The lymphatic system serves vital circulatory, immune, and detoxification roles in the body, yet it often gets overlooked. Think about it: You probably know a lot more about the endocrine or cardiovascular system than you do about the lymphatic system, right?
Make no mistake, though, supporting lymphatic flow is absolutely key for overall health! After all, this system supports the immune system by filtering waste and abnormal cells, works with the cardiovascular system to maintain fluid balance, and assists the digestive system in the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. On the flip side, a compromised lymphatic system can result in a buildup of fluid (lymphedema), swelling, pain, decreased immunity, and impaired detoxification.
Read on to get crystal clear on what the lymphatic system is, why it’s so important for keeping you healthy, and key ways you can improve lymphatic flow and function.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Megan Hilbert, M.S., R.D.N., is a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. Rosa Becerra-Soberon, R.D.N., is a registered dietitian.
What Exactly Is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is a part of the circulatory system that is made up of a network of tubes, nodes, ducts, and vessels that move lymph (a type of fluid) between tissues and the bloodstream. Just about all organs and systems in the body, especially the liver and intestines, have lymphatic channels to collect waste and eliminate it. Even your brain has a lymphatic system that carries excess fluids and immune cells away from the cerebrospinal fluid.
The main role of the lymphatic system is to remove waste and to support immune defenses. It collects excess fluids from tissues, filters out debris, and transports lymph—which contains white blood cells—to areas where immune defenses are needed.
Here’s a full overview of how the lymphatic system works:
- Fluids, proteins, and waste from organs and systems in the body collect in lymphatic capillaries, forming lymph fluid that enters larger vessels.
- Muscle contractions push lymph fluid through lymphatic vessels toward lymph nodes.
- Lymph nodes filter lymph fluid via specialized immune cells. These cells “attack” bacteria, viruses, and cancerous cells.
- Filtered fluid passes through lymph vessels, eventually returning to the venous circulation system to be eliminated from the body.
Why Is the Lymphatic System Important?
Without a properly functioning lymphatic system, your heart, blood vessels, and gut couldn’t do their jobs. In fact, you’d be much more susceptible to getting sick, because your body’s defenses against infections and viruses would be weakened. Have you ever experienced swollen lymph nodes, particularly in your neck or groin? This is a sign that your lymphatic system is working on overdrive and attempting to help your body and support your recovery from illnesses.
Additionally, the lymphatic system collects excess fluids from your body’s tissues and distributes them back into your blood vessels. By helping to support healthy fluid levels in your body, it helps put an end to certain signs of inflammation, such as swelling.
“This system helps our body absorb fats and allows us to utilize them for all kinds of functions, including for energy and supporting cell functions,” explains dietitian Megan Hilbert, M.S., R.D.N., of Top Nutrition Coaching. “You see, most nutrients travel by way of capillaries, but certain fats are too large to travel this way. The lymphatic system can collect these larger molecules and transport them effectively into your bloodstream.”
Here’s the full picture of the crucial roles that the lymphatic system has related to fluid balance, immunity, and detoxification:
- Removes toxins, waste, viruses, and bacteria from bodily tissues
- Delivers fat from the gastrointestinal tract to the circulatory system
- Regulates fluid balance between blood and body tissues
- Facilitates the body’s immune defenses by releasing lymphocytes and transporting white blood cells, which counteract pathogens and help destroy invaders like certain bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites
- Filters foreign material and damaged blood cells out of blood
- Transports fatty acids for energy production
Culprita Behind A Poorly-Functioning Lymphatic System
A suboptimal lymphatic system—which results in restricted lymph flow and reduced immune function—can arise because of various factors, such as lifestyle choices or certain medical conditions.
“In some cases, the lymphatic system may not function optimally due to conditions such as lymphedema, which is a build-up of fluid in the fatty tissue of the body that can be caused by mutations in genes or obstructions like tumors,” explains Hilbert.
Otherwise, lifestyle factors like lack of exercise and not drinking enough water can negatively impact this body system, she adds. Poor hydration can lead to congestion throughout the lymphatic system.
According to dietitian Rosa Becerra-Soberon, R.D.N., and research, the general laundry list of potential reasons why your lymphatic system may be struggling can include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Chronic stress and emotional distress (which can worsen inflammation)
- Recurrent infections
- High exposure to toxic chemicals
- Genetic disorders, such as lymphedema
- Health issues affecting the immune system, respiratory system, or neurological function, including some types of cancer and autoimmune disease
- Injuries that affect lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels
- Surgical removal or damage to lymph nodes, such as due to cancer treatments
Signs Of A Struggling Lymphatic System
As you now know, keeping your lymphatic system humming along happily is important for your overall well-being. According to Becerra-Soberon, a few symptoms can pop up if your lymphatic system is less-than-stellar, such as:
- Chronic fatigue
- Swelling in the lymph nodes
- Muscle aches and joint pains
- More frequent infections and colds
- Potential development of autoimmune diseases, certain types of cancer, and neurological issues
- Hormonal imbalances
The symptoms above are a pretty broad spectrum of issues, so if you have sudden and unexplained symptoms indicating a lymphatic problem, consider consulting with a healthcare provider, such as a lymphologist or certified lymphedema therapist, to rule out other conditions. Not sure who to contact about potential lymphatic issues? Start by speaking with a hematologist, an infectious disease specialist, or an oncologist (if you or your family have a history of cancer).
How to Support Your Lymphatic System
Ensuring your lymphatic system can function optimally is fundamental for maintaining a robust immune response and preventing illness. If you experience chronic swelling or pain in your lymph nodes (which often occurs in the armpits or groin), it’s a smart idea to seek medical advice to rule out underlying conditions. Otherwise, these diet, exercise, and lifestyle tips can help keep things running smoothly:
1. Stay Hydrated
Water keeps lymph fluid flowing and aids in detoxification processes. “Most people are dehydrated, which causes the lymphatic fluid to thicken and be less mobile, resulting in swollen nodes, trouble detoxifying bacteria, and greater risk for viruses,” says Becerra-Soberson. Try keeping a reusable water bottle with you so you remember to drink and add flavor to your water to make hydrating easier if you struggle with plain H2O.
While it’s best to listen to your body’s thirst signals, aim to drink about two liters of water or more per day. Look out for these common signs that you’re dehydrated.
2. Move Throughout the Day And Exercise Regularly
“Movement promotes blood flow and thus, optimal lymphatic function, which can carry out excess waste and toxins more effectively,” explains Hilbert. “When we don’t move enough, reduced blood flow slows down the body’s drainage and detoxification processes.” That’s why she recommends moving often throughout the day and maintaining a consistent exercise routine.
The reason this is so important: “The lymph system does not contain a pump system like the heart in the circulatory system,” explains Becerra-Soberon. It depends on you to provide its movement by way of muscle contractions, which make it flow. In other words, no movement, no flow.
Brisk walking, yoga, and rebounding (a.k.a. trampoline jumping) are among the best options for facilitating lymph flow because they require gentle muscular contractions, says Becerra-Soberon. Cycling and swimming are other low-impact exercises that can help with lymphatic function.
3. Eat Anti-inflammatory Foods
A whole foods-based diet that’s rich in nutrients supports the lymphatic system in multiple ways—including helping to maintain a healthy body weight, preventing obesity, improving gut health, and keeping inflammation in check, according to Hilbert and Becerra-Soberon. Obesity and chronic inflammation are two common culprits behind lymphatic dysfunction.
“When we consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, we get the proper micronutrients to power the lymph and immune systems,” says Hilbert. “On the other hand, an unhealthy diet contributes to more cellular damage, which can be hard for our lymph system to handle.”
Your goal: Focus on a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods, such as vegetables like leafy greens, fruits such as berries, fish, and nuts, suggests Hilbert. Some key players in supporting lymph function include:
- Foods high in vitamin B6: Salmon and sardines (also high in omega-3s), fortified tofu, potatoes, and bananas provide B vitamins that are needed for healthy digestion and circulation. Salmon and sardines are particularly beneficial for intestinal and vascular health, according to Becerra-Soberon.
- Fruits and veggies high in antioxidants: Citrus fruits like berries and oranges, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, and pumpkins are important for fighting oxidative stress and inflammation. Greens are especially helpful since they contain chlorophyll, which is an antioxidant agent that helps the body’s detoxification processes, notes Becerra-Soberon. Red and purple foods like berries are also excellent choices due to their polyphenol antioxidant effects.
- Nuts and seeds: Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds are all high in healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
- Healthy cooking fats: Extra-virgin olive oil, ghee, and coconut oil are great options. These “good fats” are transported through the bloodstream where they’re used for energy and to remove fat-soluble waste, Becerra-Soberon says.
- Certain herbs and spices: Cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, onion, cilantro, ginger, and dandelion contain “thousands of phytochemicals that help to lower inflammation and promote detoxification,” according to Becerra-Soberon.
4. Try Manual Lymph Drainage Techniques
Manual lymph drainage, such as through therapeutic massages and compression garments, can be beneficial for lymph function, particularly for individuals experiencing lymphedema.
“Manual lymphatic drainage involves gentle, slow, rhythmic movements around your armpits, neck, arms, legs, and feet,” explains Hilbert. “It helps stimulate and increase lymphatic circulation, which may help decrease pain or swelling.” Seek out a professional who’s trained in lymphatic massage techniques and your next massage can help support your lymphatic health, bust stress, support muscle recovery, and more. Becerra-Soberon suggests doing manual lymph drainage about once per month.
You can also try giving yourself massages at home. Online resources like this lymphatic drainage self-massage guide abound.
Another popular practice is dry brushing, in which you use a brush made with soft, natural bristles to gently brush your skin in specific patterns. Dry brushing helps to promote lymphatic flow and boosts circulation (it also exfoliates your skin!), says Becerra-Soberson. It works because the brushing motion stimulates the flow of lymph fluid which can help with the elimination of waste. Do it by applying gentle pressure and brushing toward the heart, mimicking the natural flow of lymph. Brushing can be done daily or several times per week, typically before showering, just don’t do it too harshly to avoid skin irritation.
Lastly, compression garments, such as those worn on your legs, can help reduce swelling (edema) and make achy body parts feel more comfortable.