The lymph system can be thought of as a secondary circulatory system. Unlike the cardio-vascular system and your heart, the lymph system does not have a pump to move it round the body. Rather it relies on body movement, breathing, and a system of tiny valves and muscles to control flow round the body.
The lymph system is found throughout your body, and consists of a network of lymph vessels which are interspersed with small structures known as nodes. These lymph nodes tend to be concentrated in certain areas of the body such as the neck, groin, armpit, chest, pelvis and abdomen. If you are ill or fighting an infection these nodes tend to swell – hence the term swollen glands – and this is an indication that your immune system is active.
So what does the lymph system do? The lymph system is responsible for several important bodily processes:
It drains fluid from the body tissues into the blood stream collecting waste products from body tissues and helping to maintain fluid balance.
It absorbs fat and fat soluble nutrients, through specially adapted lymph vessels in the gut
It acts as a filter for blood and lymph, mainly in the spleen, but also in the lymph nodes, where bacteria, foreign particles and old blood cells get filtered out and destroyed.
It is part of the immune response, circulating the white blood cells of the immune system around the body.
Problems that can arise with the lymphatic system include Oedema and Lymphoedema.
Oedema, most commonly recognised as localised swelling, is a sign that fluid is building up in the tissues. It often occurs in fingers, ankles, feet, breasts or the abdomen. It can come about as a result of problems with the cardio-vascular system, inflammation and allergy, or even from just sitting still for long periods of time such as in air travel. Women are particularly susceptible to oedema at certain points of their menstrual cycle or in pregnancy.
Lymphoedema is a condition where the lymph vessels or nodes become blocked. It is very common after surgery or radiotherapy treatment. This can lead to lowered immunity and hence greater risk of infection, restricted mobility, loss of function in the affected area and unsightly swelling.
How to keep your lymph system healthy:
Essentially you need to keep it moving, and since the lymphatic system does not have its own pumping mechanism then you need to be pro-active. Exercise and movement are important – walking, rebounding and swimming are all useful forms of gentle exercise. Make sure you do not sit still for extended periods. Practices such as Yoga or Pilates are also very effective for stimulating lymph circulation.
Body Brushing is an extremely effective technique for mobilising and stimulating the lymph. Dry skin brushing is carried out with a firm, natural bristle brush. The skin is brushed firmly all over with long, smooth, strokes. You cover the entire surface of your skin working from the extremities of the body towards the heart. It’s important to brush in the right direction (always towards the heart) starting with the soles of the feet and working upwards. If you have cellulite and dimpled skin then pay extra attention to the hips and thighs. Do not brush over damaged skin or over varicose veins. Finish the sequence with clockwise circular strokes over the abdomen. The process should be carried out daily for about 5 minutes, preferably first thing in the morning before you take a shower or a bath. Start off with gentle strokes but gradually increase the pressure after the first few days or weeks as you get used to the sensation.
Hot / Cold showers When showering, use the technique of alternating hot and cold water. This really stimulates the lymphatic system. See if you can manage 30 seconds of each of hot and cold for up to 7 cycles.
Massage aids lymph flow. Manual Lymphatic drainage is a specialised form of massage which can help in cases of Lymphoedema. A special reflexology technique, RLD – Reflex Lymphatic Drainage, is also a highly effective procedure.