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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Cunningham

Optimise your Lymphatic System to stay well & disease free!

What is the lymphatic system?

Like your blood circulatory system, the lymphatic system runs throughout the body. The lymphatic system carries a fluid called ‘lymph’ around the body in lymph vessels (tubes). The fluid passes through lymph nodes (glands), which are spread throughout the body.

The lymphatic system includes organs and tissues involved in the immune system. These include the parts of the body that make cells for the immune system:

  • the bone marrow

  • the thymus

They also include areas where immune cells collect, ready to fight infection:

  • lymph nodes

  • the spleen

  • the tonsils and adenoids

What does it do?

The lymphatic system helps to protect us against infection. It defends you against disease by removing germs (bacteria, viruses and parasites) and toxins (poisons). It helps to destroy cells that are old, damaged or have become abnormal. It also acts as a drainage system, removing excess fluid and waste, from your tissues, and returning it to your bloodstream.

It helps to absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins from your digestive system and to transport them to your bloodstream.

What is Lymph?

Lymph is a clear fluid that flows around the body in the lymphatic system. It is formed from plasma, which is carried around your body in your blood vessels. Plasma leaks out of the blood vessels and bathes your tissues, and supplies the cells of your body with nutrients. Most of this plasma then drains back into the blood vessels, but a small amount is left behind. This drains into tiny lymph vessels, together with waste products from the cells, germs and toxins, damaged or abnormal cells, including cancer cells.

The Lymphatic System - your body's self defence system!

The lymph flows from the tiny lymph vessels into larger lymph vessels, heading towards one of two lymphatic ducts. The lymph filters through lymph nodes as it flows around your body. The lymph nodes contain lots of lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infection). Anything that doesn’t belong in your body, and any damaged and abnormal cells are removed in the lymph nodes. Lymph leaving the lymph nodes also carries lymphocytes, which can fight infections elsewhere in the body if needed.

When the lymph reaches the lymphatic ducts, it goes into your bloodstream, draining into the large veins close to your heart. This removes excess fluid from around your body, helping to maintain your blood pressure and to avoid swelling.

Unlike blood, lymph is not pumped around your body by the heart. Instead, it is pushed along when your lymph vessels are squeezed by your muscles, and by gravity if the vessel is above the heart. It is a one-way system, with valves stopping the lymph from flowing backwards.

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures. They are usually around 1cm long, although this can vary depending on where they are in the body. There are thousands of them throughout the body. Lymph nodes filter the lymph from nearby parts of the body.

Where are lymph nodes found?

There are lymph nodes at various points along the lymph vessels. They are often grouped together and are found all around your body, except in your brain and spinal cord. For example, groups of lymph nodes are found in the:

  • Neck (cervical nodes)

  • Armpits (axillary nodes)

  • Groin (inguinal nodes)

  • Centre of the chest between the lungs (mediastinal nodes)

  • Abdomen, or tummy area

Some lymph nodes can be felt from the outside if they swell up, and you might be able to feel a lump in that area, e.g. in the neck, armpit or groin. This often happens if you have an infection and is not usually a sign of something serious. There are also lots of lymph nodes deep within your body. These lymph nodes can’t be felt from the outside, but can be seen on scans.

How do lymph nodes work?

The lymph nodes filter the lymph passing through them. They trap germs (for example, bacteria) and cells of the immune system that give information about a nearby infection.

If there are signs of an infection, your body makes more lymphocytes to help fight the infection. As the number of lymphocytes builds up, the lymph nodes along the lymph vessels that drain the infected area, swell. For example, an infection in the throat can cause the lymph nodes in your neck to swell.

When the infection has been fought off, most of the immune system cells that were made in response to the infection, die off. The lymph nodes normally return to their usual size in a couple of weeks. Most swollen lymph nodes are due to infections. 

If your lymphatic system is blocked or clogged, you may experience a number of symptoms, including back pain, constipation, fatigue, depression and weight gain. A poorly functioning lymphatic system is associated with the development of chronic disease. 

Certain exercises and activities can help release blockages and promote healthy movement of nutrients and waste throughout the body.

My Top Five Self Care Tips:

1. Exercise/walk daily - take a brisk 10 minute walk as part of your recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise.

2. Dry body brushing - use a natural bristle brush to gently, but firmly, brush your skin from your feet, in long strokes, towards your heart. At your belly brush in a clockwise motion. Best done before a shower.

3. Rebounding/trampolining - the action of bouncing up and down, is particularly effective in improving lymphatic flow.

4. Avoid wearing tight clothing - tight jeans, underwear (particularly shape wear) and tight socks, can inhibit the flow of lymph around the body. Any clothing that leaves a mark, from a tight band, should be avoided.

5. Get a massage or Lymphatic Bowen!

All massage has some benefits for the lymphatic system.

I offer a couple of specialised treatments, that are particularly beneficial:

+ Abdominal Sacral Massage - incorporates deep tissue massage for the abdomen and acupressure points to stimulate the immune system.

+ Lymphatic Massage - a whole body massage using light pressure and a gentle pumping motion, working towards the lymph nodes in the body, to aid drainage.

Lymphatic Bowen - gentle Bowen Therapy moves over the lymph vessels and lymphatic organs to encourage the removal of toxins and the circulation of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Movements to Aid Lymphatic Circulation:

Pelvic Tilt

Lie on your back with your hands clasped behind your head, or stretched out alongside you. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, about hip-distance apart. Begin to tuck your tailbone under, pressing the small of your back into the floor, and then release. That is one pelvic tilt. Repeat 10 times.

Neck Rotation

You can perform this exercise seated or standing. As you breath in, slowly turn your head to the right slowly, to a count of five. Pause for one second and then breath out, bringing your head back to centre slowly, for a count of five. Repeat on the left side. Do five repetitions on each side.

Shoulder Shrug

Stand or sit in a comfortable position. As you breath in, draw both shoulders up toward your ears, and then breath out, release your shoulders, to a neutral position. Repeat five times.

Leg Slides

Lie on your back, with your arms alongside your body, and your legs stretched out straight in front of you. Breath in, sliding your right leg along the floor, and out to the side. Breath out sliding the leg back into the centre. Repeat on the other side. Perform five repetitions on each side.

Ankle Pumps

Lying on the floor, on your back, with your legs and arms flat on the floor, breath in and flex your ankle and breath out and extend your ankle, six times; flexing and pointing the toe, like a ballerina. Repeat on each side.

Leg Falls

Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Slowly lower the right knee toward the floor, by letting it fall open, with control, to the side. Slowly bring the leg back to centre and repeat on the other side. Perform five times on each side.

I hope you'll give these a try and I'd love to hear how you get on!


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