There has been a lot of media attention on detox diets in recent years. One of the body’s major detoxification systems and very much the unsung hero is the lymph system, responsible for removing the waste from metabolic processes throughout the body. The lymphatic system plays a critically important role in our health and supports our immune, digestive, and nervous system to name a few. In this article, we take a closer look at the lymph system and how we can help it to work more efficiently.
We have twice as much lymph fluid as blood in our bodies and it is used to drain away waste products from our cells. Unlike our circulatory system that is powered by the most amazing pump in the Universe – our hearts, the lymph system relies on breathing and movement to move the lymph fluid along. If the lymph fluid stops, then we are in trouble!
The lymph system is made of a vast network of vessels that extend to every part of the body carrying lymph fluid. Lymph fluid contains infection fighting white blood cells that help to clear waste products and toxins. Along this network of vessels are between 600 hundred and 700 lymph nodes which act as filters cleaning the waste and toxins as they pass through. These lymph nodes are small oval structures that are in important part of our immune systems. In addition to this, we have lymphatic organs to help get rid of toxins, such as the tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus. The spleen is the largest lymphatic organ and is responsible for controlling the amount of red blood cells and blood storage in the body. When the spleen detects infection or micro-organisms in the body, it creates white bloods cells, called lymphocytes, along with the lymph nodes to fight the infection. The tonsils are a large cluster of lymphatic cells in the throat and are the body’s first line of defense against infection.
Another function of the lymph system is to return excess fluid to the circulatory system. The bloodstream transports oxygen and nutrients to the cells and to reach these cells, it leaves the small arteries and enters into the tissues. This fluid is known as interstitial fluid. When the cells have used the nutrients, 90% of this interstitial fluid returns in to the circulatory system. However, the remaining fluid needs to be removed including any metabolic waste and toxins produced by the cells. Over the course of a day, this can add up to about three litres of fluid!
We only have about five to six litres of blood so we need a mechanism to return this fluid into the circulatory system. This is where the lymph system steps in and is critically important to maintaining our blood volume. If the fluid remained in the tissue spaces, it would accumulate and lead to edema or swelling in certain parts of the body. The lymphatic capillaries, which are microscopic, collect fluid from the surrounding tissues. They carry this lymph fluid along with any metabolic waste created by the cells, and converge into larger lymphatic vessels which then subsequently converge into lymphatic trunks. The lymphatic vessels and trunks carry the lymph fluid up into the neck area and return the filtered and cleaned fluid to the bloodstream through one of two large ducts into the subclavian veins which carry both lymph and venous blood back to the heart.
So how does the lymph system work to get this lymph fluid up the body towards the neck? Amazingly, the lymph system does not have a pump! It depends on muscle contraction to move fluid. Muscles that line the lymphatic vessel wall contract rhythmically to move the fluid along. This is helped by muscle contraction throughout the body and also by deep breathing. Unlike the bloodstream which is a circulatory loop, the lymph system is a one way flow. Numerous valves in the vessels ensure that the fluid moves in one direction without any back-flow.
Can we improve our lymphatic circulatory system to help our bodies remove toxins? Yes, we need to look after our lymphatic circulatory system just as much as our blood circulatory system. The two are intrinsically linked. The lymphatic system drains away excess fluid from the tissues and removes waste products, toxins and antigens so it is also an intrinsic part of our immune system. If these drains becomes blocked for any reason, then poor health outcomes will follow. If the lymphatic system becomes clogged up with excessive toxins, the body will struggle to effectively remove these toxins and ultimately, the immune system will be compromised.
So what are the causes of a congested or sluggish lymphatic system?
How do we help the lymphatic system operate more efficiently and keep this incredibly important system in tip top shape?
Rebounding on a mini trampoline is reported to increase lymph flow by 15 to 30 times. The vertical up and down movement of rebounding is very effective at helping the lymph vessels ‘pump’ the lymph fluid up through the body by opening and closing the millions of one way valves throughout the system. Jumping on a re-bounder is very gentle on the joints and has many other benefits such as strengthening your muscles, improving your fitness as well as improving your balance.
NASA conducted a study on trampoline jumping which was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1980. This study compared the difference between exercising on a treadmill and a trampoline. They concluded that for similar levels of heart rate and oxygen consumption, the magnitude of the bio-mechanical stimuli is greater with jumping on a trampoline than with running. So rebounding is an excellent way to not only get more exercise into your daily routine that won’t impact your joints, but also benefit our lymphatic system.
This is another beneficial exercise that works in a similar fashion to rebounding. Of course, this has more impact on the joints but only requires you to dig out that old skipping rope.
Dry Skin Brushing
Skin is your largest organ and absolutely critical to your good health. Dry skin brushing is another effective way to stimulate your lymphatic system and help you to detoxify your body. It will also improve the appearance of your skin by eliminating dead cells, encouraging regeneration and stimulating blood circulation.
You’ll need a natural bristle brush with a long handle for effective dry brushing. The brushing motion should be upwards following the direction of lymph fluid starting at the feet and working your way up to the heart area. For the best results, dry brush every morning for 5 to 10 minutes before showering.
There are many benefits to deep breathing but in this section we’ll focus on the how we can improve the efficiency of our lymph system by deep, diaphragmatic breathing. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm stimulates the lymphatic system.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing or ‘abdominal breathing’ is the key to this process and 10 minutes a day will oxygenate the blood and get the lymph fluid flowing. Most people breath with the chest. What I mean by this is that, typically, when you breathe in, you’ll open the chest up and maybe even pull your stomach in. When you exhale, the stomach goes out and the chest deflates. This shallow type of breathing is known as paradoxical breathing. Think of it as breathing backwards.
Abdominal breathing turns this around so that we are breathing correctly. So how do we do this? Breath in deeply and slowly through the nose letting your belly fill as you inhale. This should be a natural movement and not forced. Then breath out slowly letting your abdominal push the air out. What this does is change the intra-abdominal pressure as we go from inhale to exhale. This creates a vacuum which helps to pump lymph fluid up through the body to the thoracic ducts where it reconnects with the venous system.
Drinking adequate amounts of water has many health benefits, but is it really important to the lymphatic system? Can we literally ‘flush out’ our toxins by drinking more water? To get a view on how important water is for our bodies we only need to look at what happens when we don’t get any! The adult human body is made up of between 60 and 70% water, depending on age. Of this water, only around 20% is blood.
As we discussed earlier, there is twice as much lymph fluid than blood in the body so a large percentage of our water is in the lymphatic system. Indeed, the word lymph comes from the Latin ‘lympha’ which means ‘clear spring water’. Chronic dehydration can slow and stagnate the flow of lymph. Therefore, it makes sense to ensure we are getting enough high quality water to help the lymph system and all of our internal systems work optimally.
The lymphatic system needs a relaxed body to work optimally. If we are stressed out and up tight, then it is easy to see why our internal systems slow down. Excessive stress is a major cause of many illnesses and it can certainly have a negative impact on the lymphatic system. During a stress response, the muscles to tighten which prepares a person to fight or flight.
Chronic stress leads to chronic tension in the muscles and stiff, aching neck, shoulder and back muscles are common symptoms of this condition. With all of this tension in the muscles, the tiny lymphatic vessels are being constricted so that lymph flow is reduced or even stopped in certain parts of the body. This means that the cells will not be able to get rid of their metabolic waste which can lead to toxicity. Think of it like this, if we keep putting our household rubbish out near the bin, but the refuse collection does not take our rubbish away, we get a build up of rubbish which starts to rot and becomes toxic. Not a pleasant environment to live in! When the lymph flow stops and our metabolic waste is not being collected, our cells are bathing in toxic waste. This is equally unpleasant for our health. In addition, chronic stress is releasing additional chemicals in to the bloodstream that we need to eliminate from the body. This puts more strain on our already overloaded systems.
Therefore, managing our stress levels is critically important to our lymphatic system as well as all of our internal systems. There are many ways in which we can manage our stress levels and we will be discussing this in more detail later in the book.
Otherwise known as manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), this is another method to get a sluggish lymphatic system moving again. MLD is often an important part of lymphoedema treatment to help stimulate lymph flow. It is a specialist massage technique that is offered from qualified MLD specialists. It involves a very light pressure combined with soft pumping movements in the direction of the lymph vessels and nodes. There is a simplified version that you can learn to do at home called simple lymphatic drainage (SLD), however, it is important to learn these skills from a specialist and also advisable to consult with your doctor before considering this.
In this article, we've learned that the lymphatic system plays a critically important role in our health by removing waste products from metabolic processes. It is certainly the unsung hero that helps to detox our bodies, working behind the scenes 24/7. However, if we don't look after our lymphatic system, it can slow down and become sluggish, which may result in the immune system being compromised. Maybe its time to start rebounding!
Sports & fitness nutritionist, researcher and author on a mission to improve the human condition. Focusing on evidence-based and outcome-based nutrition, training, mindset & environment