Your Misunderstood Lymph System



WHY, IF IT’S DESCRIBED AS a lovely string of pearls, does the body’s lymphatic system seem too amorphous or extraneous for most people, at least in the United States, to pay it much attention – compared to Europe, where treating lymphatic disturbances is a high priority for preventive health care, for post-surgical care and for dealing with many ailments?

The lymph system works to continuously cleanse every cell in the body and when necessary to initiate an immune response. Hence, possible consequences of its dysfunction are endless: from joint pain, arthritis and headaches to food sensitivities, cold and flu infections including sinusitis, fatigue, depression – and, of course, cellulite.

“In general, you may feel tired and toxic, with a heaviness in your abdomen,” writes Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, author of “Is it Me or My Hormones?” and founder of the website Women to Women. “In Chinese medicine, practitioners call this “excessive damp.”

The lymphatic system is made up of glands and lymph nodes, as well as the spleen, thymus gland and tonsils, strung along a system of vessels – hence the string of pearls allusion — containing lymph fluid in a quantity twice that of your blood. However, unlike blood, which is kept moving by the heart, the lymph system has no pump. What gets lymph moving is muscle contractions during deep breathing and physical activity, and manual manipulation.

As it progresses through the body, lymph fluid collects the byproducts of cellular activity and infection, and transports these through “filtration and collection” points — lymph nodes, found throughout the body — heading toward the spleen, the largest organ in the lymph system. Although you can function without a spleen – which is sometimes removed when swollen from diseases like mononucleosis — your immune responses might not work as effectively.

Lymph “bathes our body’s cells and carries the body’s cellular sewage away from the tissues to the blood where it will be filtered by two of the body’s main detoxification organs: the liver and kidneys,” explains Michelle Cook on the care2 website.

Much of the lymph tissue is located around the digestive tract – the main entry point for toxins or infection, or, as Pick calls it, “a kind of tasting room for pathogens:” the healthier your lymph tissue, the less sensitive you will be to food-borne bacteria and chemicals.

Diminished flow and blockages in the lymph system can cause nausea and toxicity, and may play a role in creating cellulite. The decreased flow of lymphatic fluid to certain areas, like the thighs, can lead to accumulated pockets of fat cells, where additional lymph fluid then accumulates. Liposuction and invasive procedures can reduce the appearance of cellulite but are not permanent solutions: the cellulite will return.

Inactivity is the main villain, seriously impairing the flow of lymph fluid – for which the solution is deep breathing and increased exercising, also lying on a slant board or otherwise hanging upside down. Ann Louise Gittleman, author of “The Fat Flush Plan,” who “estimates that 80 percent of women have sluggish lymphatic systems,” has several suggestions to keep the lymph moving: besides breathing deeply, exercise on a mini trampoline or do any kind of stretching or aerobic exercise; and drink lots of water. Also eat raw fruit: “the enzymes and acids in fruit are powerful lymph cleansers,” especially if eaten on an empty stomach.

Manual manipulations and movements for lymphatic drainage are considered routine treatments in European hospitals, especially before surgery “to improve healing by readying the system for recovery,” writes Pick.

Also advised is everyday “lymph massage,” especially around the abdomen, along with several minutes of vigorous rubbing at a “reflex point” at the bottom of the sternum; and “milking,” to help drain the lymph nodes, especially in the case of a sore throat or sinus congestion: start under the jaw or at the base of the skull and massage downwards toward the heart.

For cellulite, Pick points to only “two successful ways to diminish cellulite from the inside out:” improving the circulation of lymph and reducing the toxic burden, once again by following the now-familiar advice: more exercise and a better diet.

–Mary Carpenter

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