Lymphatics are a subject close to my heart but sadly they either get ignored or get such a bad press – mainly because when they are damaged, they can cause all kinds of problems such as lymphoedema. In all of us, they are likely to be a very important part of maintaining good health, even though research is limited on this, mainly because they get disregarded by mainstream medicine.
So what’s the big deal with lymphatics? Well, you can read my previous blog on the lymphatic system here, but in a nutshell: our lymphatic system is a complete fluid system in our body, mostly but not fully separate from the other fluid system ( our blood stream), kind of like the oil and water systems in a car. It is the waste disposal system for our cells. Any excess fluid and metabolites ( waste from our cells) gets hoovered up by our lymphatic vessels and shunted back into the big veins under the collar bones. From here they access our bloodstream and can be removed by our kidneys or processed and recycled by our livers. Lymphatics also transport fats from our gut back into our blood stream AND they are our immune system and fight viruses, bacteria and fungal infections. This is why we get swollen glands when we have an infection.
Without our lymphatics, we would swell to a massive size every day and be full of toxic waste that could cause inflammation and disease. We would also be full of undigested fats AND we would not be able to fight infections of any sort. NOW, do you get why they are so important? Some people have naturally good lymphatics and others inherited more sluggish ones. If you are someone who swells a lot on flights or in hot weather, or very easily puts on weight, there is a fair chance that your lymphatic system is naturally a bit sluggish. Yet, they have largely been ignored by mainstream medicine, not one drug exists for stimulating the lymphatics….c’mon medical scientists, get your act together and give us some medical options here!!
Like any fluid system, the lymphatics can get overloaded and clogged. To keep our lymphatic system healthy, we depend on manual lymphatic drainage ( you can access our video series here), weight management and exercise, including yoga. Keeping a healthy weight is REALLY important for your lymphatics. If your lymphatics are sluggish, they cannot deliver fluid and undigested fats to the bloodstream, you often feel bloated and are prone to weight gain. Eating a diet that suits you can be hugely helpful. I’m not a dietitian, but I DO know that different foods suit some people more than others: if the type of food that you eat makes you bloated, there is every chance that it sets up a low grade inflammatory reaction, which overloads or clogs your lymphatic system. I have certainly seen patients whose lymphatics improved significantly just by changing to a diet that suited them…so go search your options and get advice, and try until you find one that makes you feel that it doesn’t make you bloated. Keeping a healthy weight is one of the biggest ways to reduce your risk of getting lymphoedema after cancer surgery.
Lymphatics love exercise! Unlike the blood stream which has your heart as its pump mechanism, lymphatics depend on the so-called ‘muscle pump’ to operate. As you use your muscles, they contract and relax with a sort of pump mechanism, and push the fluid in your lymphatic system back up your body against gravity and towards the neck. Your diaphragm is particularly important: this muscle, which you use when you breathe, is considered to be the ‘heart’ of the lymphatic system. When you breathe deeply using your diaphragm, you give extra force to this pumping mechanism and your lymphatics get a good clear out. So either do aerobic exercise that makes you breathless or if this is not possible, practice belly breaths throughout the day. See my video on how to breath better. You might be quite surprised what you find!
And so to yoga – it’s just epic for your lymphatic system. By stretching you out, it stretches your lymphatic chain of vessels. By working your muscles, you are helping to stimulate the ‘muscle pump’ AND by the breath techniques you are working the diaphragm as an extra powerful pump. Win, Win, Win. If you have already developed lymphoedema, it’s even more important to get your general lymphatic system working better.
I have a 2-class series of yoga videos for those with arm lymphoedema here
Here is my latest video: a yoga class to boost your leg lymphatics. Please note: swollen ankles can also be caused by heart or kidney problems, so if this is something new for you, get checked out by your doctor before you start. Enjoy!