Until recently, many people — even some scientists — thought that the lymphatic system played second fiddle to the vascular system. Now, though, we know that this other circulation system is just as important as the one that pumps blood. Here's how to keep it humming along.
So, What's the Lymphatic System?
Just as your vascular system has a network of blood vessels and veins to move blood, your lymphatic system has a network of lymph vessels to move fluid, the Cleveland Clinic explains. While blood brings nutrients and other substances into your tissues, the lymph vessels drain excess fluid from tissues and transport it to the lymph nodes. There, waste, bacteria and toxins are filtered out.
In addition, special white blood cells in the lymph fluid, called lymphocytes, are there to root out foreign invaders, giving the lymphatic system a key role in your immune system, states the National Cancer Institute. The lymphatic system also absorbs fats and fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E and K, from your digestive system and moves them to your bloodstream.
If you notice swelling in your extremities—hands, arms, legs or feet—that could be a sign that lymphatic drainage isn't working as it should and fluid is building up in these parts of your body, says Marlisa Brown, RD, CDE, CDN, a registered dietitian, American Association of Diabetes Educators spokesperson, president of Total Wellness, Inc., in New York and author of The Gluten-Free, Hassle-Free Cookbook. Your doctor may recommend using a compression stocking to help push the fluid back into your lymphatic system.
Boosts for Your Lymphatic System
While having a healthy lymphatic system can help prevent illness and keep other body systems working well, Brown says you don't need a special cleanse or detox for that. "Going to extremes, like long fasts or taking a lot of supplements without knowing how they'll interact with your unique health profile, can be dangerous," she says. Rather, she says it would be better to adopt long-term, healthier habits that help keep your heart, lungs, digestive system and lymphatic system running better.
Give your diet a checkup. Have more and more processed foods been finding their way onto your plate? "Cold cuts, candy, cake, sugar-sweetened drinks—take out all the junk and add back nutritional foods, starting with whole fruits and vegetables, allowing treats only on occasion," Brown suggests. Commit by inking the healthier choices on paper or type them into your phone's diet tracker, and aim for a wide variety. "Different types of produce in a variety of colors will provide many health benefits," Brown says. "We don't know enough to put them all in a pill, so you need to eat them."
Have more whole grains. "Whole grains are better for your overall health," she says. "Most have more of a chew to them, unlike white bread that practically melts in your mouth."
The lymphatic system also transports proteins throughout your body, so help it out by selecting good protein sources, like skinless poultry, fish and lean meat. "This could also mean more soy and more beans for vegetarians," says Brown. And choose the healthiest fats, such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats in their liquid state.
"There are botanicals and herbs that may boost the lymphatic system, but they should only be included if recommended by a licensed health practitioner," Brown cautions. For instance, a naturopathic physician or a doctor who specializes in integrative medicine has the appropriate training to evaluate your specific needs.
Stay hydrated. Plain old water is still a great way to get your fluids, 7 to 10 eight-ounce glasses a day on average. Beware of alkaline and other enhanced waters. "Many have electrolytes added," Brown says. "If that's all you drink, they could upset the natural balance of minerals like sodium and potassium, especially if you're on medications."
Do 150 minutes of activity every week. Exercise is excellent for boosting metabolism and bringing oxygen to the lymphatic, vascular and respiratory systems. If you're a regular exerciser, step up to a more intense plan. "If you've been sedentary or have health limitations, take it slow," Brown says. "You could begin with seated exercises for two to three minutes at a time, four or more times a day. Build up as you can and consider a walking plan." Aerobic and anaerobic (weight training) activities are both important for the lymphatic system, according to the John Stoddard Cancer Center., in Des Moines, Ia.
Minimize your exposure to toxins. This means the thousands of chemicals in the environment, whether pesticides in foods—wash everything before you eat it—or secondhand smoke.
Manage stress. Stress decreases those helpful lymphocytes, increasing your risk for infection, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Two effective de-stressors are mindfulness meditation and yoga. If safe for you, the inverted poses in yoga help circulate lymph and boost its filtering ability.
Conventional forms of massage can help with stress and sore muscles. For swelling, especially after a sports injury, a very specific practice called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) can help the lymphatic system do its job. It uses light pressure with different hand movements, according to a February 2016 report in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation. Look for a massage therapist who had been certified in the practice by a respected organization such as the Lymphology Association of North America. You might also try exercises that target swelling.
The Bottom Line
"Be moderate about changes you make, pay attention and stop if something doesn't feel good," Brown advises. "Many people don't listen to their body's cues," she says, adding that dizziness, pain or nausea "are signs to stop, not push forward."
"Also, if you haven't had a medical checkup recently, see your doctor for blood work and a blood pressure measurement," she says. "The lymphatic system can help with healing, but it needs your help, so make sure you get any needed medical treatments taken care of."
- Cleveland Clinic: “What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out?”
- National Cancer Institute: “Introduction to the Lymphatic System.”
- John Stoddard Cancer Center: “The Importance of Your Lymphatic System.”
- Journal of Sports Rehabilitation: “The Effectiveness of Manual Lymphatic Drainage in Patients With Orthopedic Injuries.”