The essential circulatory system you may not know you have

Did you know that besides your arteries and veins, there is an entire other circulatory system in your body called the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system lies close under your skin and provides a super highway by which your immune cells travel throughout your body, monitoring for invaders such as bacteria and viruses. These vessels also act as a waste disposal system: Environmental toxins, excess hormones and metabolic wastes generated in the normal course of living are vacuumed up from your organs and the spaces between your cells and shunted through these vessels to your liver for processing and are then eliminated from your body via urine and stool.

Sounds pretty important, right?

That's why getting the lymph circulating properly is something I focus on with EVERY SINGLE PERSON I work with. If the lymph isn't moving, how will your immune system function well and how will your body get rid of toxins?

This extensive network of vessels reaches every part of your body, with lymph nodes placed at intervals along the way. Lymph nodes are like little immune science labs where samples of toxins or potential invaders are taken for analysis. If they are deemed to be dangerous, an immune response is mounted and those lymph nodes swell as production of immune cells is dramatically increased to help fight the invasion. If you’ve ever noticed painful, swollen lymph nodes under your jaw when you had a cold, this is what’s happening.

The largest concentrations of lymph nodes are in the neck and around the jaw, in the armpits and breasts, surrounding the intestines and in the groin. The spleen, a large organ located under your rib cage next to your stomach is the biggest individual organ in the lymph system and does a number or important jobs including filtering out old and damaged red blood cells and helping to produce immune responses to body-wide infections.

One way the lymphatic system is different from the blood system is that it doesn’t have a dedicated pump to move its fluid as the heart pumps the blood. Instead, this system actually relies on you using your muscles to keep things moving. And all that fluid has to travel upward against gravity to circulate normally. So if you spend a lot of time sitting and don’t move your body each day, the lymph can get stagnant, leading to accumulation of waste in the body. Taking medications and supplemental hormones, being exposed to environmental toxins such as food additives and pesticides in processed, non-organic foods, plus air pollution and unfiltered water gives the lymph system a lot of extra work.

I certainly don’t recommend stopping necessary medications to spare the lymphatic system, but I do think this is another reason to work with a naturopathic doctor to address the root causes of your health concerns so you likely won’t need as many medications in the first place.

So, what happens when your lymph system is sluggish?

  • Breast pain and fibrocystic breast disease
  • Skin rashes
  • Acne
  • Frequent colds and flus
  • Sinus infections
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Puffyness of the skin (not from fat)
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Luckily, there are several simple things you can do to give your lymph system some love. I really encourage my patients to approach these activities from a place of self-love and self-care.

Word to the wise: It's important to talk to your doctor before taking new herbs or trying new treatments. If you stir up a lot of toxins, but don't help your body eliminate them, you can make yourself feel worse instead of better. I particularly advise you against beginning to take lymphatic herbs or even doing castor oil packs and dry skin brushing if you are constipated. The constipation needs to be resolved first.

1. Get Moving!

The muscles act as a pump that moves the lymph. So do what you love: walk, run, stretch, do yoga, and do it regularly. Rebounding, or gentle bouncing on a trampoline is particularly effective to move the lymph.

2. Clean up the diet

Avoiding processed foods and eating organic food significantly decreases your exposure to chemicals such as artificial sweeteners, artificial food dyes, salt, pesticides and herbicides. All of these substances cause harm and provide extra work for the lymphatic system. Additionally, adding some raw fruit and vegetables to your diet every day provides you with naturally occurring plant enzymes, which actually make it to your blood stream and help to break up and thin out clogged lymph.

3. Clean up your personal care regimen

For the same reasons that you are cleaning up your diet, go through your cosmetics and body care products and look them up on SkinDeep Database to determine their safety. If they have a rating over a 3, replace them with a safer alternative.

4. Stay hydrated

One of the primary causes of lymphatic stagnation is dehydration and it’s not hard to imagine why. If the lymphatic fluid becomes more like glue than like liquid, it will tend to become clogged. Prevent this by drinking 8 to 10 glasses of filtered water per day.

5. Identify food intolerances and heal the gut

If you have leaky gut, excess bacteria and tiny particles of incompletely digested food leak into your blood stream, giving your lymph system exponentially more crud to clean up. This is one of those underlying causes that needs to be addressed to break the cycle of lymphatic stagnation.

6. Ditch the underwire

If you wear bras, remove the underwires or purchase bras without underwires. And for that matter, decrease the time you spend wearing a bra each day. Bras in general and underwires in particular compress the breasts and impede lymphatic flow in the breasts, which are one of the most lymph-rich tissues in the body. In my practice I see a lot of women with breast pain that improves or resolves when they remove the underwire from their bras. Over long-term use, this constriction may contribute to fibrocystic breast disease.

7. Dry skin brushing and lymphatic massage

Dry skin brushing is a wonderful home treatment to help stimulate lymph flow. Use a natural bristle brush to apply gentle sweeping motions to the skin from the ends of the limbs toward the heart. This is quite effective at moving the lymph through the vessels just beneath the skin and toward the thoracic duct where the lymph ultimately joins the bloodstream. I recommend spending several minutes each day gently brushing your skin. This is a great thing to do before a shower. Check out this video for a demonstration, and click here for an example of the type of brush I recommend using. The same affect can be attained with lymphatic massage, either self-administered or administered by a massage therapist trained in these techniques.

8. Castor oil packs

This is another wonderful treatment that I frequently recommend to my patients. Castor oil packs are an old naturopathic home treatment using castor oil applied topically over the belly to help stimulate lymph movement in the abdomen. See my handout here for directions.

9. Lymphatic herbs

Some of my favorite herbs to help move the lymph are cleavers and red root.

Cleavers or Galium aparine is a wonderful herb that may be growing nearby without you knowing it yet! The fresh herb is a lovely addition to smoothies or fresh pressed juice, or you can find the tincture here. Besides moving the lymph, it acts as a diuretic, so you may find yourself urinating more than usual while taking it. Never harvest wild herbs to eat or use as medicine without being positive of your ability to correctly identify them first!

Dose: 30 drops 1-2 times per day

Red root or Ceanothus americanus is another great herb for lymphatic health. This one is perhaps a bit stronger and doesn’t have the diuretic action of cleavers, but really targets the liver, lymphatics and spleen. It can be used in tea or tincture form. You can find the tincture here.

Dose: 20-40 drops 1-3 times per day

As always, discuss any diet, lifestyle or supplement changes with your primary healthcare provider. And please let me know in the comments section below: Have you tried any of these steps? What did you notice? What are you excited to try next?

May your immune system flourish,

Dr. Jennea

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