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Understanding the lymphatic system provides insights into the body’s profound ability to care for itself. In Ayurveda it is the first system we treat, but in the west, it is simply not addressed until a frightening diagnosis is made.
Perhaps the most forgotten, under-studied and least understood system in the body is the lymphatic system. The lymph travels with the nerves, arteries and veins and is by itself twice as big as the arterial blood supply system – and maybe twice as important. The lymphatic system removes waste and from every cell in your body while regulating the immune system.
When I co-directed an Ayurvedic cancer center with Deepak Chopra, one of my jobs was to train and certify medical doctors in Ayurveda. My students were constantly telling me, “We were never taught such details about the lymphatic system!” They knew it was a place where cancers reside and were taught to remove cancerous lymph nodes, but the purpose of this system was never really discussed.
Treating the Cause
In the west, when we go to the doctor for a blood test and are told we have high cholesterol, we are prescribed a statin drug to lower the cholesterol and prevent heart disease. However this doesn’t treat the cause of the high cholesterol. While lowering cholesterol is important, combining western medicine strategies with natural strategies including lifestyle and diet is also important.
The most important question that often eludes western medicine is, “What is the cause of high cholesterol?” The cause may be related to excess stress, which causes poor drainage of the lymphatic system. This system drains waste from the blood and just about every other cell in your body. Doesn’t it make sense that if we measure the blood as it goes into the cell, we should also measure the filtered blood plasma or lymph as it leaves the cell? The ability for the blood to enter and leave a cell and intracellular spaces as lymphatic fluid is one of the most important processes in the human body. Without it, we would die in just a few hours!
Your lymph is your body’s biggest drain – keep it unclogged!
Keep Your Body’s Drains Clean
The lymphatic system is like the drains in your house and the blood is like the faucets. If the drains are clogged in your sink or toilet, do you only clean out the faucets? I hope not! You would clean the drains. The biggest drain we have in the body is the lymphatic system, which can stay clogged for many years. This forces us to adapt to an environment of toxins that stresses and weakens immunity and other important pathways of detoxification.
As we all age, it is the ability to detoxify well and eliminate waste efficiently that will determine longevity and optimal health.
When the lymph system becomes congested and loses its ability to remove waste well, the body will start to speak to us. The signs of circulatory congestion ensue. The key is to learn to listen while the body is still whispering, and not wait until it starts screaming.
Symptoms of Lymphatic Congestion
Do you experience any of these lymphatic congestion symptoms?
- Rings get tight on fingers
- Soreness and/or stiffness in the morning
- Feeling tired
- Itchy skin
- Holding on to water
- Breast swelling or soreness with each cycle
- Dry skin
- Brain fog
- Cold hands and feet
And this is only the short list! Almost every health concern can be linked to poor waste removal in the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is unique because it has more than one function. Not only is it designed for detoxification, the immune system’s B and T cells are most active in the lymph nodes of the body. If the lymph is boggy and sluggish our immune response may be compromised.
3 Major Causes Of Lymphatic Congestion
- Stress has been identified as the cause of about 80% of all chronic health issues. The chemistry of stress is degenerative and lymph congesting.
- Chronic digestive imbalances may irritate intestinal villi, which is a classic reason for lymph congestion. As the majority of the lymph in the body surrounds the gut (Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissues – GALT), the quality of the villi are critical for proper lymph flow, detoxification, assimilation and immunity.
- Iodine deficiency is also a common cause of lymphatic congestion. Iodine protects us from a toxic environment and supports the lymph at the cellular level.
Stress Creates an Acidic Environment
When under stress, the body is forced to manufacture and secrete excess stress-fighting hormones to boost energy. The waste products of these hormones are called free radicals, which may be a leading cause of pre-mature aging. What’s worse is that these hormones and the free radicals are very acidic, which alters the blood and cellular chemistry to become less alkaline and more acidic.
Eat with the Seasons
The lymphatic system drains best in a more alkaline environment. This is illustrated in nature when we watch squirrels eat nuts in the winter. Nuts are an acidic, warming food that help insulate the squirrel during a cold winter. Acidic foods that are typically harvested in the winter help the body hold onto fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins. If a squirrel ate broccoli during a cold Vermont winter they would alkalize their systems, trigger a lymph detox, and likely freeze to death! Fortunately, broccoli doesn’t grow in Vermont in the winter, so most squirrels don’t run into this problem.
Humans, on the other hand, did not get this memo. We seem to eat anything anytime and have truly lost our connection to nature. The harvest is our link to nature, and the preventive medicine which ensures that our delicate balance with nature is always maintained. If you are interested in digging deeper into the relationship of our health and nature’s harvest, please read my book The 3-Season Diet.
How to Treat Stress
Stress creates an exhausting chemistry, and often leaves us depleted. Once exhausted, the body does not have the energy required to stay calm under stress and to sedate ourselves so we can stay asleep at night. This can create chronic fatigue, mood issues and irritability.
Hydrate to De-congest Your Lymph
While still wrapping up winter and preparing the body to cleanse this spring, there are a few lymph-moving techniques that are very appropriate and necessary for this time.
One of the most common causes of lymph congestion is dehydration. Water, and only water, can adequately rehydrate the body. The best lymph-moving rehydration technique is to sip hot water every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Do it religiously for one day. If by the end of that day you are experiencing a dry mouth and are now thirsty for this once tasteless sip of hot water, this is a good indication you are dehydrated and your lymph is congested. If this happens, try this rehydration therapy: sip hot water every 10-15 minutes for 2 weeks straight. Keep a thermos of hot water nearby to make it easy to follow this protocol.
In addition to sipping hot water as part of the lymph-moving rehydration technique, try to drink 1/2 your ideal body weight in ounces per day for two weeks as well. For example, if you weigh 140 lbs, drink 70 ounces of water (almost 9 glasses) per day.
De-congesting Your Lymph
If you are experiencing any of the lymph-related symptoms mentioned in the chart above, please consider preparing your body for a cleanse this spring, or with an herb called Manjistha, which means ‘red root.’ Please read up on Manjistha, as it is my favorite lymph de-stagnating herb and may be just the right support to start getting your lymph moving now before you detox.
Remember, before you jump into a cleansing program of any kind, be sure that the detoxification channels – namely your lymph – are moving. Detoxifying the body into a congested lymphatic system is one of the main causes of detox and cleansing reactions, which are easily avoided with the right preparation.
Eat Red Foods
All red-staining foods tend to be great lymph-movers. Manjistha is a red root traditionally used as a dye that is known for its great lymph-moving properties. Berries, cherries, pomegranate, beets, and cranberries were all traditionally used as dyes and as natural lymph moving and detoxifying agents.
Beets in particular also have one other very important property that make them the top food on my list right now. They thin the bile. Bile is responsible for about 80% of the immune response in the gut, it regulates the stool, digests good fat and gets rid of bad fat. Beets also scrub the villi of the gut, which is where the digestive lymph originates. Beets make a great food for your lymph.
Make sure you eat your red foods for optimal lymph function!