The average person has about 5 liters (10.5 pints) of blood, and about 10 liters (21 pints) of lymph. Every minute, the heart pumps the entire volume of blood around the body once—or almost 1500 times a day. Because the lymphatic system does not have its own pump, the larger volume of lymph circulates only 1-3 times around the body in the entire day!
Most attention is given to the flow of blood, and not so much about the flow of lymph. Even though the two systems of circulation were discovered around the same time (William Harvey, blood circulation, 1628 and Thomas Bartholin, lymph circulation, 1652), it was only in the early 1920’s that physicians began discussing lymphatic system as an important contributor to health in the body. To this day, it is not uncommon that medical schools neglect to teach about the lymphatic system; or if taught, it is a rudimentary discussion; and if learned, it is often forgotten.
The difference between a fast-moving blood and a slow-moving lymph creates differences in symptom presentation. When blood is congested, we call it a stroke (in the brain) or a heart attack (in the heart). When lymph is congested, we call it swelling, pain, ache, fatigue, feelings of heaviness, sluggishness, grogginess, etc. The most classic symptom of lymph congestion is the joint that predicts the weather! Our body is like a bag (individual cell) within a bag (fascial networks of tissues, organs, muscle, tendons, joints) within a bag (skin). Any time these “bags” stick together and cannot expand uniformly with the changes in air pressure, we experience it as joint pain. The trouble is: many people ignore the subtle symptoms of lymphatic congestion and only panic when there is congestion in the blood circulation. We should heed all signs of congestion!
If we think of the blood circulation as a highway system and the lymphatic circulation as the local streets: if the highways are congested, everyone is upset and irritated because of long delays in travel time; but if the local streets are congested, only a few people notice, but those people are very upset and irritated and have to find alternative routes to get to where they are going.
Lymphatic drainage is similar to the game where there is a slant board filled with nails. At the top, a person drops a puck, hoping for the random path of the puck to land on the “1 Million Dollar” prize at the bottom. In this analogy, the puck represents a water molecule in the lymphatic system, and the prize is where the lymph needs to drain. There are many ways for the puck to travel, and yet one can imagine if obstructions arise on the board: giant sticky gum wads or gooey marshmallow binding up the nails. In this case, there are fewer options for the lymph to travel, and this is the case when there are injuries (a bump against sharp object, blunt trauma, surgery, scars, etc.) to the body that cause lymph congestion.
Right outside the membrane of the cell sits lymphatic fluid (although it goes by a different name, interstitial fluid). Every cellular waste (and every toxin, foreign substances such as medication, infectious agents, etc.) is dumped into this extracellular environment. The fluid moves along until it collects in channels and pathways that lead back to the heart, which allows it to join the blood circulation so that it can enter the liver to be cleansed. Lymph nodes are scattered throughout the body along the pathways of lymph to help filter and purify the lymph as it makes its way back to the heart.
There are many reasons why lymphatic drainage is impaired. Physical causes are injury, inflammation, lack of physical movements, and prolonged pressures such as those from bras. Energetic causes are fatigue, stress, emotional shock or angry outburst, all of which cause disruption in the flow of energy (Qi).
There are also many ways to promote lymphatic circulation and drainage:
- Manual Lymphatic Drainage: a light-pressure massage in the direction of lymph circulation to promote lymph circulation; often performed by Physical Therapist or Occupational Therapist after formal training, but can be learned by anyone to perform daily at home.
- Contrast Hydrotherapy: using warm and cool water to cause lymph vessels to expand and contract, simulating a pump.
- Coarse Hair Skin Brushing : use a short-hair, coarse-hair, natural hair preferable, and brush skin in small circles; general direction is toward the heart, starting from the “proximal” parts of the body (ie, closest to the center) going backward to the “distal” parts of the body (ie, away from center, toward periphery).
- Exercise & Movement: because the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump, engaging muscles in movement and exercise creates pumping actions that improve lymph circulation.
- Hydration: any decrease from optimum hydration is first borrowed from the lymphatic system, causing it to become more congealed and sluggish.
- Diet High in Green Leafy Vegetables: because fats are carried in lymphatic channels, vegetables provide micronutrients that help “thin” the lymphatic fluids, improving lymphatic flow and circulation.
- Castor Oil Packs: this oil stimulates the flow of lymphatic drainage because it is a mild irritant to the body, just as juniper berries increase urination because it is a mild irritant to the kidneys.
- Deep Breathing: the diaphragm serves as the closest analog to a “pump” for the lymphatic, especially because it divides two major cavities, creating pressure differentials that push and pull lymphatic fluids along.
- Singing: by using our voice, not only do we activate the vagus nerve, a major parasympathetic nerve that helps relaxation, but we also assist the proper flow of Qi to prevent stagnation.
Just like constant drops of water can carve out canyons, consistent daily applications of simple measures can drastically improve our cellular biology by improving lymphatic circulation and drainage. You can start by adding one of the suggested ideas above and do it daily for a month. Observe how when you love your lymph, your body loves you back!