The lymphatic system is the body’s internal drainage system. It is involved in fluid recovery, immunity, and lipid absorption. It runs alongside the circulatory system, but unlike our veins and arteries, the lymphatic system has no internal pump. Instead, it requires daily muscular contractions in order to properly move around.
The tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus are all part of the lymphatic system, and are all connected by a web of lymphatic vessels. The lymph that moves through the vessels is a clear, fatty fluid produced by bone marrow, organs, and glands. It carries nutrients and removes wastes that are too big to move through veins (1).
Cancer And The Lymphatic System
Lymph moves through the body and is filtered in lymph nodes. Lymphocytes in the nodes kill abnormal cells (cancer), viruses and harmful bacteria. This dead waste matter is then transported to the liver and kidneys for detoxification and removal via the intestinal tract and kidneys.
Cancer can appear in the lymph nodes in 2 ways – it can start there, or it can spread there from somewhere else (2).
Lymphoma occurs when cancer starts in the lymph nodes, however, more often than not, cancer starts somewhere else, and then spreads throughout the lymphatic system.
When cancer cells break away from a tumour, they can travel to other areas of the body, either through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system.
This is why most cancer tests include a lymph biopsy: if cancerous cells are prevalent in lymph, its likely that they exist in other organs as well. Most of the escaped cancer cells die or are killed in the lymphatic system before they can start growing elsewhere, but when the lymphatic system is not strong enough (such as when it’s stagnant, fight off infection, or battling a main tumour elsewhere), one or two cancer cells may slip through, begin to grow, and form new tumours. This is called metastasis.
Cancer researchers and immunologists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have now discovered that cancer cells can actually infiltrate the lymphatic system by “disguising” themselves as immune cells (white blood cells) (3).
Symptoms of A Sluggish Lymphatic System
A sluggish lymphatic system can cause a variety of symptoms. Some of these include:
– Suppressed immune system (constantly getting sick)
– Feeling tired all the time
– Troubles losing weight
– Rings get tight on fingers (swollen fingers)
– Soreness and/or stiffness in the morning
– Itchy, dry skin
– Holding on to water (water retention/edema)
– Breast swelling or soreness with each cycle
– Brain fog
– Cold hands and feet
Most of these health concerns can be directly linked back to a poor waste management system in the body – aka. you have a sluggish immune system!
Three main components to lymph congestion are stress, digestive imbalances, and iodine deficiency.
De-Congesting The Lymphatic System
Keeping your lymphatic system clean and flowing is important. In fact, you can fight off 80% of all chronic disease, simply by cleansing the lymphatic system. Here are some ways you can achieve that.
Yoga helps increase circulation throughout the body, which allows the lymphatic system to transport good stuff and filter out the bad. Yoga poses that invert the legs and allow gravity to act on the lymphatic vessels are particularly helpful to keeping the system functioning optimally.
Massage is one of the best ways to encourage natural drainage of the lymph from the tissue spaces in your body. It may even increase the volume of lymph flow by up to 20 times (4), which makes it easier for the removal of toxins, bacteria and viruses.
Exercise is another great way to get your muscles moving, and therefore lymph pumping. Walking, running and strength training are wonderful, however the best exercises you can perform for lymph drainage are swimming, dancing, stretching and rebounding. The vertical motion of these exercises opens and closes the one-way values that comprise the lymphatic system (and increase lymph flow by up to 15-30 times!).
4. Dry Brushing
Another great method of improving skin tone, and increasing circulation, dry brushing should be a bi-daily commitment. With a stiff dry bristle brush, gently brush the arms and legs toward the heart before showering in the morning to get your lymph flowing. Dry brushing can also help get rid of cellulite.
5. Deep Breathing
Deep, controlled breathing, or pranayama, has a dramatic effect on the lymphatic system. The pressure and muscle stimulation of conscious deep breathing promotes lymph flow and encourages elimination of bad toxins.
I cannot stress this one enough! If you’re dehydrated, and don’t drink enough water, then your lymphatic system is going to remain stagnant. Because our lymph is fluid, it can become too thick and sludge-like in times of dehydration. Drink up to 2-3 litres of water every day to keep the lymphatic system functioning at its best.
Being deficient in iodine can cause major lymphatic congestion. Iodine is a trace element that protects us from a toxic environment, and supports the lymph at a cellular level (5). Consume foods that are high in iodine like dulse, nori, kelp, Himalayan salt, mushrooms, and beets!
8. Red Foods
All red-staining foods are great lymph movers (6). Pomegranate, beets, cherries, berries, and cranberries have been traditionally used as natural lymph moving and detoxifying agents, thanks to their specific set of phytonutrients that give them those bright red hues.
9. Green Foods
Leafy green vegetables and herbs are an excellent way to detox the system and enrich the body with chlorophyll. Chlorophyll helps to purify the blood, which in turn cleanses your lymphatic system. Spinach, kale, romaine, dill, cilantro, basil, parsley, collards, arugula, you name it – make a green smoothie and replace your morning breakfast routine with it!
10. Overall Diet
Taking care of your overall diet and eating with the seasons is crucial to maintain a healthy lymphatic system. A body that is fed poor foods on a routine basis will only remain in an acidic, diseased state. A diet that is high in processed foods, red meats, wheat, dairy, soy and refined sugar will put tremendous strain on your lymphatic system. Lymph will thicken with residual toxins, making it harder for your body to push through and eliminate. Focus on a diet rich in whole plant-based foods like raw fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and sea vegetables. If you must consume other foods, keep them to a minimum.