Lymphatic System: Designed for Detoxification

Until recently, an entire physiological system has been ignored by conventional medicine. This system--called the lymphatic system--can have great influence on fluid balance and immune function and cellular waste removal, affecting every single system in the body. Fortunately, traditional medicines have attended to the lymphatic system to help promote wellness and recovery from disease.

What is this system, how does it work, and how can we use it to get healthy and stay healthy? Even though the lymphatic system was described thousands of years ago, western science has only recently begun to describe its function.[1]  The lymphatic system is another circulatory system, that runs alongside, but operates very differently from the cardiovascular system.

While the cardiovascular system is a continuous loop, ushering blood in one direction, the lymphatic system is a linear system that collects fluid from between cells and delivers it into the bloodstream. It plays a major role in immune function, digestion, fluid balance, and waste removal. Today, we’ll focus on how the lymphatic system helps to keep our fluids clean and in ship shape.

The lymphatic system starts at the ends, in the body’s tissues. It operates like a central vacuum system, where the extra stuff between the cells—in this case, water, waste, and a few special cells—is sucked into the tiny openings at the end of the lymphatic system. This material forms the substance that the lymphatic system transports, called lymph. Removing lymph is important because it helps the stationary cells of the tissues have a cleaner environment and more efficient communication. Like tree branches, the lymphatic vessels join into wider and wider vessels until they are collected together and ultimately deliver the lymph into the bloodstream near the heart.

Without the lymphatic system, a few things in the body wouldn’t work nearly as well. For one, cells don’t have a way to get rid of waste other than to just shove it outside of their cell membrane. This leaves the fluids outside of the cell to collect waste. When these extracellular fluids are gummed up with unnecessary material it can affect cell function, access to nutrients, and communication. If one cell isn’t working well, it may not be a big deal, but what happens when a million or a billion cells aren’t working well? Well, we get sick.

If the lymphatic system is so important, how do we help it do its job? Luckily, naturopathic doctors and other traditional medicines have recognized the importance of lymphatic health for many years. So, we have a few favorite ways to care for this vital system:

  • Drink plenty of water. The lymphatic system doesn’t pick up fluid unless there is fluid to pick up in between the cells.
  • Move as much as possible. Movement is one of the main ways that the fluid is propelled through the lymphatic system.
  • Skin brushing. Using a very soft skin brush, gently brushing the arms and legs in the direction of the heart can help improve lymph flow.
  • Castor oil packs. Applying castor oil over the abdomen, covering with flannel or old towels, followed by gentle heat can improve lymph flow in the abdomen.
  • Botanical medicine. Certain herbs are superb for helping with lymphatic drainage.

Many of the ideas listed above are highly individualized and may not be appropriate for everyone. Schedule an appointment if you’re interested in developing a plan for lymphatic health.

[1] Choi I, Lee S, Hong YK. The new era of the lymphatic system: no longer secondary to the blood vascular system. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2012;2(4):a006445.

Katy Morrison, ND, LAc