There are usually two occasions when we turn our attention to our lymphatic system: when flicking through a spa-menu outlining the wonders of a lymphatic drainage massage and when we are off sick with a cold bad enough to swell up our lymph nodes.
Some might be aware that lymph helps our immune cells-leukocytes float around the body in search of pathogens as well as drives toxic waste out of our system. This is probably about all one needs to know, if frequent colds, puffiness, skin issues and excess weight are of no concern for you. But that is the case for only a lucky few.
In the 120 years that the lymphatic system has been studied by mainstream science, it has been established that all it needs to work well is – hold back your smirks! – a healthy lifestyle, plain and simple. Daily physical activity, a varied and moderate diet and quality sleep. All of this makes the lymph stable and the immune system, of which the lymphatic system is a core component, ready to combat any external challenges.
But taking into account how many people actually lead a healthy lifestyle, a discussion around the lymphatic system would not seem so futile after all.
Everything is always flowing, everything is in flux
One of the key prerogatives of a healthy movement of lymph in our vessels is physical activity. Unlike the circulatory system, lymphatic system has no heart-engine or a pump of other kind. For this reason, the exchange of fluids between the blood and lymphatic streams and the supply of lymphocytes are only possible with the help from the outside. Gravity provides the bear minimum which is essential for our survival.
For the system to operate smoothly it requires a regular vasodilatation and constriction of its vessels and muscle contraction, i.e. physical exercise. For millions of years, this function was happily fulfilled by our active pursuit of food, but with the onset of the 20th century the human population has slowed down to take on a sedentary lifestyle en masse. According to WHO, the weekly minimum of physical activity (i.e. 150 minutes of exercise a week) is now only accomplished by one in three adults and one in five teenagers. But, as is often the case with such statistics, this likely paints a more optimistic picture.
A slow-paced lifestyle complicates the exchange between the blood and lymph. As a result, fluids take longer to move towards the lymph nodes, where pathogens could have come across killer cells. Toxic elements stagnate in the intercellular space instead of being effectively flushed down to the liver for filtering.
A dangerous twist
Lymphatic system issues do not usually manifest themselves immediately. Months or even years can go by until someone notices signs of swelling, unexplained tiredness and a chronic runny nose.
But with time symptoms will be rather profound. They can be purely cosmetic. For instance, lymph stagnation can show up visibly in the form of cellulite. At other times, you might need to seek medical advice for excess weight concerns, menstrual cycle changes and vitamin deficiency.
This is of little surprise, seeing as lymph is responsible for the movement of fats in our body. An overly sluggish flow causes hormonal and digestive system issues. The development of cancer tumours is another gloomy outcome of the failure of the lymphatic system to work effectively, as a result of insufficient amounts of leukocytes to tackle the emergency in time.
Sad diagnoses were mentioned here for a reason. It is hospitalised patients that have in many ways prompted science to study the qualities of the lymphatic system. The first substantial work of this kind was carried out by doctors Emil and Estrid Vodder in the 1930s. The couple noticed the benefits of a lymphatic drainage massage for wound healing and overall recovery of severely ill patients, as well as its effectiveness against post-operative swelling. A few decades later, this treatment has become a staple offered by beauticians and spa professionals worldwide.
If you are relatively healthy, lymphatic drainage massage can be a preventative treatment for a whole series of issues, from constipation to chronic fatigue. In any case, Lisa Levitt Gainsley - one of the most notable experts in lymphatic drainage massage out there - is convinced that this method is a must. Her expert opinion is that effective massage can be done by anyone. She shares her knowledge generously through her Instagram and online courses. But before getting your hands onto some self-massage, let us look at some of the features of our lymphatic system first.
Lymphatic system features
- Lymph does not move in a circular motion but always gravitates towards its HQ, the centre of all the strategic action to purify fluids and return it back into its stream. All massage strokes need to be directed towards the lymph node.
- Imagine the gentle swaying of algae in a lake or the gentle roll of the surf in a calm sea. This is the kind of rhythm of movements that works best in lymphatic massage. “Gentle but sure movements, which only touch the connective tissues between skin and muscles,” – is the gold standard of touch recommendations that experts agree on. A pleasant side-effect of such dragging motions is the relaxation of muscles and nervous system.
- Skin to skin contact is very important for tissue relaxation. This is why mechanical treatment is always less effective than manual massage.
- Hundreds of lymph nodes are peppered around our body like pillars of our immune system. They are in the mouth, around the intestines, but some key ones are also behind the ears, in the subclavian trunk, armpits, where the knees and elbows bend and also in the crotch. Lisa’s advice for newbies and amateurs is to focus first of all on the collar area and armpits, which is where the lymphatic fluid enters the blood stream and your work will pay off the most.
Lisa Levitt’s neck and chest massage
To work this area, take a comfortable position and place your hands on your shoulders, elbows facing forwards. Take an inhale-exhale and lower your elbows. Repeat five times. Now with your right palm grasping the left armpit pump this area using confident upwards brushstroke movements. Repeat ten times.
Now move your hand a bit lower, so that your palm is on the side part of your chest. Take ten confident strokes from this point upwards, towards the armpit. Repeat on your right armpit.
Place your hand on the middle of your chest and slowly massage it with your palm. Repeat ten times. Then massage under the chest, along the bra line, moving towards the armpit ten times. Finish the treatment by taking several cycles of deep breaths.
Taking it a step further
If you really want to look after your immune system, get a healthy complexion and improve your overall health, other than massage experts recommend the following options.
- Jump on a trampoline. Any physical activity fills the lymph with lymphocytes and speeds up the flow of fluids but one that simultaneously trains the calf muscles and counteracts gravity is bound to double these benefits.
- Take contrast showers. The impact of alternating hot and cold water stimulates the vessel walls and causes a powerful resonance in all bodily organs and systems.
- Breathe. Deep belly breathing techniques can help push the lymph upwards from the lower part of the body. Improved cellular metabolism, oxygenated skin and deep relaxation are an added bonus.
- Drink. It is symbolic that the Ancient Greek goddess Lympha was a deity of fresh water. Whether your priorities are perfect skin or cancer prevention, drink fresh water whenever you are thirsty.
- Sleep. Case studies on students have demonstrated that a high level of stress, which amongst other things is caused by lack of sleep gets in the way of the immune cells moving towards the lymphatic nodes, where they should tackle illness. It also obstructs the production of antibodies to fight infection.