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The Lymphatic System in our bodies is a network of lymph (limf) vessels and lymph nodes. This network collects fluid, debris, and other particles that are in the body’s tissue, outside the bloodstream. Lymph vessels are a lot like the veins that collect and carry blood through the body. But instead of carrying blood, these vessels carry the clear watery fluid called lymph.
Lymph is the fluid that flows out from capillary walls to bathe the cells in the tissues of the body. It carries oxygen and other nutrients to those cells. It also contains white blood cells, which help fight infections. Waste products like carbon dioxide (CO2) can flow out of the cells and into lymph. Lymph fluid would build up and cause swelling if it wasn’t drained in some way. That is the role of the lymph vessels. Lymph vessels draw up the lymph fluid from around the cells to send it towards the chest. Eventually, lymph collects into a large vessel that drains into a blood vessel near the heart.
Lymph Nodes and What They Do
Lymph vessels route the fluid through nodes that are located throughout the body. Lymph nodes are small structures that work as filters for harmful substances. They contain immune cells that can attack and destroy germs in the lymph fluid to help fight infection. Each lymph node filters fluid and substances picked up by the vessels that lead to it. Lymph fluid from the fingers, for instance, works its way toward the chest, joining fluid from the arm. This fluid may filter through lymph nodes at the elbow, or those under the arm. Fluid from the head, scalp, and face flows down through lymph nodes in the neck. Some lymph nodes are deep inside the body, such as between the lungs or around the bowel, to filter fluid from those areas. The lymph slowly flows in from all around the body, making its way back to the chest. At the end of its journey, the filtered fluid, salts, and proteins are dumped back into the bloodstream.
There are a number of ways to improve the functioning of your lymph system. One of these is called lymphatic massage. Because lymph fluid moves slowly without aid of its own pump, inactivity can seriously restrict its flow. Muscular contraction through exercise and deep breathing is the primary means by which our lymph circulates, but lymphatic massage and drainage provide another helpful option.
In Europe, patients often receive a special massage called lymph therapy or lymph drainage before undergoing surgery. This method of treatment was popularized in the US by the Danish doctor, Dr. Emil Vodder, as an effective treatment for lymphedema. Practitioners believe that it significantly improves body function by readying the system for recovery. For more information, visit Dr. Vodder’s educational website.
On an everyday basis, regular lymph massage (particularly around the abdomen, axillary nodes, and breast) can be great preventive health maintenance. There are many ways to practice lymph massage, and I recommend that you visit a certified massage therapist to learn more.
In addition, we recommend the following steps to ensure that your lymph remains clear and unimpeded. Whether you have symptoms or not, every woman will benefit from these techniques.
- Clean up your diet. Reduce your body’s toxic burden by avoiding processed food, eating organic when possible, and eliminating simple sugars and carbohydrates. The nutritional and lifestyle guidelines we offer at Women to Women will go a long way toward reducing overall “body sludge” your lymph system must sweep away. Get tested for heavy metal exposure (lead and mercury are very common in the US). The idea here is that the less waste your lymph has to deal with, the more easily it will flow.
- A regular nutritional detox and colon cleanse, supported by liver enzymes, will ease your liver and kidney burden, which in turn will decrease pressure on your spleen. Even a two–week Quick-Cleanse can do wonders.
- Investigate any food sensitivities or allergies that may be affecting your digestion. Take a medical-grade multivitamin to support your cellular function, digestion, and elimination. Look into probiotic supplements to help maintain a healthy ratio of intestinal flora. Experiment with a hypoallergenic diet for two weeks to cleanse your system of moderate food irritants. Deal with any troublesome GI issues, including parasites. Read our article on IBS and, if necessary, talk to your practitioner about relevant tests.
- Drink plenty of purified or filtered water — at least six to eight 8–oz glasses per day. Your body needs hydration to keep the fluids running!
- Practice deep breathing. Breathing deeply from the diaphragm, not shallowly from the chest, and through the nose rather than the mouth, is one of the best ways to move lymph fluid through your body.
- Get regular physical exercise. Jumping on a rebounder, or mini-trampoline, just five minutes a day is a great way to get your lymph system pumping. Walking, stretching, tai chi, yoga, Pilates, and other moderate activities are helpful, too — especially if you do them every day. Or find an activity that suits you. Some women prefer ballroom dancing, others swimming. What’s important is that you make it a regular and joy-inducing part of your life.
- Don’t be afraid to sweat! A weekly sauna or steam bath is a pleasant way to facilitate a healthy sweat, and sweating helps detoxify the body and so supports lymphatic function. Avoid aluminum-based antiperspirants (they block sweating and add to your toxic load) and choose natural deodorants instead.
- Avoid restrictive clothing that press on your lymph nodes. Under wires and over-tight bras, jeans, and skirts can impede lymph flow. Try to go bra-free for at least 12 hours a day, and don’t sleep in one. If this is uncomfortable for you, consider buying a stretchy camisole.
- Consider acupuncture. Chinese medical doctors are far ahead of their Western counterparts when it comes to “unsticking” the lymph system. As a treatment or preventative, acupuncture can be a great way to keep things moving. It can also help alleviate discomfort that may arise while you are detoxing.
- Examine your emotional issues. Sometimes we get stuck in a particular pattern of stress that reduces our capacity to make positive changes. Your lymph can become blocked when you are feeling stuck or unable to express yourself. Remember that your life, too, is a progression, and “our biography becomes our biology.” If you find the same situations arising over and over, you may want to take a closer look. Discuss any areas that feel stagnant or obtrusive with a friend, partner, therapist or trusted religious adviser. You may find that as your lymph system unbinds, so does your spirit.
I hope this article has served to reveal the hidden beauty of your lymphatic system, and inspires you to give more time to its care. Remember that support for your body is all-inclusive, not fragmented into specialized body parts as so many doctors would have us believe. Taking the time to honor and support your lesser-known systems will have a far-reaching, life enhancing effect. So focus on purifying and loosening the tides within and let your river run!
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Women To Women