My heart’s deepest desire is to make you aware of your own body and mind’s power to heal. As I type this, I imagine your rolling your eyes in the way I used to years ago. It does sound unreal that by simply dropping into a yoga pose, finding your breath and quieting your mind you can create the space and energy that would (supposedly) facilitate healing. Ha! Right? My suggestion is, give it a try. The least you would get out of it is a limber body, increased lung capacity, and definitely a decrease in your stress levels. You cannot lose with yoga.
This blog post is an introduction to the lymphatic system, a system greatly overlooked in our attempts to maintain our health and prevent the effects of aging or onset of illnesses, particularly given the importance of its function.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is a subset of the circulatory system. It consists of tissues and organs (tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus), lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph – a clear fluid containing white cells and proteins. Unlike the blood which benefits from the assistance of the heart organ to pump it and help to recirculate it in our body, the lymph flows in just one direction, beginning at the tissue cells and moving upward toward the neck where filtered and enhanced lymph fluid empties into our veins, refreshing the blood with clear plasma and white cells.
The network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes spreads along nerves, arteries and veins and is by itself twice as big as the arterial blood supply system. The main functions of this system are to remove excess fluid from the tissues, absorb fatty acid and transport fat to the circulatory system. There are about 600 to 700 lymph nodes in our body which act as filtering stations for the lymph on its way through lymph channels towards reentering the blood stream through the subclavien veins, on either side of the neck, close to the collar bones. Most lymph nodes are found around important vein locations, in the knees, groin, abdomen, elbows, underarm, chest, and neck.
Why is the lymphatic system important?
Through the smooth circulation of lymph around the body and the draining of interstitial fluid from between the cells, the lymphatic system removes toxins and waste from our blood stream and from every cell in our body, regulating our body’s immunity against pathogens. It is in the extracellular space that toxins and waste accumulate and when this waste and debris builds up we start seeing the effects on our physical wellbeing, we feel stiff, sluggish, heavy. The lymph system picks up this fluid and filters it through the lymph nodes where lymphocytes (the white blood cells) will try to destroy the toxins, bacteria or viruses, before releasing clear fluid into the blood stream.
When the lymphocytes are active, meaning that the lymphatic system is hard at work clearing our body of impurities and pathogens, we experience swollen glands, painful nodes mainly in our throat and neck, underarms, and groin area. This is a good sign, the immune response of our body is good. However, if the swelling and pain lasts for more than a few weeks, you should seek the opinion of a doctor.
What could go wrong?
Many factors can impact both the toxic load in our bodies and the health of our lymphatic system. The toxic environment, unhealthy diet, sedentary life, stress, systemic inflammation, removal of lymphatic organs and lymph nodes, all can make things tough for the lymphatic system. When the lymph fails to drain properly it will lead to the accumulation of cellular waste and toxins in our bodies, causing lymphatic congestion.
While cancer and post-operative patients are more prone to lymphatic congestion, suffering from a chronic disease is not a prerequisite to experiencing stagnant lymph. Lymphatic congestion will manifest through symptoms like swollen tonsils, recurrent sore throat, chronically enlarged lymph nodes, low immunity, swelling of hands, feet, ankles, breasts, stiffness and soreness upon waking up, slow healing, dry skin, itchy rashes, bloating and water retention, tiredness.
What can I do?
There are quite a few things you could do to assist the lymphatic system in its job to detox your body and refresh and nourish your blood stream. Yoga is evidently one of them, but I will mention a few other habits you should incorporate into your routine before I touch upon the yoga element.
Hydrate. Make sure you drink plenty of water. One of the causes of lymph congestion is dehydration.
Destress. When experiencing stress, the body starts producing stress-fighting hormones to boost energy. These hormones and their waste products are very acidic and alter the chemistry of blood and cells. Stress chemistry is lymph congesting.
Dry brushing. Preferably upon waking up, before showering, use a bath brush or a loofa to massage your body. You should use gentle, long sweeping strokes starting from your feet moving up towards your chest, then from your hands towards your shoulders. This is the direction the lymph moves, from the extremities towards the bottom of the neck, where it drains into your circulatory system. Avoid stroking away from the heart, as this could put extra pressure on the valves within the veins and lymph vessels and over time may lead to ruptured vessels and varicose veins. You can read more on dry brushing here.
Lymphatic drainage massage. Using specific massage strokes in specific areas can stimulate and increase the volume of lymphatic flow. This type of massage is best done by a professional, but you can definitely read about or watch video clips online showing you how to self-massage.
Sauna and steam baths. Sweating facilitates the elimination of toxins from the body, which is in fact one of skin’s primary roles. Also, being exposed to heat will increase your heart rate and breathing which will also stimulate the flow of lymph through your body.
Body cleanses. For the purpose of accelerating lymphatic drainage, the simple removal of processed foods from the diet can have a big impact (that is no white bread, no baked goods, no deli meats, no canned and dinner foods, and no sugary stuff). There are also certain vegetables and herbs that cleanse your body (garlic, parsley, ginger, dandelion root, dark green veggies, flax seeds, citrus fruits). Increasing your fiber intake is a great aid in the removal of waste from your body. A liver cleanse is highly recommended, because the health of the liver directly influences the health of your lymphatic system.
Physical exercise/yoga. As the lymphatic system lacks the benefits of having an organ to act as a pump, draining and transporting the lymphatic fluid is highly dependent on our level of physical movement. While brisk walking, running, or jumping on a trampoline are great ways of stimulating the lymphatic flow, exercises that put pressure on the muscles and focus on the areas where the lymph nodes are located are the most effective.
Yoga offers a variety of poses which can activate the lymph nodes and stimulate the lymph flow.
First and foremost, inversions are great postures to instantly influence the flow of lymph by allowing gravity to act on the lymphatic channels. Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), Salamba Sarvangasana (supported shoulder stand), Shirshasana (head stand), they all stimulate the passive flow of lymph, draining all the stagnant fluid in the feet and legs back towards the chest. (Avoid these poses if you have high blood pressure, respiratory problems, eye or inner ear conditions, or consult with a medical professional before including them in your practice.)
Twists are great poses for stimulating the energy in the body and spine and stimulate the abdominal organs. Poses like Bharadvajasana (Bharadvja’s twist), Ardha Matsyendrasana (half spinal twist), Marichyasana (the sage twist) stretch the back, hips and shoulders.
Backbends share many of the benefits inversions have, both helping to reverse the effects of gravity on our bodies. Dhanurasana (bow pose), Bhujangasana (cobra pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose), to name a few, stretch the spine and open the front of the body, massaging the internal organs and stimulating the thymus gland by opening the chest. Like twists, backbends are great poses to relieve stress which is a factor in lymphatic congestion.
Flow sequences are great because they keep the body moving while engaging a variety of muscles. Sun Salutations and Moon Salutations are great sequences for keeping the lymphatic fluid moving through the body.
I will follow up with a yoga program suitable for all experience levels, which you can do at home to improve the circulation of lymph in your body. Improving the health of your lymphatic system by nourishing the lymphatic channels and stimulating the lymph flow brings about great healing benefits and strengthens the immune system, helping you to restore your overall health.
Be challenged. Be healed. Namaste.