Your lymphatic system is your major detoxing organ, but if it overfills, you can suffer from a raft of conditions. Cate Montana explains traditional approaches that can keep things flowing.
The existence of the lymph system has been known since the time of Hippocrates (460–370 BC). Its purpose was thought to be related to digestion and elimination, but its precise function and mechanics remained obscure for many centuries.
Just as the cardiovascular system circulates blood throughout the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and cells, the lymphatic system transports lymph, a relatively clear liquid that naturally drains from our tissues and cells. Lymph is comprised of white blood cells (phagocytes and lymphocytes) and other immune-related cells, protein molecules, glucose, salts and other minerals, fats and nutrients. The lymph system regulates our body fluids and also serves as the major “garbage collection” system in the body.
Above all, the lymphatic system plays an integral role in the body’s immune functions. Two kinds of lymphocytes predominate in lymph: T lymphocytes (T cells) manage the body’s immune system responses, and B lymphocytes (B cells) make antibodies.
T cells attack and destroy tumor cells and abnormal or infected cells. B cell antibodies attack and neutralize viruses, bacteria and other dangerous foreign substances. B cells also have what’s called a secondary immune response because they remember foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. The memory function enables them to quickly produce the correct antibodies as needed. Both T and B cells are critical to the effective function of the immune system.
Phagocytes (there are several types: macrophages, monocytes and neutrophils, mast cells and dendritic cells) surround and absorb various pathogens, such as bacteria, foreign substances, microbes, dead cells, fats, proteins, minerals and cancer cells.
Lymph is carried out of our tissues via lymphatic microvessels, and then the debris created by the actions of the lymphocytes and phagocytes is filtered out through the approximately 600 lymph nodes scattered throughout the body. Lymph nodes are kidney bean-sized and -shaped glands comprised of lymph tissue, white blood cells, dendritic cells (cells that initiate immune responses), macrophages (white blood cells that eat pathogens) and plasma cells. The nodes themselves also create lymphocytes and other cells that serve the immune system.
The most familiar lymph node sites are in the armpits, neck, abdomen, chest and groin areas. From the nodes, lymph waste is dumped into the bloodstream via the right and left lymphatic ducts. The left duct is the larger of two major lymphatic ducts in the body and is called the thoracic duct or alimentary duct. These waste products are then filtered out of the bloodstream by the liver, kidneys and spleen and dumped into the urinary tract and bowels and eliminated from the body.
Interestingly, for a long time, the brain was not considered part of the lymphatic system because it appeared to lack lymphatic vessels. However, that view changed in 2015 when a group of scientists discovered lymphatic vessels in the brains of mice that moved cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain, removing a considerable amount of waste.1
Because the brain’s glial cells manage the system, “they now call your brain lymphatic system the ‘glymphatic system’,” says Dr John Douillard, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and founder of LifeSpa in Colorado (LifeSpa.com). “The glymphatic system processes about three pounds of plaque and garbage out of your head every year while you sleep!”
Where does all that “garbage” in our lymph system come from? According to Douillard, the fundamental culprit is poor digestion. “If you have poor digestion, then you’re eventually going to have problems taking those undigested foods into the garbage can, which is your lymph system. Too much garbage in the lymphatic system pushes the waste into your skin, your joints and your brain, creating all sorts of things people have issues with, like brain fog, gaining weight, skin rashes, tiredness, lethargy, and compromised immune function.
“Long-haul Covid is showing a congestion in the brain lymph system. And, of course, with Covid you have a situation where the immune system has been compromised. And if the lymph system is stuck and bogged down, you’ll be more vulnerable to an immune event in the first place. Whatever your digestion fails to assimilate and your lymph system and elimination channels can’t deal with ends up lodging in the body and is the primary cause of disease.”
The lymphatic system is comparable to the circulatory system, with its own fluid, vessels and organs. Major organs related to the lymph system are:
There are many different approaches to cleansing the lymphatic system. Lymphatic massage is designed to drain accumulated toxins out of the lymph nodes and stimulate the circulation of lymph through the tissues. Acupuncture is well known for its ability to stimulate, balance and tonify the lymphatic system.
Acupuncture is also effective for directly stimulating and balancing the various organs of the lymph system, especially the spleen and thymus gland. The spleen, which contains lymphocytes and macrophages, stores and filters blood, controlling the number and types of blood cells in the body. The thymus is the first stop for lymphocytes after they’re made in your bone marrow. Here, they mature and become specialized T cells.
Many herbs can be used as tonics to stimulate and cleanse the lymph system. Because the lymph system doesn’t have a central “pumping” mechanism comparable to the heart in the circulatory system, exercise is vital to lymph system health and circulation. Swimming, walking, jogging and doing jumping jacks are all great. Rebounding on a mini trampoline is considered one of the most effective exercises to get the lymph system moving. Plus, it’s fun. Inversion tables, devices that let you hang upside down to relieve pressure on the spine and stretch your muscles, also get things moving.
Deep breathing exercises that get the diaphragm pumping, like pranayama breathing, help pump lymph. Dry brushing the skin to get the general circulation going through the tissues also aids in lymph flow, as does alternating hot and cold water in the shower in the morning. Hydration is essential to healthy lymph flow. Some foods promote the movement of lymph through the tissues, such as red berries and beets, leafy green veggies and many nuts. And there are foods to avoid, such as highly processed foods, white sugar and artificial sweeteners.
“But cleansing the lymphatic system and moving lymph is not always the final answer,” says Douillard. “Often the more important thing to do is treat the cause of poor lymphatic flow and drainage in the first place.”
Peter Jackson-Main, ND, herbalist, iridologist and academic director and herbal medicine course director at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in the UK, concurs. “Doing a lymph cleansing is the deepest level that you can go to with detoxification because the lymph picks up stuff from really tucked-away, out of the way places within the tissue structures that don’t even have any blood circulation. Any cells that are putting out junk that needs to be cleared away, that’s the job of the lymph system.
“However, if there are issues with lymph interactions with other channels of elimination and detoxification—say you’re constipated, for example—you may get backing up through the gut channels. Sure, you’re draining the lymph, but where is it going to go if the exit channels are problematic?”
Jackson-Main (TheNaturalCentre.com) specializes in putting people through a comprehensive lymphatic detox program, and the first place he starts is with the bowels. According to Jackson-Main, the gut is considered the major lymph vessel, accounting for about 50 percent of our lymph capacity. Some of that also drains into the colon.
After he makes sure the gut and colon are in good working order, he puts clients on a kidney cleanse and then a liver cleanse. Only after those three major lymph waste elimination systems have been cleared does he directly address the lymphatic system.
“I find that once you’ve got those first three things moving and you have all the exit channels sorted out, the lymph is a lot easier to work with and cleansing the lymphatic system creates a lot less problems.”
Here are the most common lymphatic system ailments:
In the Ayurvedic medical tradition, the word for lymph is rasa, which means “longevity.” The study of the lymphatic system itself is the study of longevity. According to Douillard, the key to longevity and lymphatic system cleansing is getting the digestive system working.
“Fiber is critical because it attaches to the bile produced by the liver, which is a major lymph waste disposal organ,” he says. “Fiber is what takes the bile to the toilet. The hunter-gatherers of old had about 100 grams of fiber in their diet daily and we get about 15 or 20 grams a day. And if you don’t have enough fiber, the bile has nothing to attach to and all the toxins from the lymph and bloodstream get reabsorbed back into your liver.”
Unsaturated oils in our diets, like canola and safflower oil, are another issue. According to the Ayurvedic perspective, healthy microbes in the human body can’t eat and digest these oils, which means they go directly to the liver and create congestion, in turn affecting the liver’s ability to create bile and clean the intestinal tract.
Pesticides and herbicides in our food supply literally kill the microbes in the mouth that make the enzymes that start the digestive process, as well as kill off many of the healthy gut microbes, further compromising digestive capacity and contributing to a clogged lymph system. “Of course, we blame the food,” says Douillard. “We say, ‘Oh, don’t eat meat, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat lectins, don’t eat nightshades, don’t eat gluten.’ But the reality is, you should be able to eat those foods without any problem. We’ve been eating many of them for thousands of years.”
Douillard says “bubble wrapping” our diet, eliminating difficult to digest foods just makes our digestive systems progressively weaker, in turn weakening the lymphatic and immune systems.2 “Studies now show that eating wheat, which is a hard to digest food, actually strengthens the immune system. People who eat wheat have four times more killer T cells in their blood than people who are gluten-free, and have significantly less mercury in their blood than people who are gluten-free, and the microbiome of their guts is more diversified.”3 Note that Douillard recommends consuming organic whole-grain wheat to avoid pesticides and paying attention to other ingredients in wheat products.
Stress is another big factor contributing to poor digestion and blocked lymph, or rasa. “Rasa also means emotion and it also means taste,” Douillard says. “So, it means taste, emotion and lymph. The act of eating and tasting your food in a relaxed way actually has been shown to affect the quality of the food we eat. That, in turn, affects the quality of digestion. If I’m stressed, proteins don’t get broken down properly in the lymph and then that creates lymph congestion, which directly links to immune system compromise and so many of the problems we see today.”
Several herbs called lymphatic alteratives work through a variety of channels to alter metabolic processes in a gradual way, restoring healthy function to specific systems (lymph, elimination, circulation, etc.).
“The alterative category is often known for the detoxification of the blood and lymph,” says Jackson-Main. “Sometimes blood and lymph cleansers are the same herbs, but sometimes there are specific herbs that are specific to the lymph system itself. One of the best-known herbs in the world for lymph is echinacea.”
Echinacea helps clean up the lymph system in a number of different ways, but its main action is promoting the production of new phagocytes, large white blood cells that have the task of engulfing, breaking down and eliminating foreign materials, whether those are microbes or general cellular debris.
These are some other alteratives that help cleanse the lymph system while supporting the liver, digestion and the endocrine system’s creation of hormones:
Alteratives can be taken in extract or tincture form in water. (Extracts have a longer shelf life and are usually stronger than tinctures, which are extracts utilizing an alcohol base.) Just follow dose directions on the label.
An extremely powerful plant with strong effects on the immune system is pokeroot, also called pokeweed. “It’s a very powerful alterative plant that can have unpredictable effects,” says Jackson-Main, “so when we’re using it, we have to bear in mind that the dose could be critical. I consider this a plant for advanced herbal prescription only.”
For a DIY approach to lymphatic cleansing, Jackson-Main recommends burdock root. He says it’s highly effective for cleansing the kidneys and liver. As well, it’s an excellent herb for reconditioning the skin and healing skin pathologies like eczema and psoriasis.
Nettle leaf is also good in a general at-home detox that affects lymph as well as the kidneys and liver. Another herb not often considered for detoxification of the lymph is calendula. The flowers steeped in hot water for a tea are excellent for a gentle cleansing of the lymphatic system. Burdock, nettle leaf and calendula are all available in liquid tincture or extract forms.
If spring is coming on, cleavers, also called goose grass, Velcro plant or sticky willy, have a fantastic reputation for lymphatic cleansing. Cleavers come up in spring all over the world. Picked fresh, they’re great as a spring cleanser to make sure we’re getting rid of all the lymphatic “slush” that’s built up over the winter.
Cleavers can be juiced or blended and combined with fruit to mask their bitter flavor. Or you can steep them in cold filtered water, then strain them out and sweeten the water with honey.
Another advantage to cleavers is they’re a diuretic. “Remember, the lymph system doesn’t have a direct output to get rid of its waste,” says Jackson-Main. “It has to go through another channel—through the bowels or maybe the urinary tract. Cleavers are an especially effective yet gentle herb that is not only a lymphatic cleanser, it’s also a diuretic that aids the kidneys in releasing waste and getting it out of the system.”
Cold cleaver infusion: Gather fresh cleaver leaves and rub them between your hands, bruising the leaves. Place leaves in a cup and pour cold filtered water over them. Let sit for 12 to 24 hours. Drink the liquid infusion in the morning for a gentle yet powerful lymph cleanse.
Exercise: Jackson-Main recommends rebounding on a mini trampoline and swimming as the two top lymph-moving exercises.
Diaphragmatic breathing: Because the thoracic duct runs down through the posterior trunk and abdomen through the diaphragm, if you move your diaphragm up and down by deep breathing, it literally pumps the lymphatic duct and moves the lymph around the body.
“There are a number of breathing techniques you can do,” says Jackson-Main, “but keep it simple. Wake up in the morning and do 20 really deep breaths in and out. Don’t stop at the top or the bottom of the breath and don’t hold your breath or anything like that. Even 10 breaths will do a good job of massaging your abdominal area and have a good effect.”
Dry skin brushing: Use a stiff-bristled brush to go over your entire body before you shower. If your skin is super sensitive, you can use a dry washcloth. Try to avoid brushing warts and moles and any broken skin and/or rash areas.
Doing this every morning stimulates the peripheral lymph channels to make sure the lymph is moving effectively. Dry brushing also stimulates the nervous system, helps increase blood circulation to the skin and unclogs pores.
Contrast showers: While in the shower, alternate between hot and cold—as cold as you can stand it. At the least, finish off your hot shower with about 30 seconds of icy cold water. “That pumps the circulatory vessels, including the lymph, and gets things moving really well,” Jackson-Main says.
While there is not a direct correspondence between acupuncture points and the lymphatic system, acupuncture at certain points can affect the lymphatic system.
“An acupoint that is most closely related to the lymphatic system would be the Yin Ling Quan acupoint on the leg, which is known to regulate dampness and fluid in the body,” says Dr. Foo Shan Ju, a clinician with the Oriental Remedies Group in Singapore (OrientalRemediesGroup.com).
“While we have yet to establish a link between acupoints and lymph nodes, stimulating acupoints around the joint areas, where there tend to be high concentrations of lymph nodes, tends to be very effective for pain management, which could be linked to stimulating the lymph nodes to reduce inflammation. Studies have also shown that acupuncture in the upper limbs can help with upper-limb lymphedema, which may also be linked to improved lymphatic circulation.”
In traditional Chinese medicine theory, swollen lymph nodes happen because of inflammation or a “buildup of heat toxin.” As such, Dr. Foo recommends toxin-clearing herbs like jin yin hua (Japanese honeysuckle), pu gong ying (dandelion) and ju hua (chrysanthemum) to reduce lymph node swelling and improve cold and flu-like symptoms. “Acupuncture on Qu Chi and He Gu points and blood-letting on the ear can also help dissipate heat instantly to help reduce swelling of lymph nodes,” she says.
If the lymph node swelling is caused by a more serious condition, like cancer, more potent herbs like xia ku cao (Spica prunellae), shan ci gu (Indian Iphigenia bulb), ru xiang (frankincense) and mo yao (myrrh) may be required to purge toxins.
These herbs are available in capsule or extract form or may be steeped to make a tea. Some are available in skin creams or oils. Japanese honeysuckle leaves and flowers are edible, but its berries should be avoided.
Dr. Foo says one highly effective approach for clearing lymph and stimulating lymph flow is electrolymphatic drainage therapy (ELT). During this noninvasive electro-sound therapy, lymph toxins are directed to flow out of the right lymphatic duct and the left thoracic duct.
“Sometimes herbs by themselves may not be fast or potent enough to drive out toxins,” says Dr Foo. “In such cases, we use the ELT simultaneously to promote toxin removal by the lymphatic system, which can boost immunity, reduce lymph node inflammation and reestablish normal lymphatic flow.”