07 Jul The Lymphatic System: A Lifeline for Holistic Autoimmune Care
The lymphatic system.. You don’t often hear about it, but it’s actually one of the most important systems for keeping you healthy- mentally and physically.
For sensitive people and those with autoimmune conditions, understanding and supporting the lymphatic system becomes a lifeline for mind-body healing. In these situations, it’s important to become familiar with this less-known system and how to implement lymphatic support to truly unlock your body’s healing capacity and recovering from autoimmunity.
What is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is a part of our body that many people have never heard about; most people aren’t even aware that it exists. It’s considered the second vascular system that serves many vital functions in the body. But, there’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that the lymphatic system—more specifically lymphatic dysfunction—also plays a role in a number of diseases, including various inflammatory disorders, autoimmunity, and cancer.
The lymphatic system runs through the entire body parallel to the vascular system. While the vascular system transports red blood cells and nutrients to tissues and organs, the lymphatic system carries white blood cells and other immune cells to support and offer protection. Think of it this way: the lymphatic system is almost like the introverted sibling of the cardiovascular system. We may know it exists, but we tend to focus on the vascular system because it’s gotten all the attention and acclaim.
Anatomy of the Lymphatic System
Unlike the heart and the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system has no central pump, which means that movement of lymph relies on the action of skeletal muscles, respiratory movement, and contraction of smooth muscle in the walls of collecting lymphatic vessels.
Other than blood vessels, the lymphatic system is mainly composed of lymphoid organs, including:
- Lymph nodes
- Peyer’s patches
Like the venous system, the lymphatic system functions to transport fluids throughout the body through a network consisting of:
- Thin-walled lymphatic vessels: Located throughout the body. They are larger than capillaries but smaller than even the smallest veins and have one-way valves that help to keep lymph flowing in one direction (towards the heart).
- Lymph nodes: Tiny bean-shaped organs that serve as collection points for lymph fluid. Lymph nodes are scattered throughout the body and serve to filter out damaged cells and foreign particles from the lymph. They also contain specialized white blood cells that are designed to engulf and destroy damaged cells, pathogens, and foreign particles. Essentially, the lymph system protects the body against infection and illness.
- Two collecting ducts
The Relationship Between Autoimmunity and the Lymphatic System
The primary physiological function of the lymphatic system is to take up fluid that leaks into interstitial spaces and return it to blood circulation. Within the context of inflammation and autoimmunity, the role isn’t completely clear. But, we do know there are two ways in which lymphatic vessels play a role:
- Drain inflammation-associated edema and aid in the removal of immune cells and inflammatory cytokines from the site of infection
- Establish immune responses by serving as exit routes for activated antigen-presenting cells from infection sites to local lymph nodes
There’s also some research suggesting the lymphatic vessels may actively participate in the inflammatory process. Due to it’s interconnected activity with the immune system, the lymphatic system plays an important role in inflammatory and immune diseases. It’s been suggested that because of this tight connection, lymphatic dysfunction may be associated with the development of certain rheumatic autoimmune diseases.
This relationship hasn’t been explored enough to be fully understood, but what we do know is that the mechanics of the lymphatic system are necessary for clearing fluid and inflammatory cells from inflamed tissues. Essentially, if your immune system is not functioning properly then your lymphatic vessels become clogged and swollen. This is something you’ll also notice when you’re sick- swollen and tender lymph nodes, especially around the neck region.
These lymphoid organs are what protect our body from invaders and keep us healthy:
- Primary lymphoid organs: Bone marrow and the thymus; they create immune cells called lymphocytes
- Secondary lymphoid organs: Lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, and certain tissue in various mucous membrane layers in the body; these organs are where the immune cells do their actual job of fighting off germs and foreign substances
Given how intricately intertwined the lymphatic system is with the immune system, you can imagine the repercussions when one (or both) systems are working incorrectly. When lymph becomes stagnated in certain regions of the body, it not only causes pain and discomfort but immune cells can’t be transported around the body to do their job and it can exacerbate illness.
Lack of lymph movement is kind of like sitting on the highway in bumper-to-bumper traffic when there’s an accident. More and more cars are piling onto the freeway, but there’s nowhere to go, and even the EMS vehicles can’t get through to do their job (i.e. treat and heal). The only way for help to get to where it needs to go is to get things moving again.
That’s where certain practices come into the picture to help get stagnant lymph moving.
Caring for Your Lymphatic System
Keeping your lymphatic system healthy and moving doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many things you can do at home or with a health professional to help move stagnant lymph through the body and reboot your immune system to stimulate healing. Plus, I think a lot of these activities are actually enjoyable, which means you can think of it as a self-care treat!
1. Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Lymphatic drainage is one of the most common ways of moving stagnant lymph. It’s a form of manual therapy using a specific sequence of gentle rhythmic stroking motions to soothe, relax, and stimulate the circulation of lymph fluid and enhance waste removal and healing. Lymphatic massages are sometimes also accompanied by gentle flushing or pumping of lymph nodes, which act as oil filters for the lymphatic system. These types of massages are especially great for points around the face to alleviate head congestion, sore throats, allergies, sinus pain/pressure, or headaches. Lymphatic massages are great for strengthening the immune system (which is dysfunctional in people with autoimmune conditions), relieving pressure in the face, improving sleep, increasing energy, and stimulating healing.
2. Light Touch Massage
Light touch massage is also great for the lymphatic system. It applies very light pressure to stimulate lymph vessels that lie just beneath the skin to increase the movement of lymph and clear any blockages. Light touch massage can be done on any areas of the body where congestion may occur.
3. Dry or Wet Brushing
If massage is not an option, wet or dry brushing is a fantastic alternative that can be done at home to clear lymphatic blockages. Dry-brushing pre-shower helps to trigger the lymph to start draining by gently stimulating the skin; lymph nodes lie just under the surface of the skin so hard pressure isn’t needed. Dry skin brushing also naturally exfoliates the skin to remove dead skin cells and clear oil, dirt, and residue that collects in pores and contributes to dull, dry, congested skin. Alternatively, if you become irritated by dry brushing, you can do wet brushing while in the shower. For both methods, use gentle circular motions starting on your legs and working upwards, always brushing towards the heart to push lymph in that direction. Wet and dry brushing are also great for improving circulation, reducing inflammation, and increasing energy.
4. Chiropractic Adjustments
To most people’s surprise, chiropractic is really good for getting stagnant lymph moving. There is a chain of lymph nodes following the spine that congregate at every vertebral level, so moving large joints is a powerful way of getting really stuck lymph regions moving that would go deeper than superficial massages.
Like I said before, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a central pump like the heart in the cardiovascular system, which means it relies on muscle movement to flow. That’s why physical activity, especially walking, is incredibly effective for releasing blockages and improving lymph flow. While high-intensity activity can be great for some people, it can actually set people with autoimmune disorders back, so it’s best to leave that sort of activity until you’re healed. Lower intensity exercise like walking is great for pushing lymph; the large muscles of the legs are especially powerful for creating that manual pump. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, getting out for a walk daily is a really powerful (and enjoyable) tool for healing.
Have you ever noticed that coconut oil is smooth and liquid when it’s at a warmer temperature, but the moment it gets cooler it hardens and solidifies? Lymph is kind of the same way. It becomes thick and viscous in colder temperatures, which can make movement rather challenging. Enjoying things like saunas, warm baths or showers, and hot tubs where the temperature is above 104ºF (40ºC) increases motility within the lymphatic system and can help to loosen up lymph and move stagnation. Hot-cold hydrotherapy is a simple way to do this at home. Lymphatic vessels constrict when exposed to cold and dilate in response to heat, so simply switching between hot and cold temperature in the shower is a great way to stimulate, nourish, and heal the lymphatic system.
Troubleshooting Your Lymphatic System
Most people don’t know much about how to stimulate lymphatic movement, so naturally, there will be questions!
What type of movements can I do to increase lymphatic function?
Walking is one of the best ways to unblock stagnant lymph. Because large muscle groups in the legs act as pumps when they contract, it pushes lymph through vessels back towards the heart. Rebounding is also great for boosting lymphatic function. It’s gentle, rhythmic bouncing on a small trampoline. The gravitational pull caused by the bouncing causes the one-way lymphatic valves to open, which helps to move the lymph and immune cells all around the body.
I don’t like massage, what else can I do?
Light touch bodywork is an alternative for massage. Because lymph nodes are quite superficial, it doesn’t take deep pressure to stimulate them and relieve congestion. As well, for some people who experience inflammation, deep massage may be painful. Gentle chiropractic techniques like drop table, Thompson technique and traditional manual adjustments will stimulate movement in the spinal lymph nodes and help with drainage.
Dry brushing irritates my skin, can I do something else?
Both dry brushing and wet brushing accomplish the same type of stimulation. If you find dry brushing irritating to the skin, do it in the shower to reduce friction. You can also try adding something like almond oil or jojoba oil to further reduce irritation, as well as hydrate and nourish the skin.
Massage is out of my budget! Can I do it myself?
Absolutely! Self-massage is a great and inexpensive alternative to seeing a massage practitioner. You can massage any region within reach. I recommend using organic oil (to avoid contaminants) to reduce friction and increasing the temperature to add warmth and maximize lymph flow. If you’re new to massage, you can find many tutorials online that guide you through self-massage for different areas of the body.