Learn more about your body’s largest circulatory system and how it relates to immunity, longevity, and so much more! Plus, download our free ebook on the Miracle of Lymph.
Why the Lymphatic System is Important
Understanding the lymphatic system provides insights into the body’s profound ability to care for itself. In Ayurveda, the lymphatic system is the first system we treat, but in the West, it’s usually not addressed until a frightening diagnosis is made. In fact, it may be the least understood system in the body.
When I co-directed an Ayurvedic 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’s a place where impurities reside, and were taught medical treatments related to it, but the purpose of this system was never really discussed.
What is Lymph and the Lymphatic System?
Lymph is a colorless fluid carrying white blood cells. It travels through your lymphatic system with your nerves, arteries, and veins to carry fat and bacteria into the body’s detox systems.
In essence, the lymphatic system—which is twice as big as the arterial blood supply system, and maybe twice as important—removes waste from your blood and every cell in your body. The lymphatic system is the largest circulatory system in the body and is unique in that 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 your lymph is boggy and sluggish, your immune response may be compromised. In Ayurveda, lymph is integral to the study of longevity, or rasayana.
The lymphatic system is like the drains in your house and your blood is like the faucets. If the drains are clogged in your sink or toilet, do you only clean out the faucets? Of course not! You clean the drains. Without proper maintenance and care, the lymphatic system can stay clogged for many years.
Types of Lymph
There are areas of lymphatic concentration linked to specific health concerns. For example, the mucus-associated lymphatic tissue, or MALT, represents all lymph in the inner skin or mucus membranes. It includes the GALT, BALT, LALT, and SALT, which I describe below.2
GALT, or gut-associated lymphatic tissue, is a concentration of lymphatic vessels surrounding the large intestine. Improper function of the GALT is linked to congestion and fatty build-up around the waist.3
There are newly discovered lymphatics in the brain and central nervous system called glymphatics. Each year, the glymphatics drain three pounds of toxins and plaque out of the brain in your sleep. Congestion in these has been linked to compromised cognitive function, mood, and vitality.6,7
SALT, or skin-associated lymphatic tissue, resides under our skin. It serves as an immune army to protect us from the outside world.8
Mesentery lymph, or the lymphatics that line the small intestines, are part of the body’s primary defense against food intolerance and toxicity. The lymph-rich mesentery has only recently been labelled an organ because of the highly complex role it plays in digestion and immunity.9-11
There are also concentrations of lymph in the upper respiratory system called larynx-associated lymphatic tissue (LALT) and bronchial-associated lymphatic tissue (BALT). These provide upper respiratory immune support.10
Clearly, the lymphatic system is quite pervasive, with concentrations in key areas. If these areas of lymph concentration become congested, there is typically a signal.
The lymphatic system also serves as the body’s waste management system, escorting toxic waste and undigested proteins and fats to the liver for detoxification. When this system becomes congested, you may experience signs of toxicity. For example, when SALT is congested, toxins are routed directly to the surface, resulting in skin irritation.
Symptoms of Lymphatic Congestion
When your lymphatic system is congested, you can experience a whole host of uncomfortable issues. Symptoms can include:
- 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
- Breast swelling or soreness with each cycle
- Dry skin
- Mild rash or acne
- Mild headaches
- Elevated histamine and irritation due to common environmental allergens
- Occasional constipation, diarrhea, or mucus in the stool
Almost every one of these health concerns can be linked to poor waste removal in the lymphatic system. When the lymph system becomes congested and loses its ability to remove waste efficiently, 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.
4 Major Causes of Lymphatic Congestion
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 address why you have high cholesterol in the first place.
The cause of your high cholesterol, for example, may be related to excess stress, which leads to poor drainage of the lymphatic system. So a congested lymphatic system can be the cause and the symptom of many health concerns.
While there are a lot of reasons lymph can become congested, here are the most common four:
- Stress has been identified as the cause of about 80% of all chronic health issues. The chemistry of stress is depleting, degenerative, and lymph congesting. 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. 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 lead to chronic fatigue, mood issues. irritability, and more, including pre-mature aging.
- Digestive imbalances may irritate intestinal villi–a classic reason for lymph congestion. As the majority of the lymph in the body surrounds the gut (called gut associated lymphatic tissues, or 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 helps to mitigate the effects of a toxic environment and supports the lymph at the cellular level.
- Dehydration is one of the most common causes of lymph congestion. 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’re 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 you experience this, try 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 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.
Diet and Your Lymphatic System
Stress hormones and associated free radicals are very acidic, which alters the blood and cellular chemistry to become less alkaline and more acidic. And 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 helps insulate. They are typically harvested in the winter to 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 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 at any time and have truly lost our connection to nature. The harvest is our link to nature and preventive medicine.
Why You Should Eat Red Foods for a Healthy Lymph System
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.1
Make sure you eat your red foods for optimal lymph function.
See also Eat Red: Lymph-Cleansing Foods
Decongest and Detox Your Lymph
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For a deeper dive into understanding the lymphatic system, download my free Miracle of Lymph eBook.