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The lymphatic system

Take an in-depth look at the vital and little-understood role of the lymphatic system – and discover why it’s so important for our health and wellbeing.

The importance of lymphatic health

The lymphatic system sits alongside your body’s cardiovascular system, quietly helping to look after your health. Its function and the vital role it plays in preventative health is widely recognised by doctors in Europe and the Far East, but less so in the UK.

The reason the lymphatic system is so important is because it performs three critical functions:

  • It supports your immune system by removing toxins, dead blood cells, pathogens and other waste.
  • It helps your body absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins from your digestive system, delivering these nutrients to cells where they’re used as fuel.
  • It removes excess fluid – known as ‘lymph’ – and waste products from the spaces between the cells and organs of the body.

If a healthy lymphatic system becomes compromised due to illness or a poor lifestyle, this can lead to a range of issues, including tissue swelling, poor skin tone, excess weight, cellulite, headaches, joint pain, fatigue and greater susceptibility to illness.

How does the lymphatic system work?

Your lymphatic system is vast. Like the circulatory system that supplies your blood, the network of lymph vessels serves almost every cell in your entire body.

Strung along those vessels – like pearls knotted on a string – are lymph nodes, which act as a kind of filter. You can sometimes feel the nodes under your arm or in your neck when you’re feeling unwell. As lymphatic fluid percolates through the nodes it becomes ‘cleaner’, as toxins and other impurities are removed.

While your heart sits at the centre of your cardiovascular system, your lymphatic system has no central pump. Instead it relies on muscle movement, deep breathing and, sometimes, manual manipulation (or via a lymphatic drainage machine like Body Ballancer®) to move the fluid.

If your lymphatic system gets blocked or overrun due to illness, surgery, toxic overload or lack of activity, lymph fluid can build up. That’s when you get some of the problems mentioned earlier, like swelling, cellulite, joint pain and illness.

What if your lymphatic system doesn’t function properly?

Stress, poor diet, pollution and a less active lifestyle are just some of the reasons why your lymphatic system can become blocked or overrun.

When this happens, it can lead to a wide range of problems such as swelling, cellulite, bloating, joint pain and fatigue. In extreme cases, if the lymphatic system isn’t working properly it can seriously affect your immune function and put your body at risk of even more serious diseases.

How to keep your lymphatic system healthy

Having a healthy lymphatic system is vital for preventing illness and disease, and for keeping in great shape. A few things we can all do to promote lymphatic system function are eating a balanced diet (that includes healthy fats), getting lots of regular exercise and avoiding toxins (smoking, alcohol, pollution, etc) as much as possible.

You can also support your lymphatic system with a lymphatic drainage massage. This targets the lymphatic system, helping it to accelerate the removal of toxins and producing a wide range of benefits.

You can find out more about lymphatic drainage massage here.

How the lymphatic and immune systems work together

One of the many benefits of a healthy, well-functioning lymphatic system is an improved immune system.

What is immunity?

Immunity is the body’s ability to resist illness and damage from undesirables such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and moulds.

Your body has a number of methods for preventing these nasties from entering the body, or stopping them from taking hold if they do.

Hair, skin and mucus membranes all act as a line of defence, as do chemicals in our body – such as the hydrochloric acid that lines our stomach, which stops harmful germs and toxins entering our intestines. We also have antibodies that attack and destroy all invaders in a general way, paying no heed to what those bacteria or viruses are.

All these defences are known as ‘non-specific immunity’, but our clever bodies also have ‘specific immunity’. Your specific immune system is triggered when a pathogen has managed to outmanoeuvre the non-specific immune system obstacles.

When this happens, your body now requires a precise and targeted response against the invader, carried out by the highly specialised white blood cells known as lymphocytes.

The role of the lymphatic system

The lymphatic and immune systems are interconnected to such a degree that a number of lymphoid organs are also the main sites of your body’s defence, specifically the bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes. As mentioned earlier, it’s in the bone marrow that the specialist infection-busting lymphocytes are produced before heading off into the bloodstream and lymph nodes to await their call to battle.

This call will frequently come from the vast collection of lymphatic capillaries and vessels, sometimes referred to as the ‘transport network’ of the immune system due to its critical role in mobilising the body’s specific and non-specific defences.

Lymphatic fluid entering this network is filtered through the lymph nodes. Any unwanted invaders picked up by the lymph – be they bacteria, viruses or dead-cell waste – will be engulfed and digested in the lymph nodes. This activity can be so vigorous in the face of a significant infection that the nodes – or ‘glands’ – can become swollen, something most of us have experienced from time to time.

Should any passing invaders – which can include cancer cells – jog the memory of any resident lymphocytes, they’ll trigger a specific immune reaction and the lymphocytes will reproduce in large numbers, leaving the lymph nodes to be transported via the lymphatic fluid to other parts of the body to continue their immune response functions.

10 top facts about the lymphatic system

  1. It’s the least understood and most undervalued of all the body systems, yet if it stopped working we’d die within 24-48 hours!
  2. It’s around twice the size of the blood-circulation system and manages almost double the volume of fluid daily.
  3. Lymph fluid starts its life as plasma; the watery component that makes up over half our blood volume.
  4. There are between 400 and 800 lymph nodes in the body that constantly monitor and filter the lymph to remove toxins, waste and pathogens.
  5. Swelling of the lymph nodes (or glands) in your neck are an indication that the body is in the throes of fighting an infection.
  6. The lymphatic system been described as the ‘distribution network’ of the immune system and works seamlessly alongside it to fight bacteria, viruses and any other undesirables that make their way into the body.
  7. Far from being a useless, dead-end tube, the appendix has recently been discovered to be an important part of the lymphatic system.
  8. Your gut is lined with millions of lymphatic vessels (called lacteals) that absorb the fats and fatty acids you ingest and transport them directly to the heart, where they enter the circulatory system as fuel.
  9. The lymphatic system is considered to be the most important body system in Ayurvedic medicine, which considers it to be the ‘water of life’.
  10. Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is a one-way street with no pump, relying on movement, gravity and breathing to keep it flowing.

Parts of the lymphatic system

Your lymphatic system is about more than nodes and vessels, with several important organs also playing a key role in good lymphatic health. These include:

Bone marrow

Red bone marrow produces lymphocytes – white blood cells responsible for identifying and destroying viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that cause disease.

Thymus

Located in your neck, this small organ cleverly teaches the T-lymphocytes (produced by bone marrow) to attack only viruses and bacteria, rather than your body’s own cells.

Spleen

The largest lymphatic organ in your body, the spleen is made up of around 20% lymphoid tissue, where our lymphocytes are produced and mature. When viruses and other nasties are detected in your bloodstream, your spleen acts like a lymph node, creating an army of lymphocytes to fight them off and help prevent illness.

Tonsils

Your tonsils (if you still have them!) are actually large clusters of lymphatic cells. They’re our first line of defence against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens attempting to enter the body through the mouth or nose.

Given their exposure to pathogens, it’s not surprising tonsils themselves are highly
susceptible to infection, which is why tonsillitis and tonsillectomies are so common. However, the longer you keep your tonsils when you’re young, the better opportunity your body has to develop immunity against the most common infections.

Appendix

For a long time, the appendix was seen as more of a nuisance than an important part of the human anatomy, but in recent years it’s been identified as playing an important part in our immune response.

Lymphatic tissue starts to appear in your appendix shortly after birth and reaches a peak when you’re in your 20s. From then on it decreases rapidly, practically disappearing by the time you’re 60.

Recent research has also found that lymphatic tissue encourages the growth of some beneficial gut bacteria, which play an important role in human digestion and immunity.