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In the early 1900’s, a prominent psychiatrist named Dr. Henry Cotton ran the world’s most prestigious mental institution based on the premise that depression and insanity were linked to a deep underlying infection of some kind. (1)
Dr. Cotton was famous for pulling infected teeth out of his mentally ill patients and, if that didn’t work, he would excise tonsils, testicles, ovaries and, in some cases, colons. After his death, the practice faded into obscurity until recently, when a professor at Stony Brook University suggested that certain psychiatric concerns should be considered a kind of infectious condition. (2)
There is a growing body of evidence to support this theory, and Ayurveda may have discovered this relationship thousands of years ago. In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2013, the medical records of over three million people were looked at, and it was found that any history of hospitalization for infection was associated with a 62% increased risk of later developing a mood disorder. (4) In the same study, it was found that having an autoimmune condition would increase the risk of future mood-related concerns by 45%. (4)
This relationship between the mood, brain and immune function has been recently given much more credibility due to a recent discovery. It has been long thought that the central nervous system was devoid of any lymphatic drainage, which typically governs the immune response in the body, until now! Recently the University of Virginia discovered that the brain was, in fact, drained by hidden lymphatic vessels (glymphatics) that support immune health, a healthy inflammation response and mood health. (3,7)
If the lymphatic vessels in the brain or elsewhere in the body were to become congested, the result could be an underlying immune compromise that could leave pathogens in the brain and body – increasing the risk of infection, inflammation, auto-immunity and psychiatric concerns. (1,2)
The relationship between mood and inflammation, now thought to be linked to poor lymphatic brain drainage, was recently studied in a meta-analysis which suggested that when serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors, such as Prozac, were given alongside low-dose aspirin or ibuprofen, there was a significant reduction in the need for psychiatric care. (5)
Other studies linked mood issues with elevated inflammation markers, like C-reactive protein (CRP), with psychiatric symptoms. (6) Again, possibly due to congested or poor draining brain-lymph.
Ancient Lymph Wisdom
While Dr. Cotton may have been on to something in the early 1900’s, the need to extract infected body parts will likely be unnecessary as this research unfolds. Perhaps even more interesting is the importance Ayurveda gave to the lymphatic system, or “rasa.” The lymph was considered the body’s nutrient fluid, taking nutrients on the journey from the digestive tract to the cells of the body. It was the highway for the immune system and waste removal as well. Ayurvedic therapies for congested lymph were common, and used daily as the first line of defense against ill health.
For example, thousands of years ago, Ayurvedic texts discussed lymph vessels in the brain that line the sagittal sinus in the skull, which were considered the brain drains of cerebral spinal fluid. Treatments for these lymph vessels in the brain, with techniques like nasya (nasal inhalation) and other herbal therapies such as brahmi and bacopa, were aimed at deep psychiatric and traumatic-triggered imbalances. Today, the discovery of these lymph vessels is giving researchers the link they needed to connect immunity, infection, mood and inflammation.
The lymphatic system starts as lacteals lining the intestinal tract that absorb nutrients and toxins – mostly fats and proteins. If the intestinal skin becomes irritated, the lymph around the gut, called the Gut-Associated Lymphatic Tissue (GALT), can become congested. Many experts agree that this is where 80% of the body’s immunity lies. If this major hub of lymph becomes congested, due to poor digestion or stress impacting beneficial intestinal microbes, the entire lymphatic system can become congested.
Congested lymph can back up into the Skin-Associated Lymphatic Tissue (SALT), causing a litany of skin concerns, as well as the Mucus-Associated Lymphatic Tissue (MALT), which drains all of the mucus membranes of the body and lymphatic vessels that provide immunity and toxic drainage for every cell of the body. Science has mapped the link between lymph congestion, mood, immunity and inflammatory concerns in the body and mind, and now they are finding a relationship to our long-term cognitive function as well.
How You Sleep Matters
Another study from Stony Brook University is suggesting that how you sleep could help reduce your chances of developing cognitive concerns later in life. (7)
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that a person’s body position while they sleep could affect how toxins are flushed from the brain though lymphatic vessels in the brain, called glymphatics.
Scientists used rodents to test how different sleep positions affect the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is the waste clearance system for the brain. Researchers found that lying on your side when you sleep may be the most efficient position for toxins to flush out of the brain through the glymphatics.
The study found that the rodents who were in the lateral position cleared amyloid beta about 25 percent better than when sleeping on their backs or stomach. Amyloid beta proteins contribute to brain plaque, which is linked to gradual cognitive decline. Further studies on humans still need to be done to confirm these findings. Fortunately, most folks find sleeping on their side most comfortable.