The lymphatic system has a big responsibility for your well-being more than people realize. This intricate “highway” of specialized vessels moves lymphatic fluid from the tips of your toes to the top of your head and to centralized lymph nodes. It helps regulate the balance of all fluid in your body. And its most important function? Detoxification.
It’s the lymph system’s job to pick up and dispose of cellular “trash” like white blood cells, bacteria, viruses, toxins and other molecular debris from every tissue in your body. That’s crucial, since all cells make waste as a byproduct of their normal processes, plus white blood cells and antibodies are constantly patrolling tissue outside of blood for pathogens and other harmful cells to destroy, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. “Lymphatic fluid carries all that waste to lymph nodes that then act like garbage disposals to destroy it.”
Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can slow down the system and flow of fluid, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue and sluggishness, brain fog, puffy skin, swollen and stiff joints, and chronic headaches and inflammation. The main cause, says Dr. Rawls, is illness. Which makes sense: There’s simply more cellular junk to dispose of when you’re sick — not unlike how an onslaught of cars during rush hour causes slow traffic.
“Chronic illness in particular causes congestion throughout the whole body,” Dr. Rawls explains. “When microbes in tissues are flourishing and more white blood cells are present trying to kill them, they all fill up the lymph nodes. That causes the nodes to swell, which backs up the whole system.” Even a simple cold can trigger swollen lymph nodes, and part of the reason you feel sluggish may be the extra waste your body is trying to dispose of.
Other key causes of lymph fluid slow-down include lack of physical activity and falling short on water intake. That’s because the lymph system relies solely on pressure from breathing and muscle movement to move fluid around. So being sedentary or dehydrated is kind of like construction on the highway — it can slow things down to a crawl.
Meanwhile, maintaining a healthy lymphatic system is one of the best ways to support your immune system by quickly and efficiently ridding your body of garbage—and it’s something we have a lot of control over. “That’s empowering when you can say, ‘I can do these few things every day to help keep the lymphatic fluid flowing and keep myself healthy,’” says Vital Plan health coach Belinda Macri, a yoga teacher, Ayurveda practitioner, and founder of Clearwater Retreat.
Here are some simple, everyday ways to clear up lymphatic congestion in your body and boost your immunity in the process.
7 Natural Ways to Cleanse the Lymphatic System
While you can find professional therapists who specialize in lymphatic massage to get fluids in motion again, both Macri and Dr. Rawls point to these inexpensive DIY strategies for effectively keeping your lymphatic system moving and your body’s natural detoxification process humming.
1. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
A big chunk of your body’s hydration needs should come from water-dense fresh fruits and vegetables, Macri says. This fluid, along with sipping water throughout the day, helps keep your lymphatic “pipes” lubricated and draining properly.
Fresh produce and other minimally processed, healthy foods also help maintain a strong gut-blood barrier, which prevents toxins and food irritants from leaking into the bloodstream (aka leaky gut syndrome). The result is less inflammation and a lower potential influx of toxins that might otherwise clog up your lymphatic system.
2. Sleep in loose-fitting clothes and undergarments.
“At night between 10pm and 2am is when the body naturally goes through a major detoxification process, so make sure you’re allowing the lymphatic fluid the most freedom to move,” Macri says. Garments that dig into skin or are restrictive, especially under the arms or groin area where you have lymph nodes, might partially cut off the natural flow, she says.
3. Belly breathe.
Not only do muscle contractions initiated by deep breathing help move lymphatic fluid, the mindfulness practices that go along with deep breathing are some of the best ways to manage stress. And when it comes to factors that congest the lymph system, “Stress is a biggie,” Macri says.
If you can spend a chunk of time each day in meditation — great. But even taking mini time-outs throughout the day to focus on breathing is beneficial. Macri suggests scheduling 5 minutes of time at 10am, 2pm, and 5pm, and using that time to close your eyes and take three to five deep belly breaths. Here’s how to do it:
“When you inhale, simply allow your belly to fully expand out like a balloon,” Macri says. “It’s a huge de-stresser — truly one of the most powerful things you can do.” Indeed, research suggests slow, deep, conscious breathing helps decrease feelings of anxiety in stressful situations, it may lower blood pressure and heart rate, and it can even boost the immune system. A recent study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology also found that belly breathing reduces stressful feelings and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
4. Move more.
Any sort of movement increases the pressure in lymphatic vessels, which is needed to help manually move the fluid along, Dr. Rawls says. Walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, and qigong are some of the best choices.
“If you’re walking, try moving your arms up and over your head and out to the sides,” Macri says. “Even if you’re at your desk, do some squats and move your arms up and down to get the flow going.”
As for yoga poses, sun salutations are an effective sequence, or try individual poses, she says. Poses that invert a part of your body are especially effective as they recruit gravity to help move fluid. Macri recommends the following:
Downward-Facing Dog or Dolphin:
To do Down-Dog, come onto the floor on your hands and knees, with your hands slightly in front of your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor to straighten your legs (without locking your knees). Lift your sitting bones toward the sky, and gently press your heels toward the floor, so your body is in an inverted V shape. Dolphin is like Downward Dog, except instead of using your hands, you’re resting on your forearms, Macri says.
Legs Up the Wall:
This pose is exactly as the name implies. Lay on your back on the floor, with your back in a neutral position (no curve in the lumbar spine) and your bottom touching the base of the wall. Extend the backs of your legs straight up against the wall.
Cat and Cow:
Start on the floor on your hands and knees, with your hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-distance apart. Keep your shoulders down as you inhale and tilt your head up toward the sky, drop your belly toward the floor, and arch your back. As you exhale, tuck your chin and round your back toward the sky. Alternate back and forth for several breaths.
5. Bounce around.
Rebounding — jumping on a small, circular trampoline — also uses gravity and movement to your lymph’s benefit. A mild aerobic workout, it’s often touted as an effective way to get your heart pumping and your lymph fluid moving.
“As you’re jumping, bring your arms up and over your head to create even more movement,” Macri says. It’s also less strenuous — and easier on joints — than jogging, it may help improve balance, and there’s little technique required. “Just jump and jump,” Macri says.
6. Practice daily dry brushing.
Dry brushing has long been used for lymphatic drainage and to improve flow. “The pressure on the skin pressurizes the tissues, which helps push fluid through the system,” Dr. Rawls says.
Macri suggests using a natural bristle brush or loofah for the daily ritual, which is traditionally done first thing in the morning or before a shower. (It also helps exfoliate skin, stimulate sweat and oil glands, and boost circulation, all of which invigorate the body, she says.)
Start by brushing the sole of one foot using swift, upward, and circular strokes. Move up to your ankle, then the front and back of your lower leg. “You always want to brush up, or in the direction of your heart or belly button,” Macri says. Move up to the front and back of your thigh and your hip, and then repeat on the other leg, starting again with the bottom of your foot.
Repeat this practice on each arm, starting at your wrists and moving up to your shoulders, neck, and chest. Then move to your abdomen, and continuing to brush toward your heart. “It only takes three to five minutes, and you just feel nice and tingly all over afterward,” she says.
7. Lean on enzymes and herbs.
Look to those that are known to help break down, bind to, and dispose of proteins, bacteria, toxins, and other substances that can lead to dysfunctional lymphatic flow, including:
Bromelain, papain, and peptidase: All are protein-digesting enzymes. “Having these in your system helps break down some of the proteins that contribute to inflammation,” Dr. Rawls says.
Turmeric: Responsible for the bright yellow color in curry, turmeric helps balance inflammatory responses.
Sarsaparilla: Derived from the bark of a thorny vine found in South America, sarsaparilla binds to and helps dispose of endotoxins that are released from microbes during die-off.
Red root: This herb is another one that binds to toxins and flushes the system. “But note that red root is a coagulant and can thicken the blood, so avoid it if you have a history of cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Rawls.
As you can see, detoxing your lymphatic system is a relatively easy and enjoyable way to maintain or restore overall health and wellness. Follow these simple steps, and it won’t be long before you experience a noticeable uptick in energy, focus, and mobility. Let's get in shape for 2021.