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Unblocking the Lymphatic System

Author: Karen M. Lynch

You probably give a lot more thought to maintaining your weight than your circulation. But if you're interested in preventing disease and cleansing your body of toxins, pollutants, additives, and chemicals, your circulatory system is your friend — and it needs your help to stay strong.Imagine your circulatory system as a network of tubular highways reaching every part of your body. Now imagine a traffic jam on one of those highways, with massive delays, excess pollution, and a high risk of accidents. To keep your circulation moving right along, you need to know these basics about circulation and the most effective ways to keep yours pumping.


The circulatory system consists of two distinct systems that work in tandem: the cardiovascular circulatory system and the lymphatic circulatory system. Mia Harper, a licensed massage therapist at Medi-Spa at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, explains how the two systems work together to detox the body.

“As nutrient-rich blood travels away from your heart, it progresses through smaller and smaller tubes, called capillaries," she says. "In nearby tissue cells, nutrients and waste are exchanged. Fluid squeezed from the blood, called interstitial fluid or “lymph,” transports waste to your lymph nodes (via a series of vessels similar to veins) where the fluid is neutralized, filtered, and eventually returned to the bloodstream.”


Your heart is the power behind your cardiovascular circulatory system, pumping blood through your blood vessels, supplying every part of your body with the oxygen and nutrients it needs for proper functioning. With poor circulation, not only is your blood flow impaired, compromising that blood supply, but your heart is unduly taxed. Both have negative consequences and can lead to a variety of health problems.

“Poor circulation can lead directly to heart attack, stroke, eye disease, kidney disease, and claudication (leg muscle pain or weakness that comes and goes after an activity like walking),” says Dr. David Katz, Associate Professor in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Public Health and director of the Integrative Medicine Center in Derby, CT. “But poor circulation also plays a role in almost every disease, from dementia to diabetes, influenza to cirrhosis.”


Your lymphatic circulatory system works directly with your cardiovascular circulatory system to keep blood and lymphatic fluid levels in balance and flush toxins out of the body. It also carries immune cells throughout the body to help defend against infections. But your lymphatic system isn't lucky enough to have a powerful organ like the heart to keep fluid flowing. “The lymph system is stimulated by gravity, muscle contraction (exercise), hydrotherapy (alternating hot and cold water on the skin), breathing, lymph drainage therapy, and massage,” says Medi-Spa's Harper.

If your lymphatic circulation slows or stagnates, toxins will accumulate and immune cells won’t be delivered to the areas of the body where they’re needed, causing a variety of ailments, the very least of which are aches, pains, and swelling (lymph edema). This can also cause deterioration of your thymus gland, tonsils, and spleen – key components of your immune system — and weaken your body’s ability to fight infection and disease.


There are a number of easy and effective ways to improve the health of both your cardiovascular and lymphatic circulatory systems:


"Circulation is vital to all of the body's functions, and water makes up a large part of blood volume," explains Katz. So make sure you drink enough water every day and don’t allow yourself to get dehydrated, causing undue taxation on your circulatory system.

But does water help flush toxins from your system? Katz explains that adequate hydration is required for adequate perfusion, which in turn is required for adequate function, detox included. "And water-soluble toxins go out with water, so adequate hydration is certainly directly relevant for kidney function," says Katz.


Any activity that contributes to overall fitness will also contribute to a strong circulatory system.

Regular aerobic activity is good for heart health and blood vessels.

Resistance training adds to muscle mass, which increases the efficiency of both cardiovascular and lymph circulation.


Circulation is yet another aspect of your health that benefits when you eat healthfully. “Lymph is made up of immune cells," says Katz, "so the quality of lymph is enhanced by practices that boost immunity, including a healthy, balanced diet and weight control.“


By applying pressure to the body, massage stimulates the blood and lymph vessels, helping move the fluid along. “Studies suggest that massage may enhance circulation in a localized manner to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and perhaps accelerate healing,” says Katz, “similar to the way that applying pressure to a tube squeezes out the toothpaste.”


By applying pressure in specific ways that target lymph nodes and vessels, a therapist trained in the lymphatic drainage therapy technique can directly target the lymph system to activate lymphatic fluid circulation and stimulate the functioning of the immune and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The technique includes holding the hands flat and moving them over the body to detect and assess current lymph flow patterns, and moving them in wave-like movements to release blockages in the network of lymph nodes and vessels.

“The benefits of lymph drainage therapy include a reduction of inflammatory responses (both acute and chronic), detoxification, regeneration of tissue, and deep relaxation, to name just a few,” says Harper. The American Massage Therapist Association's locator page can help you find a massage therapist trained in lymph drainage therapy techniques.


It seems obvious that shaking and bouncing your body around will get your blood pumping. But is there any evidence that they actually work to increase cardiovascular circulation and lymph flow? Turns out there is: A recent study published in Medical Science Monitor found that "Five minutes of 30 Hz or 50 Hz vibration produced significant increases in skin blood flow."

Rebounding (jumping on a trampoline) appears to be especially effective at improving lymph system circulation. Lymphatic fluid is completely dependent on physical exercise to move, and the up-and-down rhythmic gravitational force caused by jumping on a trampoline causes the lymph system’s one-way valves to open and close, increasing lymph flow. “The repetitive rhythmic motion of bouncing on a mini trampoline provides a simple, zero-impact exercise method with long-term mental and physical health benefits,” writes Dr. Tina Wellman, a psycho-neuroendocrinologist and author of books on blending exercise, nutrition, and detoxification to achieve wellness, in an article for Total Health. ”These benefits include increasing oxygen uptake and promoting detoxification via the lungs, skin, and lymph.”


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