Your body is naturally designed to heal and find balance. One of the key body systems for clearing wastes and maintaining healthy circulation is the lymphatic system. Symptoms ranging from cellulite to bloating can all be related to congestion within the lymphatic system.
The Lymphatic System: What It Does
The lymphatic system is made up of tissues that produce, store, and transport white blood cells and includes a complex network of vessels, ducts, lymph nodes, the spleen, the thymus, the adenoids, and the tonsils. This expansive system is found throughout your body, removing waste from every cell while helping to regulate the immune system.
Lymph is the fluid that flows throughout the lymphatic system; it is made up of different components as it goes through different parts of the body. Sometimes it contains proteins, other times it contains bacteria and fats. Regardless of the content of the lymph at any given time, it must flow freely to ensure that waste products do not build up in the tissues. Breathing and other muscle movements help to propel lymph fluid and transport it through many filtration points known as lymph nodes. These lymph nodes contain collections of white blood cells (lymphocytes) that identify and help destroy harmful pathogens or toxins.
The Lymphatic System: Why It Matters
This network of lymphatic vessels and nodes acts like a giant drainage and filtration system for the body. Just like the plumbing in your home, your lymphatic system needs to stay unclogged and flowing well for it to work properly. When the lymph flow becomes stagnant and congested, wastes and toxins begin to build up. This can lead to weak immunity and a wide variety of health issues.
- Water retention
- Stiffness, especially in the morning
- Brain fog
- Itchy and dry skin
- Stubborn weight gain
- Chronic sinusitis, sore throats, colds, and ear issues
- Breast swelling with the menstrual cycle
- Swollen glands
- Cold hands and feet
There are a variety of causes to lymphatic congestion. Although the body is naturally designed to cleanse itself of wastes and toxins, imbalances can throw off your ability to detoxify and allow wastes to build up. Stress and digestive imbalances are two major causes of lymphatic congestion that impair your ability to cleanse efficiently and are discussed below.
Cause of Lymphatic Congestion: Stress
When the body is under stress, biochemical and hormonal changes occur. Over time, this stress chemistry contributes to inflammation that can injure cells and create waste. This clogs up the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is also directly stimulated by fibers of the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated as part of the stress response. Studies in mice show that chronic stress can even remodel lymphatic vasculature and lead to the spread of cancer.
Cause of Lymphatic Congestion: Digestive Imbalance
The digestive system is particularly vulnerable to the presence of stress, especially when it becomes chronic, and the lymphatic system is closely intertwined with the gastrointestinal tract. The largest collection of lymphatic vessels in the body, known as the gut associated lymphatic tissues (GALT), surround the gastrointestinal tract.
The GALT is located in close proximity to the intestinal villi, where nutrient absorption occurs. A healthy intestinal lymphatic system is necessary for maintaining a balanced microbiome and upholding the integrity of the intestinal lining. This barrier helps keep out harmful toxins and pathogens while selectively allowing for absorption of nutrients. The intestinal lymphatics also play a key role in delivering absorbed dietary fats to the liver for processing.
When the intestines become inflamed or irritated from chemical additives in food, food allergies or sensitivities, or a diet of too many processed foods, the GALT can become congested. This is a major cause of stagnant lymph flow, poor detoxification, digestive woes, and impaired immunity.
Decongest Your Lymphatic System to Rebalance Your Body
If you are experiencing symptoms of lymphatic congestion, decongesting your lymph system may hold the key to rejuvenation and rebalancing of your body. Opening up your lymphatic channels is also crucial before you jump into any other type of detoxification program. (As with any cleansing or detoxification program, be sure to check with your physician before making changes that are appropriate for you.) Try these six steps to rebalance your body.
1. Stay Hydrated
Since lymph is made up of about 95 percent water, adequate hydration is necessary to keep it flowing freely. Stay well-hydrated by following the Ayurvedic practice of sipping warm, purified water; sip it throughout the day to keep dehydration at bay.
Adding some freshly-squeezed lemon to your water first thing in the morning that can help to flush toxins out of your system that may have built up overnight. Avoid sugar-laden soft drinks, processed juices, sports drinks, and alcohol, which add an additional metabolic burden on the body. It is also wise to steer clear of too much caffeine, which dehydrates the body.
2. Heal Your Gut
A sluggish digestive tract contributes to congestion within the lymphatic system, so good gut health is fundamental for lymphatic flow. Healing and maintaining a healthy gut requires removing factors that cause irritation and imbalance, repairing the gut lining, and balancing the microbiome within the gut.
Follow a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet that is individualized for your unique needs and sensitivities. Omega-3 fatty acids, leafy-green veggies, fat-soluble vitamins A and D, and balanced probiotics can often help heal the intestinal lining, reduce inflammation, and provide a diverse array of beneficial bacteria. This makes your digestive tract more resilient to the harmful impacts of stress and keeps the GALT healthy.
3. Eat Lymph-Cleansing Raw Red Foods
Ayurvedic medicine teaches that naturally red foods like pomegranates, cherries, cranberries, and beets help to keep the lymph moving freely. The naturally occurring enzymes, antioxidants, and bioflavonoids in these raw fruits and vegetables help to break down toxic buildup and combat free radicals, while the fiber in produce promotes regular elimination and cleansing of the intestinal villi to keep the intestinal lymphatic system healthy.
Beets appear to be especially promising for reducing inflammation. Raw beets are powerful lymphatic cleansers since they thin the bile for more effective fat digestion and scrub the intestinal villi where the lymphatic vessels originate to keep the lymph flowing. Try fresh raw beet juice or grated raw beets in your salad to enjoy these lymph-cleansing benefits.
4. Dress Smart
Since the lymph does not have a mechanical pump to propel it through the body, it relies on unrestricted flow and natural muscle movement to keep flowing. One simple way to prevent restricting lymphatic flow is to avoid tight clothing.
Wearing tight fitting or restraining garments, like a bra with an underwire, or tight briefs or jeans, can restrict the drainage of lymph fluids from surrounding tissues. Look for looser-fitting clothing. It is especially important to choose unrestricting clothing when sleeping since the body carries out extensive detoxification activities during sleep.
5. Move Your Lymph Naturally
In addition to avoiding unnecessary restriction from tight clothing, you can boost the natural movement of the lymphatic fluid with physical activity and massage or self-massage. You may notice that fluid builds up and your legs get swollen when you sit for long periods of time. This is due to stagnation of lymph flow and can be prevented by frequent moving, massage, and stretching.
The rhythmic tensing and relaxing of the muscles during physical movement compresses the tissues to propel fluid through the lymphatic channels. Rebounding or bouncing on a mini-trampoline or exercise ball is one way to help pump and decongest the lymphatic fluid throughout the body.
Dry brushing, known as garshana in Ayurvedic medicine, and lymphatic massage also help to support healthy lymphatic flow in the skin-associated lymphatic tissue. The natural bristles of a dry brush encourage movement of the lymph and blood in the underlying tissues, which helps increase circulation and move out built-up toxins. Try brushing or massaging your body gently for 10 minutes each morning, working toward the heart and paying special attention to the head, neck, feet, breasts, and abdomen where lymphatic vessels are concentrated.
6. Breathe and Remain Mindful
Physical and emotional stress contribute to lymph congestion, so it is important to have an effective routine for coping with daily stress. Two excellent ways to relax and boost lymphatic flow are laughter and deep breathing. Slow, deep breathing not only helps to relieve tension and anxiety but also moves the diaphragm and abdominal muscles to push lymph through the vessels.
In addition to deep-breathing exercises, there are many other mindfulness practices to help you minimize the impact of stress on your lymphatic system, digestion, and overall health:
When you learn to understand your emotions and responses to stress and adopt healthy ways to become more mindful and manage stress, your lymph and life will flow more smoothly.
Incorporate these daily habits into your routine to keep your lymph flowing well. This will support natural revitalization and cleansing of your body for vibrant skin, digestion, and health!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.