06 Jan The lymphatic system
You may have heard about dry brushing and how it stimulates the detoxification of the lymphatic system – but what exactly is the lymphatic system and what is its role in immunity?
The lymphatic system consists of:
- lymph: clear, watery fluid from blood/capillaries, that carries away particles such as bacteria and cell debris from damaged tissues, to be filtered out and destroyed by lymph nodes. Lymph also contains lymphocytes which circulate the lymphatic system and different regions of the body.
- lymph vessels: similar to blood vessels and capillaries, lymph vessels form a network around almost all tissues and run alongside arteries and veins, carrying the lymph in a one-way direction, towards the thorax. The walls of lymph vessels have a muscle layer which assists in contractions and movement of lymph (unlike blood, which is pumped around the body by the heart). They become larger as they join together, forming the thoracic duct (drains lymph from both legs, pelvic and abdominal cavities, left half of thorax, head and neck and left arm) and right lymphatic duct (drains lymph from right half of thorax, head, neck and right arm).
- lymph nodes: bean-shaped organs that sit, often in groups, along lymph vessels. They vary in size and are situated strategically throughout the body. Lymph nodes contain B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes (immune cells) and functions to filter lymph which can contain bacteria, phagocytes (type of cell that engulf foreign substances) which contain ingested microbes, cells from malignant tumours and damaged tissue cells. Macrophages and antibodies (both are immune cells) destroy foreign substances in the lymph nodes. Once the lymph nodes filter out the toxic substances, the lymph fluid is returned to veins and re-enters the bloodstream.
- lymph organs: spleen and thymus
The spleen is the largest lymphatic organ, located in the abdominal cavity, between the stomach and the diaphragm.
The spleen contains red pulp (circulating blood) and white pulp (contains lymphocytes and macrophages, i.e. immunity cells). The spleen functions to remove old or damaged cells from the bloodstream, stores blood, contains immune cells which activate if an infection is present and synthesises blood cells in fetuses.
The thymus gland is located at the upper, front part of sternum, between the lungs and grows until puberty, after which it begins to atrophy. Lymphocytes (white blood cells involved in immunity; they are produced in bone marrow, hence bone marrow is considered to be lymphatic tissue) originate from the bone marrow and develop in the thymus for activation and maturation (T-lymphocytes). T-lymphocytes then enter the bloodstream and lymphoid tissues.
- lymphoid tissue: tonsils and Peyer’s patches – both of which are also referred to as mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). They contain B- and T-lymphocytes (immunity cells) and are imperative in detecting toxic substances early.
The tonsils are critical in attacking and destroying inhaled and swallowed antigens (toxic substances). Peyer’s patches are located in the small intestines and destroy any swallowed antigens.
Interestingly, the appendix also contains lymphoid tissue!
- bone marrow (discussed above).
Why is lymphatic drainage important?
So the lymphatic system is a crucial mechanism in maintaining immunity, supporting the cardiovascular system and tissues, and maintaining blood pressure and homeostasis. However, as lymph vessels do not have a heart to pump lymph throughout the body, it circulation can slow down or stagnate, hence the importance of taking responsbility in supporting lymphatic drainage.
Lymph health is crucial as a lymphatic system that isn’t supported – in fact, a body that isn’t supported with a healthy lifestyle overall, can cause various illnesses, namely due to spread of infection via lymph vessels to the body or lymphatic obstruction.
Exposure to pathogens, stress and indolence negatively affect the effectiveness of lymphatic drainage. To clarify, the body’s tissues are bathed in interstitial fluid (fluid that provides nutrients and oxygen to tissues) which leak constantly from the bloodstream, through the capillaries (i.e. lymph). If the excess fluid in tissues is not removed, tissues would become waterlogged and swell and blood volume would fall. This is the fluid movement that needs to be supported – to support immune function and the removal of toxins:
- Dry skin brushing: gentle sweeping motions on dry skin using a brush with natural bristles support the detoxification and movement of lymph flow. Just that simple stroking on the skin can have such profound results, subhanAllah. The image below illustrates which direction to brush the skin. Read here for other benefits of dry skin brushing.
- Movement: whether that’s a brisk walk in the park for 20 minutes, yoga or strength training, any movement will bolster lymphatic flow.
- Abhyanga: a self-loving, beautiful Ayurvedic self-massage using warm oil infused with herbs or essential oils, before bathing. There are countless benefits to partaking in daily abhyanga, including stress relief, calming the nervous system, aiding lymph flow, hormonal balancing, increasing longevity, benefiting sleep patterns and improving skin health. Those with dry skin should use sesame oil, sensitive, acne-prone skin will benefit from coconut oil and people with oily, moist skin can use sweet almond oil or mustard oil. I put the oil in a glass jar, in a pan water and warm it on the stove. Massage the oil in long, steady strokes towards the heart, pay attention to the stomach area by massaging in circular motions (up from the right side, across, then down, following the same direction of the colon). I like to keep the oil on overnight for maximum absorption.
There are many ways to support lymph health, but these few are my absolute favourite.
- Ross and Wilson: Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness by Anne Waugh and Allison Grant
- Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life by Dr Claudia Welch
- Sahara’s Three-Day Kitchari Cleanse by Sahara Rose