Lymphatic drainage has become a buzzword in the beauty industry in recent years, as people have learned to love the aesthetic and wellness benefits of lymphatic massage, but the lymphatic system does a lot more than provide drainage: It’s crucial for immunity and maintaining fluid balance in the body. Many of us have noted swollen lymph nodes when we are sick and acknowledged some link between our lymphatic system and health but very few of us really understand how it works.
What is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is a vast network of vessels throughout the body with many important functions. It has three primary functions. First, it maintains fluid balance in the body by returning excess interstitial fluid to the blood. Interstitial fluid is fluid found in the spaces around the cells. It leaks from the capillaries (the smallest type of blood vessel) into these spaces and helps to bring oxygen and nutrients to the cells, while removing waste products. About 90% of the fluid that leaves the capillaries is returned to the blood, while the other 10% becomes a part of the interstitial fluid surrounding the tissue cells. As new interstitial fluid is made, it replaces the older fluid which drains towards the lymph vessels. When it enters the lymph vessels, it is called lymph. Swelling occurs when the lymphatic system does not drain these fluids properly. Small protein molecules may “leak” through the capillary wall and increase the osmotic pressure of the interstitial fluid. This further inhibits the return of fluid into the capillaries, and fluid tends to accumulate in the tissue spaces. If this continues without drainage blood volume and blood pressure decrease significantly and the volume of tissue fluid increases, which results in edema (swelling). If this occurs over a long time it is called lymphoedema.
The second function of the lymphatic system is to support immune function. It is responsible for defending against invading microorganisms and disease. Lymph is pushed to the lymph nodes where white blood cells (lymphocytes) filter out impurities before the fluid re enters the bloodstream. The impurities it filters can include cancer cells and illness causing bacteria which is why it is so important.
The third, and probably least well known function of the lymphatic system is the absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins from the digestive system, and the subsequent transfer to the venous circulation. Most nutrients in the digestive system are absorbed by blood capillaries, however the fats and fat soluble vitamins are absorbed by special lymph capillaries called lacteals.
Unlike other body systems the lymphatic system has no pump. This means that it relies on movement and sometimes manual manipulation to move the lymph fluid. This is why lymphatic massage is so beneficial. A sluggish lymphatic system is often genetic but can also be caused by stress, environmental toxins, inflammatory foods and lack of movement. A balanced diet, regular exercise, and lymphatic massage are just a few of the best ways to keep it stimulated.
Common problems involving the lymphatic system include: infection, disease, and damage to the lymphatic system and its nodes.
Infections such as glandular fever, tonsillitis and Crohn’s disease can all be linked to the lymphatic system. Similarly, diseases including cancers of the lymphatic system, such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Damage to the lymphatic system can result in lymphoedema either from an unformed lymphatic system or due to later damage caused by things such as soft tissue damage, surgery or radiation therapy.
These are more severe examples of a damaged or impaired lymphatic system. However, many people have a sluggish lymphatic system, marked by water retention (puffiness), a weak immune system, bloating and low energy. There are many simple steps to support a healthy lymphatic system (massage, exercise, anti-inflammatory foods) that we should all be incorporating to support this crucial body system and our overall wellness.
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