Liberate Your Lymph
Wellness expert Carrie Demers, MD, offers five simple ways to detox your body and boost your immunity.
Q: I’ve had a sore throat on and off for almost a year, and the glands in my neck and under my jaw are often swollen. My doctor has ruled out allergies and more serious causes, so I’m wondering if ramping up my yoga practice will do any good.
A: The short answer is yes, because the symptoms you describe point to what’s called lymphatic congestion, a condition in which the lymphatic system fails to drain properly, allowing toxins and cellular waste products to accumulate in the body. This is a particular problem for cancer patients who’ve had lymph nodes removed or otherwise damaged in treatment, but you don’t have to have a chronic disease to experience stagnant lymph.
Lymphatic congestion can lead to swollen tonsils; recurrent sore throats; chronically enlarged lymph nodes, swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, and/or breasts; slow healing; and itchy rashes. Yoga twists and inversions, as well as more vigorous flow practices that incorporate sun salutations and vinyasas, get the lymph moving again, and that alone can help restore your overall health.
The lymphatic system plays an important role in both removing wastes and toxins from the body and in maintaining its immunity against pathogens. It does this by circulating lymph—a transparent fluid containing white blood cells and proteins—around the body and draining interstitial fluid from between the cells. That extracellular space is where the cells dump their wastes and where other toxins and debris can accumulate. If this gunk builds up, we begin to feel stiff, swollen, heavy, and lifeless.
Lymph channels draw this fluid up from the limbs and down from the head toward the chest, where it dumps into the circulatory system via the veins under the collarbones. Lymph channels run throughout the entire body—both close to the surface and also deep within the torso around every organ. The lymph from the legs and pelvis, for example, drains into the thoracic duct, which originates in the abdomen and travels up the chest to the left collarbone.
As the lymph wends its way up the body, it passes through filtering stations in the channels called lymph nodes. These contain collections of white blood cells (lymphocytes) that can destroy potentially harmful impurities or bacteria and viruses in the lymph. When the lymphocytes are active, we experience what we call “swollen glands”—painful, enlarged nodes most commonly noticed in the throat, on the sides of the neck, under the arm, or in the groin. This is a good sign that your immune system is working to defend you. However, if after trying the suggestions below, your lymph nodes remain swollen for more than a few weeks, be sure to tell your doctor. Chronically swollen lymph nodes, especially ones that are hard, fixed to the tissues or skin nearby, or growing rapidly need prompt attention.
Why Yoga Helps
Unlike the circulatory system, which relies on a pump (the heart) to push blood through the arteries, the lymphatic system relies on the intrinsic muscle contractions of the lymph channel walls and, to a greater degree, on large muscle activity in the body. The rhythmical tensing and relaxing of the muscles during physical movement wring out the tissues and force interstitial fluid into the lymph channels. One-way valves in the channels prevent gravity from pulling the lymph back into the limbs.
Any type of muscular contraction helps move lymph along, but yoga, with its emphasis on working every part of us, is especially effective. Yoga’s attention to the breath and to the solar plexus region further distinguishes it from other forms of exercise. A lymphatic pump in itself, conscious breathing (pranayama) can help direct lymph through the deep channels of the chest.
Yoga works in three other ways to increase the flow of lymph and relieve lymphatic congestion: Inversions, like legs up the wall or shoulderstand, reverse the effect of gravity and drain lymph and used blood from the legs; working the abdomen with twists (as well as forward, backward, and side bends) stimulates the flow of lymph up through the core of the body by squeezing the organs and muscles and then allowing fresh fluid to soak back in as the twist is relaxed; and finally, like any aerobic exercise, dynamic flow practices cause large muscles in the body to contract and relax—the primary way lymph moves through the body.
Go with the Flow
While yoga alone can dramatically improve the flow of lymph, it will be even more effective if you modify your diet to keep all of your body’s systems flowing smoothly. For example, lymph becomes thicker and less mobile when we are dehydrated, but flows well when we drink plenty of fluids. To stay well hydrated, you should drink 64 or more ounces of water a day.
Similarly, a sluggish digestive tract can create a situation where toxins in the colon get reabsorbed into nearby lymph channels, increasing the general toxic load in the body. To stay regular, drink more water, eat more fiber, exercise moderately, and practice relaxation daily. And consider taking a soluble fiber like psyllium to help get things moving again.
And because systemic inflammation can create congestion and swelling that can inhibit the flow of lymph and other bodily fluids, do your best to avoid inflammation-causing foods like sugar, meat, refined flour, soda, coffee/tea, dairy products, eggs, and peanuts. In their stead, eat foods that counter inflammation, such as most vegetables, lemons and limes, avocados, beans, sprouts, figs, some whole grains (spelt, buckwheat, millet), and some oils (sesame, olive, coconut, fish, and flax).
These simple lifestyle changes can transform your lymph into a flowing, sparkling stream that cleans and drains the stagnant ponds of your body—strengthening your immune response and revitalizing your whole being along the way. So go ahead, feel the flow.
To enhance the effect of your yoga practice on stagnant lymph, consider using these natural therapies:
Most of the lymph channels lie just under the skin, so a very light massage is all it takes to stimulate the flow of lymph. Just the weight of your hand will suffice as you stroke toward the chest, starting at the feet and working up each limb and the body. Uncomfortable or unsure about doing this yourself? A trained massage therapist will know what to do for congested lymph.
Also called “dry brushing,” this do-it-yourself technique promotes lymph flow by gently brushing the skin in the same direction as the lymph is traveling—from the feet and hands up toward the collarbones. This is usually done upon rising (before a shower) using a natural, soft-bristled brush on dry skin.
Board-certified in internal medicine, Carrie Demers, MD, is the director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center.