The Lymphatic System - AP Nutritional Therapy
The Lymphatic System

The most powerful system in your body that you never hear about

If I asked you to define the lymphatic system, what would you say? Some people have heard of it but could not tell you what it is, while others have never heard of it at all. Yet the lymphatic system is one of the most important facets of our immune system.

What is the function of the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs which helps the body get rid of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials. We are exposed to toxins in our environment every day, and our bodies create toxins and waste material through normal metabolic processes. These must be filtered and removed from our bodies.

Lymph fluid flows through a network of vessels which connect to lymph nodes. The nodes contain a type of white blood cell (also called lymphocytes) which act as a filter, breaking down bacteria, viruses, and damaged or cancerous cells. The nodes trap or destroy anything harmful that the body does not need, and then the lymph fluid transports these materials back into the bloodstream to the liver or kidneys, where they are ultimately removed from the body in urine and faeces.

In addition to the immune system function, the lymphatic system also helps to maintain the balance of fluid between the blood and tissues, and it facilitates the absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients in the digestive system.

How does the lymphatic system work?

The lymphatic system is similar to the cardiovascular system in that it reaches most of the body’s tissues, and it works with the veins to return fluid from the tissues. However, unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system does not have a pump. It relies on the movement of our muscles to squeeze the fluid through the vessels.

What are the components of the lymphatic system?

Lymphatic System Diagram

OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The lymphatic system consists of:

  • Lymph fluid containing proteins, minerals, nutrients, fats, damaged cells, cancerous cells, pathogens like bacteria and viruses, and white blood cells
  • Lymph nodes
  • Lymphatic vessels – tubes which transport lymph from tissues towards collecting ducts
  • Collecting ducts – Lymphatic vessels empty the lymph into the right lymphatic duct and left lymphatic duct (also called the thoracic duct). These ducts connect to the subclavian vein (which runs below your collarbone), which returns lymph to the bloodstream. Returning lymph to the bloodstream helps to maintain normal blood volume and pressure and helps to prevent the build-up of excess fluid around the tissues (called oedema).

The key lymphatic organs in the body are:

  • Spleen: located on the left side of the body under the ribs and above the stomach. The spleen filters and stores blood, as well as produces white blood cells.
  • Thymus: located in the upper chest beneath the breastbone. The thymus matures T-cells which help fight infection.
  • Tonsils and Adenoids: these trap pathogens from food and water. They are part of the body’s first line of defence.
  • Bone Marrow: located inside larger bones, such as the hip and breastbone. White and red blood cells and platelets are made here.
  • Peyer’s Patches: located in the small intestines, these are small clumps of lymphatic tissue which monitor and destroy bacteria in the gut.
  • Appendix: located in the lower right abdomen, the appendix contains lymphoid tissue which can destroy bacteria before it gets into the intestines.

What happens when the lymphatic system malfunctions?

Swollen Lymph Nodes (lymphadenopathy): There are approximately 600-700 lymph nodes in the body (the exact number differs from person to person). These nodes can swell in response to infection, or due to a build-up of fluid, bacteria, or other immune system cells. We often mistake swollen lymph nodes for “swollen glands” when we are sick. The most common swollen nodes are under the jaw, in the armpits, or in the groin area.

Swelling (lymphoedema): the lymphatic system can become blocked due to damaged vessels or nodes, removal of nodes through surgery, radiation treatment or by scar tissue. Swelling usually occurs in the arms and legs and can range from mild to painful and disabling.

Inflammation: the lymphatic system can become compromised and stagnated as the result of the cumulative effect of poor diet, poor elimination, and acidic pH levels. In other words, digestive imbalances can reduce transit time in the bowels, which can result in constipation, which can then lead to an acidic environment of backed up waste and toxins, causing inflammation.

Chronic pain or illness: are often associated with a lymphatic problem. If your health condition does not improve despite therapy and medications, your lymphatic system may be the problem. If the body is unable to get rid of cellular waste during the healing process, inflammation cannot resolve, and healing is slowed or stunted.

Cancer (lymphoma): when lymphocytes grow and multiply uncontrollably, such as with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancerous tumours can also block ducts or nodes, interfering with the flow of fluid. The lymphatic system is critical to the body’s surveillance against cancer, and it can provide pathways for cancer to metastasize.

How can you keep your lymphatic system healthy?

The three most important tools to keep your lymphatic system healthy are movement, lymphatic massage and breath work.

Movement: As the lymphatic system does not have a pump, it relies on the movement of our muscles to push the fluid around the body. Regular movement throughout the day is essential. This can take the form of low or high impact exercise or rebounding on a mini trampoline.

Lymphatic massage: which you can do yourself, is a great option as knowing where to massage most effectively can help to move fluid through the main vessels and network of nodes. This is especially effective first thing in the morning or during long sedentary periods.

Breath work: Correct breathing through the nose helps to keep the lymphatic system healthy. Mouth breathing tends to be very shallow breathing which centres on the chest. This type of breathing does not activate the diaphragm. Nasal breathing is connected with abdominal breathing, which moves the diaphragm and allows the lungs to fully inflate. Diaphragmatic breathing facilitates the movement of lymph through the deeper expansion of the lungs as well as the movement of the large diaphragm muscles, which massages the organs in the torso.

Other ways to look after your lymphatic system

Dry skin brushing – best done first thing in the morning before a shower. Start at the feet and brush in upward strokes towards the heart.

Avoid toxin exposure – eat organic food when possible to avoid exposure to pesticides, use natural cleaning and personal care products.

Hydrate – drink plenty of filtered water to help the lymph fluid move easily through the body.