The lymph is a vital, yet often overlooked, part of our immune system. The immune system comprises organs and systems that help protect the body from foreign bodies such as viruses, unhealthy bacteria and toxins. You could say the lymph is the body’s refuse system as it transports white blood cells and waste products to recycling depots (the lymph nodes) where white blood cells clean out the waste and neutralise dangerous pathogens. The cleansed lymph fluid then drains back and the whole process starts again.
While our blood races round the body pumped by the heart, lymph moves less dramatically, relying on the force of gravity and the contraction and relaxation of our muscles to push it through a network of tiny channels to the nodes which are primarily located in the groin, the armpits, behind the knees and around the neck. ‘Everything works in balance – our immune system, digestion, cell health, organs, blood and lymphatics,’ says nutritionist Sarah Flower. ‘Knock one out and it affects all the others. It’s a big mistake to ignore the lymph.’
She points out that modern living works against our lymph. Because the lymph doesn’t have a heart to help pump it around the body, it relies primarily on movement. ‘We are often too absorbed in our lives and work to remember that our bodies need to move,’ says Sarah who points out that it’s not just that so many of us have sedentary jobs – we also tend to sit down when we relax, slumping in front of the television or curling up with an iPad. Our diets are often poor, overly processed and deficient of essential nutrients; plus we are surrounded by toxins, all of which our bodies have to process. ‘Imagine what would happen if we didn’t empty waste bins in our kitchens,’ she says. ‘They would start to overflow, smell and fester. Bacteria, viruses and foreign bodies would take over. This is what happens in our bodies if we don’t have a well-functioning lymphatic system.’
Move your lymph
Any kind of exercise will help – walking, swimming, dancing; even just being more generally active in everyday life. But studies show that rebounding, bouncing on a small trampoline, is the most effective way to mobilise the lymph. ‘Research has found that just 10 minutes on a rebounder has a massive effect on a sluggish lymphatic system,’ says Sarah Flower. It works by changing the force of gravity in your body, allowing for greater blood flow, which, in turn, increases the amount of waste flushed from your cells. Lymph flow increases by as much as 15 times when you bounce, improving circulation, skin tone and detoxification.
If you don’t have space for a rebounder, try yoga. ‘Yoga postures squeeze and move the lymph,’ says yoga teacher Mangalo Upasaka. He explains that yoga works so well because the lymphatic system relies on muscle contractions of the lymph channel walls and also on large muscle activity in the body. ‘The rhythmical tensing and relaxing of the muscles during swift yoga practices such as the Sun Salute wrings out the tissues, forcing fluid into the lymph channels,’ he says.
‘Yoga also works in other ways to increase the flow of lymph,’ he continues. ‘Conscious breathing exercises, known as pranayama, can help direct lymph through the deep channels of the chest while inverted postures reverse the effect of gravity and drain lymph and used blood from the legs.’ Mangalo suggests Shoulderstand and Plough poses but, if you find those too hard, you can get similar results from doing Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall pose).
• Shuffle your bottom as close to a wall as you can.
• Swing your legs up the wall so you are making an L shape.
• Stay for as long as feels comfortable. This pose is very relaxing.
• As you get used to the pose, you can increase the effect by raising your buttocks (put yoga blocks or cushions underneath).
Note: do not try this posture if you have glaucoma, hypertension or hernia.
‘Working the abdomen with twisting postures stimulates the flow of lymph up through the core of the body,’ says Mangalo. ‘It squeezes the organs and muscles and then allows fresh lymph fluid to soak back in as the twist is relaxed.’ He suggests a posture called Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist).
• Sit upright on the floor with your legs stretched straight out in front of you.
• Bend the left leg over the right outstretched leg, so your left foot is next to your right knee.
• Now hook your right arm around your left knee – the knee rests in the crook of your right elbow and the right hand rests on the left thigh.
• Place your left palm on the floor behind your back, close to your body so your spine lifts up straight.
• Exhale and then, as you inhale, slowly turn backwards towards the left. Don’t let your buttocks lift up. Only go as far as feels comfortable and stay as long as feels comfortable.
• Release the pose and repeat on the other side.
Note: do not attempt this posture if you have sciatica or problems with your lower back.
Brush and massage
One of the simplest ways to boost your lymph is to start a regular practice of dry skin brushing. This helps move the lymph and softens any impacted lymph mucus from the nodes. Use a natural bristle brush and brush smoothly, from the tips of your fingers up to your armpits; from your feet up to the groin. Brush for around five minutes before taking a bath or shower. Every day is ideal but even once a week will help.
‘Clearing the lymph is vital for anyone congested by our western diet, sedentary lifestyle and exposure to pollutants,’ says Dee Jones who practices and teaches Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD). This gentle system of massage really powers up the lymph. Back in the 1930s in France, Dr. Emil Vodder noticed how people suffering from chronic catarrhal and sinus infections tended to have swollen lymph glands. Much against medical practice at the time, he started to work with the lymph nodes and the circular pumping effect of the massage he developed increased the movement of the lymph.
Doctors now take MLD very seriously. If the massage is given to burns victims soon after the accident it can rapidly bring the burn down. Many cancer specialists also recognise the value of MLD, using it to tackle the painful and unsightly condition of lymphoedema which often develops following mastectomy or surgical removal of lymph nodes, or after radiotherapy. The Lancet reported that MLD reduced lymphoedema by more than 50 percent.
MLD is not advised if you have TB of the lymph system, chronic heart failure (cardiac oedema), active cancer or while you have an infection.
Eating for a healthy lymph
Nutritional therapists agree that an alkaline diet rich in plant-based nutrients can strengthen the entire immune system, including the lymph. Sarah Flower also suggests cutting back on dairy and red meat. ‘These make the whole digestive tract sluggish which has a knock on effect on the immune system and the lymph,’ she says.
She also warns that a deficiency in B vitamins especially B6, folic acid and B12, can cause the lymph nodes to shrink and impair white blood cell function. Iron, zinc and selenium deficiency also affect the lymph in a similar way. Boost your diet with wholegrains, pulses, seeds (especially sunflower seeds), green vegetables (especially spinach and broccoli), tofu, fish, poultry, eggs and seafood which are high in these nutrients. If you’re vegetarian or vegan it can be hard to get enough B12 so consider a supplement. It’s more readily absorbed when taken under the tongue so try Solgar’s Liquid B12 (£13.99; www.victoriahealth.com).
A good probiotic also helps strengthen the immune system. Try OptiBac’s For daily immunity (£10.99; www.optibacprobiotics.co.uk). Finally your lymph needs good hydration so drink plenty of liquid throughout the day. Sarah Flower suggests aloe vera juice could help. ‘Aloe Vera is a very powerful immune booster in general,’ she says. ‘As well as helping to provide the correct environment in your bowel – which also helps boost the immune system. When you have a strong immune system and good bowel health there is less stress on your lymph, allowing it to work more efficiently.’ Try Lily of Desert Organic Aloe Vera juice (£8; www.victoriahealth.com)
‘Aromatherapy can certainly help support the lymph and the immune system in general,’ says clinical aromatherapist Zena Hallam, founder of Tazeka Aromatherapy. ‘Most essential oils are immune supportive one way or another but some stimulate lymphatic circulation in particular and help with the efficient elimination of toxins. Combined with the lymph-moving effects of gentle massage, they assist with lymph congestion and help drainage of the lymph.’
She recommends this oil blend which not only has profound therapeutic effects, but also smells wonderful. ‘Cypress and cedarwood oils have many wonderful qualities but, in particular, they are decongestant and astringent – they contract and tighten tissues and so squeeze out areas of excess fluid in a sluggish lymph.’ Lemon oil stimulates immune function – it is high in compounds known as monoterpenes which can increase the total white blood cell count and stimulate antibody production. Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) is another strong decongestant.
Lymph-supporting massage oil
Cypress – 9 drops
Cedarwood virginiana – 6 drops
Lemon – 6 drops
Bay leaf (or pink grapefruit) – 3 drops
30ml carrier oil (jojoba is ideal but you could also use sweet almond, baobab seed or apricot (or a mix of any of these).
Mix well and bottle.
Smooth into the skin, working from the extremities (ankles and hands) and moving towards the groin and armpits.
Sarah Flower: www.sarahflower.co.uk
MLD UK: www.mlduk.org.uk
Mangalo Upasaka: www.mangaloyoga.org
Zena Hallam/Tazeka Aromatherapy: www.tazekaaromatherapy.com
Essential oils are available from www.oshadhi.co.uk
A longer version of this feature first appeared in Top Sante magazine.