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The lymphatic system is possibly the most neglected healing system in the body, yet it plays a significant role in our health. This complex network of nodes, vessels, and organs has the monumental task of handling toxins that enter the body from external sources, such as through foods or air pollution, as well as those that are produced internally through processes such as metabolism, fighting infection, or addressing inflammation. Consisting of the spleen, tonsils, and thymus gland, the lymph plays an important role in boosting immunity, lessening inflammation, and promoting an overall sense of lightness and health.
There’s about as much lymph fluid — a clear or white-tinged fluid — in the body as there is blood, yet, the lymphatic system has no organ to help it pump. Instead, it relies on deep breathing, exercise, and gentle massage to help it effectively move through the body. Of course, foods, herbs, essential oils, nutrients, and some lifestyle modifications can also help eliminate impurities from the system. And when you boost the health of your lymphatic system, you also help purify your blood, as the blood is filtered through the spleen — the largest mass of lymph tissue. The spleen, located just left of the stomach, helps fight infection and destroys worn-out red blood cells in the body.
Whether you’re suffering from a lymphatic system issue (see “Signs of a Sluggish Lymphatic System” below), or just looking to give yours a boost, there’s a lot you can do to decongest this powerful healing system and get your lymph flowing better.
Signs of a Sluggish Lymphatic System
If you’ve experienced any of the following health concerns, it may be a sign that your lymphatic system is sluggish:
- Abdominal bloating
- Aches and pains
- Bloating or swelling
- Breast cancer
- Cellulite or fatty deposits
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Eye puffiness
- Frequent cold and flu viruses
- Lumps or growths
- Multiple sclerosis
- Other chronic immune system disorders
Foods That Feed the Lymph
Eating a plant-based diet rich in nutrients and high-water foods is one of the best ways to support your lymph. In addition, some specific foods are particularly beneficial.
Cranberries and cranberry juice are potent sources of natural phytonutrients, known as “flavonoids;” malic acid; citric acid; quinic acid; and enzymes. (The latter are only found in raw cranberries and cranberry juice, not those that have been heated or cooked.) These compounds work to emulsify stubborn fat for the lymphatic system, making it easier for the body to eliminate it. Avoid sweetened cranberry juice in favor of unsweetened varieties. If you find the unsweetened varieties unpalatable, add a splash of apple juice or some stevia to naturally sweeten it.
Leafy greens are full of vitamins and minerals that support the body, and they also contain plenty of chlorophyll, a powerful lymph cleanser. Photo by Getty Images/Rawpixel
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are naturally anti-inflammatory thanks to their rich omega-3 content, so getting more of them in your diet can help reduce inflammation in the lymph system. Add the ground seeds to smoothies, dips, almond butter, or other foods. Add flaxseed oil to salad dressings or cooked vegetables.
Chlorophyll, the compound that gives leafy greens their marvelous color, is also a powerful lymph cleanser. Since leafy greens and other green vegetables are rich in chlorophyll, as well as many other critical vitamins and minerals that boost lymphatic cleansing, increase your consumption of these foods.
The fatty acids in raw, unsalted nuts, including almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and walnuts, as well as seeds, such as hemp, pumpkin, and sunflower, act as fuel for lymphocytes. Of course, the cold-pressed oils from these foods are also an excellent addition to a lymphatic-system-enhancing diet.
The naturally present acids and enzymes in raw fruits are powerful lymphatic system cleansers. Try to eat them on an empty stomach in order to maximize their lymph-cleansing benefits.
Herbs That Heal and Purify
There are some excellent herbs that support and heal the lymphatic system.
Ideally used in conjunction with echinacea, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) helps to alleviate congestion and swelling in the body. It’s primarily available as an alcohol extract (or tincture) and in capsule or tablet form. Take 1 teaspoon of tincture three times daily, or as directed on the product you select.
One of the most powerful lymph-enhancing herbs, cleavers (Galium aparine) is also a natural anti-inflammatory remedy, making it ideal to cleanse and alleviate swelling in the body. Use 2 to 3 teaspoons of the dried herb per cup of boiled water to make cleavers tea. Drink three times daily. Alternatively, use 1 teaspoon of tincture. Avoid using cleavers if you’re diabetic.
While echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) is best known for its cold- and flu-fighting properties, it’s also a potent lymphatic system cleanser. It works by lessening congestion and swelling to get lymph fluid flowing better. You can make a decoction by using 2 teaspoons of dried herb per cup of water, bringing it to a boil, and then reducing to a simmer for at least 15 minutes, but preferably an hour. Strain, and drink 1 cup three times daily. Alternatively, take 1 teaspoon of tincture three times per day.
A natural antibacterial and antiviral remedy, wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) also helps break down excess mucus and improve lymph flow. It cleans up the lymphatic system and reduces swelling in the glands. Make a decoction by boiling 1/3 teaspoon of dried root per cup of water in a pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover, allowing to simmer for 1 hour. Strain, and drink 1 cup three times per day. Alternatively, use 1/2 teaspoon of tincture three times per day.
Consult an herbalist or natural-medicine specialist prior to combining the herbs mentioned with any medications, or if you suffer from a serious health condition. Avoid using these herbs while pregnant or lactating, and avoid any long-term use without consulting a qualified professional.
Essential Oils to Increase Lymph Flow
Juniper essential oil is a natural detoxifier that stimulates lymph movement. Photo by Adobe Stock/Daniel Vincek
Many essential oils help boost lymph function while reducing congestion within this overlooked bodily system, but the following are some of the best.
- Black pepper: Natural compounds known as “monoterpenes” and “sesquiterpenes” give black pepper essential oil its antioxidant properties, as well as aid in immune system support.
- Geranium: Geranium essential oil is both a stimulant and an anti-inflammatory that helps reduce swelling while also aiding the movement of lymph.
- Juniper: Juniper essential oil is a natural detoxifier that stimulates lymph movement and alleviates congestion within the lymphatic system.
- Laurel leaf: Laurel leaf, or “bay laurel,” as it’s also known, is a powerful lymphatic drainage remedy. I’ve used it for years with great success with clients who have facial lymphatic congestion, particularly linked to ear infections.
Dilute a few drops of any one of these oils in a teaspoon of carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut or apricot kernel oil, and apply to congested areas. A gentle massage of the affected areas, with all the massage movements leading toward the heart, can also be helpful.
For a healthy-functioning lymphatic system, make sure to include some important and necessary nutrients in your diet.
Vitamin C helps scrub toxins out of the body’s cells so they can be eliminated. It also helps with tissue repair. In general, take no more than 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily. Consult with a health care provider to determine an accurate dose for you.
Canberry juice is a potent source of flavonoids, malic acid, citric acid, quinic acid, and enzymes. Photo by Adobe Stock/thepoeticimage
A group of specialized enzymes known as “proteases,” which includes protease, bromelain, and papain, break down proteins in the body, thereby helping clean up lymph fluid and keep it flowing properly. While you can take proteases with food to aid digestion, it’s best to take them on an empty stomach to benefit from their lymphatic cleansing and healing properties. Take 3 tablets or capsules three times daily, at least 30 minutes before eating or an hour after eating. Select a product that’s certified free of GMOs, since many enzyme products are sourced from genetically modified ingredients.
If you’re looking to cleanse your system of toxins, boost your natural immunity, and seek a greater sense of health, don’t let your lymphatic system go neglected any longer.
There’s no better place to start a holistic detox than by giving your lymph a little more love.
Liven Up Your Lymph
Here are some simple and no-cost ways to give your lymphatic system a boost.
- Breathe deeply. Your lymph system relies on the pumping action of deep breathing to help it transport toxins into the blood before they’re detoxified by your liver. So breathe in that sweet, healing oxygen.
- Get moving. Exercise also ensures the lymph system flows properly. The best kind is rebounding on a mini-trampoline, which can dramatically improve lymph flow, but stretching and aerobic exercise also work well.
- Drink plenty of water. Without adequate water, lymph fluid can’t flow properly.
- Dry brush skin before showering. Using a natural bristle brush, brush your dry skin in circular motions upward from your feet to your torso and from your fingers to your chest. Work in the same direction as your lymph flows — toward the heart.
- Alternate hot & cold showers for several minutes. Heat dilates blood vessels, and cold causes them to contract. Avoid this type of therapy if you have a heart or blood pressure condition, or if you’re pregnant.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is an international bestselling author whose works include The Probiotic Promise and Weekend Wonder Detox. Find her on Dr. Michelle Cook, on Instagram @DrMichelleCook, on Facebook @DrSchoffroCook, or on Twitter @MSchoffroCook.