For most people, the lymphatic system is something of a mystery. Others—the nervous system, the cardiovascular system—get a lot of airtime, though the lymphatic system receives relatively little attention. And yet the lymphatic system is one of our most important networks of vessels and tissues.
Kilometres worth of lymphatic vessels run throughout our bodies, between our tissues, and around all our important structures. These vessels help to gather and remove cellular waste, keep fluid levels in check, and transport much-needed nutrients to their destinations.
Little islands of lymphatic tissues also dot this network, surveying for pathogens that could cause illness and injury and providing much needed information to the immune system.
Obviously, this is one very important system, and keeping it healthy will have a big impact on the body’s health and overall function.
Physical activity is a key part of keeping the body healthy in general, so it should come as no surprise that exercise also benefits the lymphatic system. Unlike blood circulation, which has the heart, the lymphatic system does not have its own pump. It relies on the pumping action of muscles and vessels nearby to help move the lymph along.
Without muscle movement, the lymphatic system cannot move lymph as efficiently and, therefore, cannot do its very important jobs. This is partly why ankles and lower legs get swollen and puffy after long car or plane rides. So get up regularly from your desk and walk around; your lymphatic system will thank you.
Nonimpact vertical motion on a rebounder, which looks like a small trampoline, is said to benefit the lymph system by stimulating the millions of one-way valves in the system and increasing lymph flow. Better circulation means better cell health.
A low-impact exercise that works much the same way as rebounding to aid the lymph system, skipping requires even less in the way of equipment. Just dig out an old skipping rope to jump-start your lymph system.
The therapeutic use of water, including everything from ice baths to hot soaks, can have deep effects on the circulation of both blood and lymphatic fluid.
One of the hydrotherapy techniques that I recommend most often is the contrast shower; it’s simple and effective, and everything you need is already found in your home.
- Just step into your shower and turn on the hot water.
- After two minutes, switch the water to cold for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this twice.
Although this can take some getting used to (particularly the cold water part), the alternating hot and cold water creates an ongoing contraction and relaxation of blood vessels and other tissues, resulting in a pumping effect that helps pump blood and lymphatic fluid through tissues more efficiently, clearing out the waste and bringing in the nutrients.
This can also be a helpful technique for those with muscle pain, especially when it is due to athletic pursuits or just overdoing it on a weekend with the kids. Contrast therapy has been shown to help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery after exercise.
Manual lymphatic drainage
Also referred to as lymphatic drainage massage, this is a specialized massage technique that can be used to help better move lymphatic fluid through an area to relieve swelling, congestion, and pain, and improve healing.
In situations such as surgery, injury, or illness, the lymphatic vessels can become damaged or overwhelmed. This can lead to lymphedema, a condition where a body part becomes swollen due to poor lymphatic flow.
Lymphatic drainage techniques can be used to push stagnant lymphatic fluid out of an area and ease the swelling. Lymphatic drainage can also be very helpful in cases of swelling due to injury—ankle sprains, muscles strains, and other situations where areas are left painful and puffy can benefit from improved flow of nutrients into and waste matter out of the area, allowing the tissues to heal more efficiently.
Finally, those with venous disease may also find some relief of symptoms through the use of lymphatic drainage. Healthy veins take blood back to the heart. But sometimes, when veins are weakened with age or injury, they can have trouble moving blood along properly, especially from the legs where they are usually pushing against the force of gravity.
As a result, back pressure occurs in the veins, leading to congestion in the area and fluid seepage into surrounding tissues. The lymphatic system can have a tough time keeping up with all the extra fluid, and swelling (especially around the ankles) can occur. Lymphatic drainage in such cases can help to push fluid out of tissues and back into the circulation.
The use of herbs to support the health and function of the lymphatic system is based largely on traditional knowledge. Little clinical research has been done so far, but a long history of successful use by herbalists and other health practitioners has demonstrated both the safety and the benefit of certain herbs for lymphatic support.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Also known as goosegrass, this common weed is the plant most reached for in my practice when a condition calls for a lymphatic tonic. You may be surprised at how many conditions that can include; if there are swollen glands, puffy tissues, or stubborn skin conditions, I will often include cleavers in the treatment protocol.
This herb is well tolerated and safe for most people. However, for specific dosage recommendations and to confirm if cleavers or other herbs would be appropriate for your concerns, consult with a natural health care practitioner.
The lymphatic system, just like other systems, needs regular care and maintenance to effectively do its many jobs. Fortunately, there are several things you can easily incorporate into your daily routine to ensure your lymphatic system is the best it can be!