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6 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma

6 Ways to Support Your Lymphatic System Without Supplements

Education

The lymphatic system is the unsung hero of our body

Stretching from our toes to our head, this complex network of vessels, nodes, and lymph tissue, plays a role in absorption of nutrients, removal of toxins, and immune response to foreign microbes. When it is working well, our fluid levels are balanced, we can mobilize a response to infections, and we can eliminate harmful waste. But when this system is dysfunctional, we feel bloated, puffy, fatigued, foggy, or may experience frequent colds and flus, seasonal allergies, skin issues, or food sensitivities.

Supporting our lymphatic system is vital for our overall health. Here are 6 ways to support your lymphatic system, without supplements:

1. Get Your Steps

Your body relies on your lymphatic system to move and balance fluid levels in your tissues, filter and remove toxins as well as waste, such as bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells. Unlike the circulatory system, with the heart as a central pump, the lymphatic system does not have a pump to encourage movement through lymphatic vessels. Instead, movement through the lymphatic system requires contraction of our muscles. For this reason, any exercise that involves muscle contraction can be helpful for the lymphatic system. We recommend keeping it simple - aim for at least 10,000 steps per day. The goal is to encourage the flow of lymph fluid throughout the lymphatic system all day; in order to achieve this, try to spread out your steps throughout the day, ensuring that the lymphatic system cannot stagnate.

2. Breathe Mindfully

Another way to ensure flow throughout the lymphatic system is through diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal or belly breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing creates a pressure change between the chest and abdomen that encourages fluid movement towards the heart. During diaphragmatic breathing, air is drawn into the belly, causing it to rise upward. This movement of air into the belly stimulates deep lymphatic structures within the chest and abdomen, creating an increased flow and drainage of lymph fluid from the lower extremities. (1, 2)

It’s best to practice diaphragmatic breathing with one hand on your abdomen and one hand on the upper chest; the hand on the belly should rise with inhalation, while the hand on your chest barely moves. This can be practiced multiple times per day, for as little as 5 breath cycles, with a full inhale and exhale counting as one cycle. This exercise is particularly useful if you are unable to incorporate movement throughout your day.

3. Hydrate

Lymph fluid is largely water. (3) Even mild dehydration can slow the flow of lymphatic fluid, decreasing the system’s ability to filter waste and respond appropriately to foreign microbes. The simplest way to support your lymphatic system is to ensure adequate hydration - for most adults, this requires 2-4L water/day. (4) You may need to air on the higher end of this guideline if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, sweating often, completing an intense workout, or are experiencing diarrhea. Even though staying hydrated is a simple goal, we find that it is rarely easy for any of us. There are a few tips that you can incorporate to achieve your goal:
  • Start the day with a mug of warm water, with or without a squeeze of lemon juice
  • For every caffeinated drink, have a glass of water
  • Use bone broth as a base for soups and stews, as it provides water and minerals
  • Replace your second cup of coffee with a mug of bone broth or herbal tea
  • Set a timer for every 60-90 minutes during your work day, to remind you to stretch your legs, go for a quick walk (if possible), and drink a glass of water
  • Leave a water bottle near your work station; the sight of it can remind you to hydrate throughout the day

4. Lighten the Load

Filling our body with toxins, processed foods, harmful vegetable oils, food allergens and/or sensitivities, and sugar can overwhelm and slow our lymphatic system. (5) Alternatively, the more nutrient-dense and additive-free your diet, the less congested your lymphatic system may be. A good rule of thumb is to choose foods that are not packaged or processed, but are instead in their whole form - for example, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and poultry. Additionally, our NDs and Holistic Nutritionist can work with you to determine if you have food sensitivities, and how to best develop a diet that supports your lymphatic system.

5. Be ‘Hands-On’

Another way to get the lymphatic system moving is through hands-on treatment, such as lymphatic massage or dry brushing. In BC, Registered Massage Therapists (RMTs) can complete additional training to become certified in lymphatic massage, also known as manual lymph drainage. This technique involves gentle rhythmic movements along lymphatic vessels and nodes to encourage flow and exchange with the circulatory system. (6) Dry-brushing has a similar aim, but involves using a dry bristled brush to gently stimulate lymphatic vessel pathways towards the heart. The benefit of dry-brushing is that it can be done in the comfort of your own home; however, there is little data to suggest it is as effective as manual lymph drainage.

6. Loosen Up

Lymphatic fluid struggles to flow against resistance, particularly physical impedance from tight clothing such as skinny jeans, shapewear, and underwire bras. (7) This is obvious to many of us when we remove certain items of clothing and see deep, red indents on our skin, or notice swelling above the line left behind from the elastic of our socks or waistband of our jeans. These signs can indicate we may see improvements in our lymphatic system from incorporating many of the techniques listed above; additionally, we may benefit from choosing looser, free-flowing clothes whenever possible. This is particularly important for women, as an ill-fitting or underwire bra can limit lymphatic fluid movement through the sensitive tissue of the breasts and underarm lymph nodes. Whenever possible, opt for looser clothing and wireless bralettes, and nix the shapewear. If you continue to wear bras with underwire, ensure that you are properly fitted for a bra to limit unnecessary pinching and restriction.

REFERENCES

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1167005/
2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7417505_The_effect_of_gentle_arm_exercise_and_deep_breathing_on_secondary_arm_lymphedema
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5922450/
4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256
5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180111141637.htm
6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9026543/
7. https://www.lifehack.org/493062/doctors-say-tight-clothes-can-harm-your-health-and-put-you-at-risk

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Dr. Maya Kuczma

Maya Kuczma, ND, is a freelance medical writer and Naturopathic Doctor at Integrative. The central focus to her writing and medical practice is identifying biochemical, environmental, and emotional triggers of illness. Her treatment plans are rooted in evolutionary biology and ancestral nutrition, and aim to utilize ancient wisdom to alleviate the stressors of our modern way of life.

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