We all know about arteries and veins, but there’s another aspect of vital circulation throughout your body that few people really appreciate. It’s your lymph system — your lymph nodes, lymph fluid, and lymph vessels — and it’s crucial to keeping your immunity running smoothly.
The Lymph System
Instead of carrying blood cells and oxygen, lymph handles a very different set of cargo:
• Surveillance immune cells that are always on the lookout for any immune crisis that may arise in the body
• Excess fluid from blood circulation that must constantly be drained from between cells so that it can rejoin the bloodstream
• Cellular debris that has accumulated within tissues and needs to be disposed of
• Immune cells that have been at the site of an active immune response and carry messages — or even pieces of microbes, allergens, or other molecules that are interesting to the immune system — to targeted immune cells that are trained to mount a precise defense to protect the body
Why Do We Need a Lymph System?
If not for the behind-the-scenes detoxification and clean-up service provided courtesy of the lymph system, we would literally drown in a messy soup of proteins and fluid accumulating between our cells. The lymphatic messaging service also helps limit potential damage from infection, injury, and inflammation by calling for experienced immune reinforcement when needed.
What are Lymph Nodes for?
On top of that, our lymph nodes are constantly filtering our drained lymph fluid to monitor immune activity and collect immune intelligence throughout the body. Whenever you get an infection or fever, you may suddenly become aware of lymph nodes swelling up and becoming warmer and sensitive to pressure — a clear signal that your immunity is working hard. A good medical exam includes checking the major lymph nodes for any change.
Most lymph nodes are located around your larger joints, but you also have specialized ones in certain spots along your digestive tract. These lymph nodes take samples of things (like food and mucus) moving through your throat and intestines so that your immune system can continue learning to distinguish among food, potentially confusing microbes and proteins that foods often contain, and your body. This is just another way your immune system updates its memory banks so that it doesn’t attack you, your food, or beneficial microbes by mistake!
Keep That Lymph Moving
We’re mostly unaware of what lymph does for us simply because it usually functions so quietly and efficiently. Lymph vessels aren’t muscular like arteries are, though, and regular flow of lymph depends on being ‘massaged’ out of your tissues and through the lymph system by the contraction and relaxation of your other muscles around the lymph vessels — those of your arms, legs, back, abdomen, etc.
Every time you move, you’re helping your lymph flow. The more physically active you are, the better your blood circulates, and your body drains its lymph fluid. On the other hand, being sedentary for too long at a time can encourage your lymph fluid — along with the deoxygenated blood in your veins — to pool.
What is the best way to keep lymph going with the flow, then? Here are a few suggestions. You’ll probably notice that working up a good sweat is common to most, so be sure to stay hydrated with water and electrolytes:
• Intense physical exertion, whether it is biking, chopping wood, interval training, or whatever
• Performed in strategic sequence, yoga moves alternately stretch and squeeze blood-and lymph-filled organs and muscles, along with all the fat around them and in the skin, to increase blood flow, oxygenation, and lymph drainage — and better immune function
• Professional massage using techniques that enhance blood circulation and lymph flow
• Saunas, hot mineral water soaks, and sweat lodges, as long as you’re medically OK to enjoy these challenging but exhilarating experiences
• Certain spa treatments: for example, switching among warm, hot, cool, and cold waters, with bursts of waterfall splashing over your back in between. On the beach at Ibusuki in Japan, an active volcano heats the sand, and you can get covered in the geothermal warmth for a luxurious if quirky ‘earth sauna’.
A nice bonus to these ways of optimizing lymph drainage is that they improve your body’s overall metabolism and natural detoxification processes while beneficially mobilizing immune cells.
Moving lymph along is a great way to get your immune cells ready to rejuvenate and clear out the “Zombie Cells” around them. What are Zombie Cells? Read all about them in this previous posting.