Want vibrant health? Many practitioners recommend cleansing, an age-old practice used in holistic medicine. When you mention cleansing to most people, they typically think of eliminating toxins from the liver and intestines, which is indeed a valuable health practice. But there is an equally important, and much-overlooked, system in the body that keeps us feeling great — the lymphatic system. Whether you’re suffering from aches and pains, swelling, inflammation, fatty deposits or bloating, cleansing the lymphatic system once or twice a year often can be the difference between great health and poor health.
The lymphatic system (or lymph system, as it is commonly called) is a complex network of fluid-filled nodes, vessels, ducts and glands — including the spleen, thymus and tonsils — that bathe our cells and carry our body’s “sewage” away from the tissues and neutralize it. These elements of the lymph system work together to carry cellular waste to the bloodstream. The lymph system handles toxins that enter the body through external sources, such as foods or air pollution, but also handles internally produced toxins (endotoxins) that are the result of normal metabolic processes in the body.
Learn About Lymph
A study by Elisabeth Dancey, M.D., author of The Cellulite Solution (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), found that women with cellulite showed lymphatic system deficiencies. Another study found that 80 percent of overweight women have sluggish lymphatic systems and that getting this system flowing smoothly is the key to easy weight loss and improved feelings of well-being.
If the lymph system is inefficient, you may see fatty deposits or cellulite or experience aches and pains. Conversely, if you improve the cleansing ability of the lymph system, it will be able to “sweep” away the toxins that are linked to pain, cellulite, fatty deposits and some autoimmune disorders.
A healthy lymphatic system also helps purify the blood through the largest mass of lymph tissue in the body, the spleen. The spleen fights infection and destroys worn-out red blood cells in the body. By cleansing your lymphatic system, your spleen will be better able to handle the retired red blood cells.
Eat Well for a Clean Lymph System
Foods can either help or hinder the flow of lymph in the body. To cleanse the lymphatic system, avoid “chemical foods” that contain artificial preservatives, flavors, colors and stabilizers — most prepared, packaged and fast foods. The further away from the natural, whole fruit, vegetable, grain or bean that a food has moved, the more likely it is to clog your lymphatic system.
Avoid foods that are difficult to digest, including fatty foods, excessive animal protein, simple sugars and simple carbohydrates. Sweet foods and the “whites,” which include white rice, white bread, white pasta and any white-flour products, require enormous amounts of energy to handle the resulting rapid blood-sugar fluctuations. This energy is better served to cleanse your lymph system.
Drink plenty of water. Without adequate water, lymph fluid cannot flow properly. If you drink inadequate amounts of water daily, your lymphatic system will slow down.
The enzymes and acids in raw fruit are powerful lymph cleansers, particularly when eaten on an empty stomach. Add more raw fruits, vegetables, salads and fresh juices to your diet and your lymph will have the tools it needs to do some serious deep cleansing.
Flavonoids, malic acid, citric acid, quinic acid and enzymes in cranberries and cranberry juice help emulsify stubborn fat in the lymphatic system. Be sure to drink only pure, unsweetened cranberry juice free of sweeteners — pasteurized bottled cranberry juice doesn’t have the same benefits. Dilute the juice at a ratio of about 4:1, water to cranberry juice. If you prefer a less tart juice, dilute 1 part unsweetened cranberry juice with 2 parts pure apple juice and 2 parts water. Make sure you use only pure apple juice devoid of sweeteners or preservatives.
Eat plenty of green vegetables to provide chlorophyll (the green color in plants) and loads of vitamins and minerals to assist in lymph cleansing.
Foods high in essential fatty acids are critical to ensure a properly functioning lymph system. Some of these foods include flaxseeds and cold-pressed flax oil; fresh, raw nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds; avocados; and cold-pressed oils, such as walnut and pumpkin seed. Be sure to purchase fresh, raw nuts and seeds from the refrigerated section of your local health-food or grocery store. The essential fatty acids found in nuts and seeds go rancid easily.
Try These Herbs for Deep Cleansing
The following six herbs are my top picks for cleansing the lymphatic system. They can be taken alone or in a combination of two or more herbs in a tea or tincture, for about three weeks at a time.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Not only a powerful immune-boosting herb, echinacea combines well with astragalus to lessen congestion and swelling in the lymphatic system. Make a decoction using 2 teaspoons of dried echinacea per cup of water. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Drink 1 cup, three times a day. Or take 1 teaspoon of tincture three times daily.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). The Chinese have been using astragalus, which they refer to as huang qi, for more than 2,000 years. “Huang qi” means “life-force strengthener.” In addition to strengthening the life force, astragalus is an excellent lymphatic system cleanser. Alongside echinacea, it alleviates congestion and swelling in the body. Astragalus is primarily available as a tincture, or in capsule or tablet form. Because potency can vary greatly with this herb, it is best to follow the package directions for the optimum dose.
Cleavers (Galium aparine). Known primarily as a blood and urinary tract cleanser, cleavers also enhances the function of the lymphatic system and decreases congestion and inflammation in the tissues. This herb improves the capacity of the lymphatic system to deal with toxins and combines well with pokeroot (see below). For cleavers tea, use 2 to 3 teaspoons of the dried herb (stems and small leaves) per cup of water. Drink 1 cup three times daily. Alternatively, use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of tincture three times daily. Avoid using cleavers if you suffer from diabetes or have diabetic tendencies.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). In addition to having anti-inflammatory properties, goldenseal encourages lymphatic cleansing. Use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup for an infusion. Drink 3 cups daily or take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of tincture three times a day.
Pokeroot (Phytolacca americana). Pokeroot is a useful herb for improving the flow of lymph. It works well with immune- and lymph-related conditions, such as adenitis, tonsillitis, laryngitis, swollen glands, mumps, mastitis and fibrocystic breast disease. Take 1/3 teaspoon of the dried root per cup of water and simmer on the stove for 15 minutes to make a decoction. Alternatively, take 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of the tincture, three times a day. Do not increase the dose — the herb has powerful laxative effects that can be harmful in larger doses.
Caution: Pokeroot can be toxic. The herb should be used only under the supervision of an expert qualified in the appropriate use of this herb. Pokeroot should not be used by pregnant and breastfeeding women or in people who have lymphocytic leukemia or gastrointestinal irritation.
Wild indigo root (Baptisia tinctoria). Wild indigo helps destroy damaging microbes in the body and cleans up the lymphatic system, improves lymph flow and reduces swelling in lymph glands. For a powerful herbal cleanser, combine wild indigo root with cleavers and pokeroot. You can take it as a decoction using 1/3 teaspoon of the dried root per cup of water. Simmer 15 minutes and drink 1 cup three times a day. Or take 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of tincture three times daily. Do not use wild indigo if you’re pregnant or nursing.
MOVE YOUR BODY: EXERCISE IS VITAL
There is three times more lymph fluid in the body than blood, yet the body has no organ like the heart to pump lymph. That means lymph relies on deep breathing and exercise to move. While cleansing the lymphatic system, be sure to increase aerobic exercise — try brisk walking, rebounding on a mini trampoline or jogging. Also, it’s important to take time to practice deep-breathing exercises to help pump the lymph with fresh oxygen.
Thoroughly cleansing the lymphatic system is the key to long-term and efficient weight loss and great health. It is also the key to experiencing great health and living without pain.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is an award-winning author, doctor of natural medicine, doctor of acupuncture, holistic nutritionist and author of the books The 4 Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) and Healing Injuries the Natural Way (Your Health Press, 2004). Visit her website at www.EnergyEffect.com.