lymphatic system, exercise may be critical to get things moving freely. For most other health issues, exercise is more of an option, one with benefits but not totally necessary. If you find your lymph system to be sluggish, you need exercise. Squats, yoga, and running help detoxify the body and get lymph flowing better. Running is particularly good for the lymphatic system. We were built to run, and don’t let any doctor tell you differently. Check out Running Without Knee Pain. Both sprinting and jogging have a host of positive benefits to lymph.
The following recommended products, if used as instructed with a proper diet, will clear the lymphatic system, strengthen the immune system, and help alleviate almost all other health issues, given enough time. The supplements are listed in order of most likely to be most important. While the time varies from person to person, most feel a huge sense of rejuvenation within 3 to 10 days on this protocol.
- Lymphagogue Compound – Wise Woman Herbals
- Shillington’s Blood Detox Formula
- Shillington’s Blood Detox Tea
- Shillington’s Echinacea Plus
- Reishi Extract (Ganoderma Lucidum) – Host Defense
- Nettle Leaf Capsules – Gaia Herbs
- Mother Earth Organic Root Cider – Barrier Island Organics
- Elderberry Plus Syrup – Wise Woman Herbals
- More Supplemental Lymphatic Support
- Holistic Guide to Healing the Endocrine System and Balancing Our Hormones
- Candida, Gut Flora, Allergies, and Disease
- Hypothyroidism – Natural Remedies, Causes, and How To Heal the Thyroid
- Total Nutrition – Make your own Homemade Multivitamin and Mineral Formula
- How to Cure Lyme Disease, and Virtually Any Other Bacterial Infection, Naturally
- How to Detoxify From Chemotherapy and Repair the Body
- How To Detoxify and Heal From Vaccinations – For Adults and Children
- Make Your Immune System Bulletproof with These Natural Remedies
- The Power of Our Hormones and How To Balance Them
- Heal Cavities, Gum Disease, Naturally with Organic Oral Care – Toothpaste recipes included
- Lymphatic Capillaries: Function & Explanation – Study.com
- The Lymphatic System – Lymphnotes.com
- Lymphatic System: Facts, Functions and Diseases – Medical News Today
- Functions of the Lymphatic System – Boundless.com
- Lymphatic System – Live Science
- The Lymph System and Your Health – Women to Women