Living Rivers: Understanding Our Lymphatic System (Pt. 1)
“The role of the human immune system is not simply to resist the dangers present in the environment. Rather, it is a part of the complex and beautiful dance of elements flowing back and forth between the human body and the rest of the world.”
- David Hoffman, Medical Herbalism
What is the lymphatic system?
In the past decade or so the lymphatic system has gained a lot of publicity. But this is only a recent event. In fact, even though one of the first mentions of the lymphatic system was made by Hippocrates in the 5th century, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the American Medical Association even recognized it’s existence. So what really is this mysterious system? And why is it so important? Let’s dive in.
Although many people believe the lymphatic system and the immune systems differ, the lymphatic system is actually a main component of the immune system in it’s entirety. Even though Western Medicine is just beginning to do research on the ‘newly discovered system’, Ayurveda has acknowledged this system for thousands of years. In Ayurveda, the lymphatic system is the first system treated in signs of disease or discomfort, as it feeds all other systems in the body in this order:
Lymph > blood > muscles > skin > bones > nerves > reproductive
Ayurveda has always recognized that lymphatic congestion could be the cause of multiple health issues including but not limited to brain fog, digestive upset and food intolerances, inflammatory conditions throughout the body, chronic infections, low immunity, and joint issues. How does the lymphatic system become congested in the first place? We’ll get there. But first, let’s explore more in-depth how the lymphatic system operates.
The lymphatic system is made of a fluid called lymph (or ojas in Ayurveda) that consists mostly of plasma and white blood cells. This fluid moves throughout our bodies in rivers, which is why it is often referred to as the river of life. This river runs from feet to heart, hands to heart, and head to heart where they re-enter the circulatory system through draining into the subclavian vein near your collar bone. Our body is covered in thousands of lymphatic vessels containing millions of lymphocytes (lymphatic cells). Did you know that your brain, your nervous system, and your gastrointestinal lining contain more lymphocytes than anything else? Now you can see why the lymphatic system touches every other system in the body as charted above.
Once in the subclavian vein, the lymph begins feeding the blood ultimately meeting in the liver for toxins to be processed. Anything useable here (like nutrients) is recycled into new blood cells and delivered to our spleen which is also known as our organ of immunity. Anything unusable like foreign invaders are excreted from the body through feces, urine and sweating. This is a cycle that continues with the help of bodily movement as the lymphatic system is not passive the way the bloodstream is - it needs movement from the body in order to function properly. Think of this system as a drain… what happens when your drains are clogged? Toxins pool up in different areas of the body and lead to a multitude of systems. This is exactly what is described as lymphatic congestion.
The type of lymphatic congestion highly depends upon the quality of lymph and the overall constitution of the individual. Thinking in terms of cold, dry, hot and wet makes this easier to differentiate. For example, if there is an excess of cold throughout the lymphatic system, this could lead to constipation, stiff and achy joints, unproductive cough, general underweight, and tight thready lymphatic vessels similar to a guitar string. View the chart below for a more general understanding of the different qualities of lymphatic congestion.
As you’ll see in the chart, lymphatic imbalances look different for everyone yet some common symptoms of an unhealthy lymphatic system often include brain fog, fatigue, skin issues, and a different combination of digestive upset, headaches, joint pain, and breast swelling or tenderness around menses for women.
Seems vague, right? Well, it is. This is because everyone’s body is vastly different from anyone else’s, and there is no right way or answer on how to take care of it. A certain diet or herbal protocol may work magic for one person while potentially make symptoms worse for another.
Why is it so important?
There are many functions of this system that largely go unnoticed as we move through our daily lives. Some of it’s main duties include fighting infections and warding off bacteria and viruses, creating immune response (inflammation) when necessary, draining toxins from the body while simultaneously nourishing cells, and helping hormones travel from one gland to another through lymphatic fluid. This is a busy system!
Unfortunately, the lymphatic system can easily go out of balance. General causes of lymphatic imbalance can include sedentary lifestyles, diets high in unhealthy fats or processed foods, unaddressed emotional baggage leading to physical symptoms, and dehydration… Sound familiar?
“Keeping the lymphatic river flowing is the best option for balancing immune function” - DeAnna Batdorff
So how are these two seemingly separate systems of lymph and immunity the same? Well, what this river of life is doing is carrying nutrients from one place to another while at the same time filtering out toxins and pathogens (disease causing microorganisms) that shouldn’t be in our body. This is it’s role as our immune system. That lymphatic fluid that was just mentioned? It’s made of of B cells and T cells (also known as B and T lymphocytes). B cells are our “defense cells” that create certain proteins called antibodies which move through the blood to defend us from foreign invaders. T cells are our “warrior cells” that attack invaders (also called antigens). These two teams work together to protect us from harm. This means that when we are getting sick and our lymphatic system is on overdrive, our cells are making warfare! No wonder why we feel down…
Another important aspect (if not one of the most important aspects) of immunity is the harmony between you and your environment, lifestyle, and relationship to yourself and others. This plays a crucial role in your sense of wellbeing as well as your body’s reaction to foreign invaders. If your brain is signaling attack because you believe that pomegranate is going to make you sick, chances are pretty high that you’re going to have some sort of symptom from that pomegranate. Same goes for environmental toxic overload, stress response, and how emotionally supported you feel in your daily life. All of these factors and more contribute to your overall immune function.
We’ll be addressing different practices for caring for supporting lymphatic health in Part 2. For now…
A few words on emotional health and it’s relationship to lymph
One cannot speak of the lymphatic system without addressing it’s relationship to emotional health. In latin, lympha means ‘to love life as much as you love water’. Water is the ruling element of the lymphatic system, our emotions included. Healthy boundaries, the ability to differentiate self and non-self, empathy and compassion, overall sensitivity, not taking on other people’s ‘stuff’ - these are all aspects of a healthy lymphatic system.
In medical astrology, our lymphatic system is ruled by the moon (and the sign of pisces). Emotional health influences all other things in our lives, just as our lymphatic health does the same within our body. Boundaries play a key role here in our immunity as well as our energetic or emotional attachments.
Lymph, our emotions, and the moon are all connected to the water element. Without water, we are not living, for it is the ebb and flow that creates life as we know it both within and without. Some questions to ask yourself to understand your own lymphatic health and emotions:
How are you connected to the water in your daily life?
What does it mean to you to respect the water, both within the body and the environment?
How are you in control of your own emotions and how are your emotions affecting your body?
Where in your life are you feeling stagnant or are you not letting go of something, someone, somewhere, or an ideal?
What do healthy boundaries look like to you?
I would love to your answers to the questions above. Leave a comment below, and let’s start a conversation!