We all know about our blood circulatory system and how the heart pumps blood around the body, but fewer of us know much about the other part of our circulatory system – the lymph, or lymphatic system. Good lymph circulation is crucial to our immunity and thus integral to our health. And it has a significant role in prevention and recovery from cancer. Let’s look further at this important transport system and how we can improve its function to improve our health.
The lymphatic system is comprised of the spleen, tonsils, and thymus gland, along with a network of lymph vessels and nodes that carry lymph (a clear fluid). Together, these form a one-way circulatory system. The job of the lymph system is to cleanse bodily tissue, assist in cellular repair, and eliminate toxins.
It’s helpful to visualize the lymph system as being like a water purification system. Lymph fluid draws proteins, foreign particles, bacteria, viruses, and wandering cancer cells – all considered debris, away from the fluid that bathes the body’s cells, and carries it through the lymph vessels. As the fluid moves along these vessels, it reaches a lymph node (we each have more than 600 lymph nodes). These nodes are the ‘cleansing stations’ of the system. As the lymph fluid, carrying all that debris, reaches a lymph node, the fluid is cleansed by different types of white blood cells in the node. The clean fluid is then transported further up to near the heart, to be returned to the bloodstream. Debris-filled fluid enters the system; clean fluid goes back into the blood.
However, unlike the blood circulatory system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump to move the lymph around. So how does lymph move around our body? It needs our help, through muscular contractions/exercise and deep breathing.
If lymph isn’t circulating or if there is an excess of “debris,” the system gets clogged up. Probably during an infection, you’ve experienced a significant clog up, during which time you noticed swollen lymph nodes. This clogging of the system suggests that there is more debris (bacterial, viral, toxins, cancer cells) in the lymph node than the white cells can handle at the time. By improving the efficiency of our lymph circulation, we can reduce clogging at the lymph nodes so debris can be removed efficiently by the white blood cells.
Another sign of reduced lymphatic circulation you may have noticed is after being on a long flight. If you feet are low down, and you are not moving for several hours, the fluid around these cells in your feet is not drawn into the lymphatic system and you get swollen ankles. Nothing is stimulating that lymph to move, and so swelling occurs. That’s why the flight magazine suggests you circle your feet, flex your ankles, and move around a bit.
In the long term, keeping our lymphatic system circulating well is therefore vitally important for our immune system and health. We want to move that fluid and get rid of that debris to clean up our system. If we don’t, the system gets overloaded and can’t function properly.
The diagram below depicts the nodes and vessels in the lymphatic system and we’ll consider this as we look at what we can do to improve lymph circulation.
Our lymph circulation system
Strategies to improve lymph circulation
The following strategies can all improve our lymph circulation, and thus support our immune system. Which ones can you implement regularly?
Dry brush massage
Dry brushing is a simple and inexpensive technique that stimulates the lymphatic system to expel toxins through the skin. Approximately 30% of the toxins in our bodies are eliminated through the skin; the clearer the skin, the easier it is for the lymph system to move the toxins out. Dry brushing clears the skin by removing layers of dead skin and unclogs the pores. In addition, dry brushing increases the blood circulation to internal organs as well as the skin, which promotes oxygenation and healing.
- Dry brushing is best done immediately before you shower.
- Use a long-handled, natural bristle brush. I like the ones where the brush is detachable from the long handle like this dry body and face brush, but there are plenty of others to choose from here. Some of these come in attractive bags or boxes so make lovely health-giving gifts for friends, especially if someone is ill.
- Brush with a pressure that feels comfortable and warming and brush in a circular, upwards direction towards the heart. Because lymph fluid flows only upwards, don’t brush in a downward direction.
- Starting at the soles of your feet, brush in a circular motion as you move up your body from feet to legs, hands to arms, back to abdomen, and chest to neck. You can dry brush your scalp. If you want to dry brush your face, be sure to use a brush designed specifically for the face, as the body brush may be too harsh for this area.
- Use less pressure on sensitive skin areas and avoid brushing any areas where the skin is broken or you have a rash or wound.
- Shower after dry brushing.
- Wash your brush every couple of weeks with soap and water to remove debris and leave it to dry in a warm place. It is best to have a separate dry brush for each family member.
2. Contrast Showers
Alternating hot and cold showers improve blood circulation and flush cellular toxins from the blood into the lymph. Contrast showers stimulate our microcirculation bring nutrients to cells and removing waste more efficiently. This is great to do after dry brushing. The recommended shower sequence is as follows:
- 1-3 minutes hot water
- 30 seconds cold water
- Repeat 3 times, ending with cold water.
Rub your body briskly as you shower and then rub yourself down with a towel to finish.
I know – it sounds tough! I must confess, I rarely recommend things that I don’t already do or am not willing to do myself, but I struggle with this one. I love my warm shower! But if you are tougher than me, it’s good to have contrast showers daily. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, give it a try if you start to feel sluggish or feel like you are coming down with something, or recovering from an illness. Brag to me if you make this a daily practice!
As I stated earlier in this post, the contraction of our muscles is one of the key ways that lymph moves around our body. If you look at the diagram above you can see that there are lots of lymph nodes in the armpit area, the groin, and the neck area. Doing exercises that move these areas helps ‘pump’ the lymph in and out of the nodes. So for lymph circulation focus on moving the arms so that the armpit nodes are ‘pumped’, moving the legs for the groin nodes and moving the head for those neck nodes.
Think of exercises like jumping jacks, jump rope skipping, swimming, marching, or general activities like window cleaning, sweeping, walking while swinging your arms. These can all be beneficial for moving the lymph.
If you don’t have much mobility, you can still help circulation by flexing your body at the joints. For example, while seated, move your feet in circles to get the lymph going up into the legs. Similarly, just standing and flapping your arms up and down (like you are about to fly!) will also have a positive effect.
One of the best lymph exercises, however, is bouncing on a trampoline or the smaller version of a trampoline – a rebounder. Jumping on a rebounder significantly improves lymph circulation within the body through the muscular contractions. Also, the deep breathing involved helps circulation, as does that fleeting instant of weightlessness (when you reach the top of the bounce and just as you start to come down), which stimulates the lymph to move.
Ten minutes of rebounding is an excellent exercise. You can try a rebounder with a support bar on it that you hold onto as you bounce if your balance isn’t good. Not only is it good for lymph, but it’s a good general aerobic exercise and helps with constipation. (Note of warning, you might want to empty your bladder before you start on the rebounder!).
The best part of rebounding is that it’s hard to be sad when you jump up in the air! It’s a playful exercise and especially if you can do it outside and breathe in some fresh air, you’ll just feel exhilarated – just like the boy in the first photo on this blog post!
4. Deep breathing
From the diagram, you can see that we have a lot of lymph vessels, nodes, and organs in the chest area. One way to improve our lymph circulation in this area is by breathing deeply. As our chest muscles contract, they help improve the circulation of lymph in this area. The rate of flow of lymph back into the bloodstream is seen to be proportional to the depth of our inspiration of breath and breathing rate. The squeezing action of breathing moves the lymph with its debris from the tiny vessels into large lymph vessels and then into the nodes for cleaning.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing has the best effect.
Relax and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. As you breathe, you want to feel the majority of movement coming from the hand on your belly as it rises and then lowers again. If you feel more movement in the chest area, that isn’t diaphragmatic breathing, but chest breathing which is much shallower. Try and focus on your belly moving out/filling up as you breathe in and then moving in/emptying when you breathe out, with little movement in the chest.
We should breathe like this all day, every day. If you watch a baby, they show us that we start life doing this perfectly. Then stress, tension, habits, etc., get in the way, and we become shallow breathers. Along with shallow breathing comes sluggish lymph circulation. So practice diaphragmatic breathing for a couple of minutes several times a day. If you feel stressed, taking a few deep breaths will help. By increasing our awareness, we can revert to this instinctive healthy way of breathing.
5. Don’t wear restrictive clothing
Avoid wearing restrictive clothing that can prohibit free lymph flow. For example, a tight waist band or tight fitting bra can affect circulation. Whatever clothes you wear, they shouldn’t leave red marks on your skin when you take them off. If they do, they aren’t fitting well, and may be restricting lymph flow. Make sure you have lymph-friendly clothes!
Our immune system is so key to our health. Let’s start supporting it by using these strategies to improve lymph circulation. Which one will you start with?