What is the lymphatic system? It’s a critical part of the immune system, vital for protecting us from illness and damaging, disease-causing inflammation. Essentially, the lymphatic system is the the body’s inner “drainage system,” a network of blood vessels and lymph nodes that carry fluids from tissues around the body into the blood and vice versa.
The lymphatic system has the primary role of protecting the body against outside threats — such as infections, bacteria and cancer cells — while helping keep fluid levels in balance.
The best way to protect the complex series of criss-crossing lymphatic vessels and “nodes” that span almost the entire body (every one except for the central nervous system) is to eat a healing diet, exercise and take steps to detoxify the body naturally.
Lymphatic vessels carry fluid that is managed through “valves,” which stop fluid from traveling the wrong way, similar to how blood flow works within the arteries and veins. In fact, the lymphatic system is very similar to the circulatory system made up of branches of veins, arteries and capillaries — both bring essential fluids around the whole body and are vital for keeping us alive.
In comparison to veins, lymph vessels are much smaller, and instead of bringing blood throughout the body, the lymphatic system carries a liquid called lymph, which stores our while blood cells. (1) Lymph is a clear, watery fluid and also carries protein molecules, salts, glucose and other substances, along with bacteria, throughout the body.
In addition to the lymph vessels and nodes, the lymphatic system (also sometimes called “the lymph system“) includes several other organs: (2)
- the tonsils (glands located at the back of your throat that filter bacteria before digestion takes place)
- the adenoids (a gland located at the back of your nose that protects the entrance to the digestive system and lungs)
- the spleen and the thymus (filtering organs that scan the blood and produce white blood cells)
How the Lymphatic System Works
Here’s how the lymphatic system works to protect us from becoming sick: We come into contact with various types of microbes, bacteria and toxins every day that enter our bodies and make their way into the lymphatic fluid. Eventually, the fluid containing these organisms can get trapped inside lymph nodes, which is where the immune system “attacks” any perceived threats by attempting to destroy them with white blood cells.
Inside the lymph nodes (which look like small, bean-shaped structures), bacteria are filtered out and white blood cells are produced, used up as part of our defensive mechanism, and then replenished.
Another important role of the lymphatic system is keeping bodily fluids in balance. When the lymphatic system works properly, we don’t experience any painful swelling or abnormal water retention.
Our blood vessels and lymphatic vessels seep fluid into and out of surrounding tissue so the fluid can be drained. Extra fluid is eliminated from the body, which stops tissue from swelling or puffing up — however, when we are stick or injured, fluids build up in the damaged area, which is why throbbing and pain occur.
You’ve probably experienced swollen lymph nodes at some point when you’ve been sick, especially the ones located near the throat or genitals that can be triggered by common infections (urinary tract infections, strep throat, colds or sore throats, etc.).
Lymph nodes are found around the body, some of the most prominent locations being the throat, groin, armpits, chest and abdomen. Lymph nodes are located close to major arteries since the lymphatic system connects to the blood flow to keep the blood clean. Within the lymph nodes is where the immune cells are created, which are critical for fighting infections and healing wounds.
The lymph nodes are able to detect when harmful organisms have made their way into the body, which prompts them to make more infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes.
Lymph fluid also makes its way through the spleen and thymus in addition to the lymph nodes before emptying into the bloodstream. The spleen is another filtering organ that is located inside the abdomen under the diaphragm. It has the important role within the immune system of removing dangerous microbes, balancing fluids, and destroying old or damaged red blood cells.
One of the most important jobs of the spleen is producing macrophages, B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes, types of white blood cells that are triggered when blood passes through the spleen and harmful substances are detected. These engulf and destroy bacteria, remove dead cells lingering in the blood, and eliminate foreign matter from the body. The thymus is located under the ribcage and has the same sort of job, filtering blood and creating or removing white blood cells.
Diseases that Damage the Lymphatic System
When the lymphatic system becomes overly stressed, symptoms and signs can include: (3)
- chronic fatigue
- swelling in lymph nodes (like throat, armpits or groin)
- muscle aches and pains
- joint pains
- sore throats and getting colds more often
- frequent infections or viruses
- fibromyalgia symptoms
- and even cancer formation
The body protects us from infection and illness by trapping microbes found in our tissues (mostly bacteria we pick up from the environment) and sending them to the lymph nodes, where they become “trapped.” This keeps the bacteria from spreading and causing further problems like viruses. Once the bacteria are trapped, lymphocytes attack and kill the bacteria.
Lymph nodes swell if you have an infection or virus — even if cancer cells are detected — because lymphocyte production increases. This is essentially how inflammation occurs. (4) Sometimes it’s noticeable when a lymph node is inflamed, such as glandular fever, which is an illness where lymph nodes become tender. Other diseases that impact the lymphatic system include:
- Lymphomas — a type cancer that starts in the lymph nodes when lymphocytes undergo changes and then multiply and form a tumors, the tumor can spread to other parts of the body
- Hodgkin’s disease — cancer of the lymphatic system
- Oedema (also called edema) — water retention and swelling caused by trapped fluid within the tissues
- Tonsillitis — infection of the tonsils in the throat, often resulting in swollen tonsils needing to be removed
- Lymphadenopathy — the lymph nodes become swollen or enlarged due to infection, sometimes several at once can swell and cause pain
- Lymphadenitis — inflammation of the lymph nodes caused by an infection of the tissue, usually a bacterial infection and often in the throat
- Splenomegaly — an enlarged spleen due to a viral infection, it can be dangerous to exercise or play contact sports when someone has this condition because any impact to a very swollen spleen can cause it to rupture
The Lymphatic System and Cancer Development
The lymphatic system is crucial for protecting us from cancer formation. When cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can get trapped inside of a nearby lymph node, which is why swollen lymph nodes are a potential sign that a cancerous tumor could be lurking (although this isn’t always the case). Many times doctors will check the lymph nodes for swelling and abnormalities when they test a patient for cancer or investigate whether existing cancer has spread.
A very important job of the immune system is creating lymphocytes, some of which make antibodies, which are proteins that destroy germs and stop infections or mutated cells from spreading. In some instances, this process doesn’t work quickly enough to fight free radical damage and stop cancer from spreading. Or malfunctions and mutated cells can start to multiply very quickly and spread.
Cancer can either start within the lymph nodes (called lymphoma), or it can spread there from somewhere else. Cancer cells that have broken away from a tumor can travel to other areas of the body through the blood or lymph fluid, where they reach other organs and continue to multiply.
Most of the time the body takes care of this process and is able to destroy small amounts of mutated cells or escaped cancerous cells before they start spreading, but it only takes a small amount of mutated cancerous cells to make their way to another part of the body before they can form new tumors (called metastasis). This can become painful and noticeable very quickly if lymph nodes become enlarged (sometimes they are big and tender enough to feel with your fingers by pushing on the skin).
Cancer found in the lymph nodes affects how the cancer is treated and what cancer “stage” someone is at. A surgeon might remove a lymph node if it becomes infected with cancer cells (called a biopsy), or if it’s too late because the cancer has spread, other treatments like chemo or radiation might be needed. One of the problems with removing lymph nodes to remove cancer cells is that this leaves the body without a way to balance fluids and remove tissue waste, which can cause tissues to become swollen and painful, called lymphedema. (5)
Many doctors use the “TNM system” to classify cancer stages, which stands for tumor, metastasis and (lymph) nodes. If there’s no cancer in the lymph nodes, a value of 0 is given; if cancer is found in a small amount of nodes and isn’t yet severe, a number between 1–3 is given; and if it’s found in many nodes, then “late-stage” cancer is diagnosed, which is stage 3–4. (6)
How to Maintain a Strong Lymphatic System
Ignoring the health of your lymphatic system means your immunity is going to suffer, and you’re more likely to deal with common illnesses and even long-term health problems. Here are five ways to boost your immune system and, moreover, support a healthy lymphatic system:
1. Reduce Inflammation and Improve Circulation
Eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, getting enough sleep and reducing stress are all critical for lowering oxidative stress and halting the body’s natural detoxification processes. The circulatory system and lymphatic system rely on one another.
While blood circulates around the body via blood vessels, some fluid naturally leaks out and makes its way into tissue. This is a normal process that brings nutrients, water and proteins to cells. The fluid also gathers cells’ waste products, like bacteria or even dead or damaged cells like cancer cells.
Tissues located around the body can become inflamed and painful when circulation slows and inflammation builds. A healthy lymphatic system nourishes muscle, joint and other tissue because lymph vessels have tiny openings that let gases, water and nutrients pass through to surrounding cells (called interstitial fluid). The fluid then drains back into the lymph vessels, then goes to the lymph glands to be filtered and finally to a larger lymphatic vessel located at the base of the neck called the thoracic duct.
The thoracic duct dumps cleaned lymph fluid back into the blood, and on and on the cycle goes — which is why circulation is important for keeping the system running smoothly, otherwise tissue can become swollen with excess waste. To keep circulation pumping and the lymphatic system functioning optimally, it’s important to load up on all the essential nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and antioxidants, you need.
2. Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The more nutrient-dense your diet, and the less chemicals entering your body, the better your lymphatic system can work. Foods that put stress on the digestive, circulatory and immune systems include common allergens (like dairy products, gluten, soy, shellfish or nightshades, for example), low-quality animal products, refined vegetable oils and processed foods that contain chemical toxins.
Anti-inflammatory foods, on the other hand, supply much-needed nutrients and antioxidants while also lowering free radical damage (also called oxidation stress) that ages the body and lowers immunity.
Some of the key high-antioxidant foods to focus on include:
- green leafy vegetables
- cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.)
- omega-3 foods like salmon and wild seafood
- nuts and seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, etc.)
- unrefined oils like extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil
- herbs and spices (ginger, turmeric, garlic, for example)
The lymphatic system works best when you move your body, which helps keep fluids circulating and nutrients reaching your cells. There’s a reason why being stagnant causes you to feel more achy, stiff and prone to becoming sick.
Any type of regular exercise and movement (such as simply walking more) is good for keeping lymph fluid flowing, but some exercise seems to be particularly beneficial, including yoga (which twists the body and helps fluid drain), high-intensity interval training (also called HIIT workouts, which is great for improving circulation) or “rebounding.“
Rebounding is growing in popularity and involves jumping a small trampoline that you can keep inside your house. It only takes up a few feet, and just five to 10 minutes of jumping daily can really get your heart rate up and help keep your lymphatic system running smoothly.
(And why not follow up exercise with a relaxing detox bath to further help improve blood flow?)
4. Massage Therapy and Foam Rolling
Foam rolling and massage therapy are both usual for preventing swelling, pain and fluid buildup with tissue. Foam rolling, also called self-myofascial release, is a type of self-massage that many people do before or after exercising. Its purpose is to help tissue repair more easily and break up muscle and tissue adhesions that can cause tightness and injuries. Foam rolling also increases blood flow to your muscles and is used to help with quicker recovery and better performance.
“Lymphatic drainage massage” is a type of specialized massage therapy that helps cells release toxins and breaks up lymph congestion. Studies have found it’s beneficial for lowering pain intensity, pain pressure and pain threshold. (7) Massages can activate the lymphatic system and help flush excess fluid from within tissues.
Some massage therapists are specially trained in manual lymphatic drainage, but any type of deep tissue massage is also beneficial. You can even massage yourself to help reduce pain in swollen lymph nodes, muscles or joints.
5. Infrared Sauna Treatment
Never heard of infrared saunas? This simple treatment is one of the best ways to naturally detox the body and support an overall healthy immune system. Infrared sauna therapy works by increasing sweat production so more toxins are removed from tissue. It can also improve blood flood and help with tissue healing, which is critical for lymphatic health.
Studies show that regular infrared sauna treatments can improve the quality of life for people living with chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and congestive heart failure. (8) People who use sauna therapy love it because it’s relaxing, healing, cost-effective, can be done within your own home and really works. Infrared saunas use heat lamps that generate infrared light waves, which make their way into tissues and promote cell regeneration along with sweating.
6. Use Supplements that Support Your Lymphatic System
Certain essential oils can be beneficial for improving blood flow and reducing swelling in lymph nodes. These include lemon, myrrh, oregano, cypress and frankincense oils.
Omega-3 fish oils and turmeric are also beneficial for improving blood flow and lowering inflammation. Supplements that can further help lymphatic drainage and detoxification include burdock root, digestive enzymes, activated charcoal and milk thistle.