Your Lymph System: How it works and what you can do to improve lymph flow

Promoting Lymph Drainage to stay healthy

In this post, we're talking about why your lymph system is so important for your body and how you can stimulate lymph drainage. 

Why would you ever want to stimulate lymph drainage? 

Your lymph system can get sluggish or overwhelmed, especially when you’re sick or dealing with seasonal allergies, so giving it a little extra support during these times can benefit your overall well-being. 

You'll find out all of these things in this post:

  • How your lymph system works
  • How to promote lymph flow
  • Why it’s beneficial to encourage lymph flow

Your lymph system

If you’re like me, I really didn’t know much about the lymph system until I was grown, done with college, and holding down a job.  Which is to say, while I knew the lymph system is important for immunity and that lymph nodes tend to swell when we’re sick, I had no idea that this system played other incredibly important roles in our bodies.

Aside from being involved in immunity, your lymph system assists in returning fluid to your heart.

Speaking of your circulatory system, capillaries, the tiny blood vessels with very thin walls that allow oxygen from oxygenated blood to perfuse out into your body’s tissues, also allow glucose to perfuse out into your tissues to provide energy for your cells.  At the same time, the capillaries absorb your tissues’ waste products (think carbon dioxide, lactic acid, uric acid, and creatinine).  

The nutrients exiting the capillaries and the waste products entering the capillaries are dissolved in water, and collectively water + nutrients and also water + waste products are known as interstitial fluid when it’s hanging around outside of the circulatory system.

The exchange between nutritive fluid exiting the capillaries and waste fluid re-entering the capillaries isn’t equal. 

That’s because the differential pressure at the arterial end (incoming from the heart) of capillaries is greater than the differential pressure at the venous end (outgoing to the heart) of capillaries.  What that means is that capillaries let more fluid out than they let back in. 

Figure 1 below shows an excellent illustration of this exchange.

movement of fluid from capillaries to the interstitial space and back again - how the lymph and circulatory system interplay with each other

Figure 1. Net filtration occurs near the arterial end of the capillary since capillary hydrostatic pressure (CHP) is greater than blood colloidal osmotic pressure (BCOP). There is no net movement of fluid near the midpoint since CHP = BCOP. Net reabsorption occurs near the venous end since BCOP is greater than CHP (Reference 1).

How much fluid filters in and out of your capillaries?   Each day, roughly 20 to 24 liters of fluid passes from the capillaries into your body’s tissues, and part of that fluid is reabsorbed on the venous end of the capillaries.

If you were to go about your normal day and didn’t have lymph drainage capabilities, you would collect about 3.6 liters of interstitial fluid in your body’s tissues.  That’s about a gallon of fluid per day! 

That of course would lead to swelling (edema) and inadequate removal of waste products from your tissues.  And, remember, the main component of that interstitial fluid is water, and water is HEAVY.  A gallon of water weighs in at just over 8 pounds. 

Yeah, exact opposite of losing weight.  Plus, with all that swelling and fluid retention, you can imagine in WAY less than 5 days, you’d have a VERY serious problem.

Fortunately, for most of us, we rarely have to worry about diligently performing manual lymph drainage because our body takes care of this process for us. 

Lymphedema, which is an inability to remove this excess interstitial fluid out of your body tissues and back to your circulatory system, is a very real concern particularly for cancer patients who have had a significant number of lymph nodes removed or damaged as part of their treatment so that manual lymph drainage is necessary to maintain normal function (and comfort) in everyday life.

Before you go clicking close because you aren’t part of that segment of the population, keep reading. 

Just because you aren’t suffering from lymphedema doesn’t mean that manual lymph drainage offers no benefit for you because I’ll be the first to tell you – if you’ve never tried it, you have no idea what you’re missing.

Let’s finish talking about the structure and function of the lymph system so you can better understand how to perform manual lymph drainage (hint:  light as a feather, quick as a flash).

How the lymph system works

Much like your circulatory system, the lymph system has a network of vessels, and the smallest of these are lymph capillaries.  Unlike the circulatory system which is a closed loop taking blood to and from the heart, the lymph system is a one-way system absorbing interstitial fluid into the lymph capillaries and returning that fluid back to the heart. 

Lymph always moves toward the heart.

The figure below shows lymph capillaries in green interwoven with circulatory vessels, and those dark arrows show the flow of interstitial fluid from the tissue into the lymph capillaries.

lymph vessels and circulatory system

Once the interstitial fluid enters the lymph capillary, it’s generally referred to as lymph or lymph fluid, and it travels towards lymph nodes where lymphocytes (one type of immune cell) look for and fight infectious material (bacteria and viruses).  The lymph fluid continues on through these lymph nodes and keeps traveling along the lymph network to return to your circulatory system. 

Yep, the lymph system drains back into the circulatory system.  Remember, this is where it came from originally – it is after all excess fluid released from the capillaries of your circulatory system that was not reabsorbed into the capillaries.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymph network does not have a true pumping mechanism (like your heart) and so movement of lymph relies on several different methods:

  • This particular method is also how food moves in your digestive tract, and it basically involves alternating relaxation and contraction of smooth muscle to move material. 
  • Valves lining the lymph vessels help ensure unidirectional flow of lymph toward the heart.
  • Movement of skeletal muscles (including breathing) also propels lymph towards the heart
  • And, arterial pulsation helps keep that lymph flowing

If congestion develops in a lymph node, the pressure buildup within the node can overcome the ability of the lymph valves to keep lymph flowing towards the heart.  This back pressure results in back flow of lymph, which can result in edema (fluid retention/swelling).

Here's an illustration of a lymph valve:

lymph valves of lymphatic vessels maintain directional flow

Why it's beneficial to promote lymph flow

Because the lymph system doesn't have a true pump, lymphatic flow throughout the body relies on movement.  It's no mere coincidence that lymph nodes are located at major joints, points of high mobility, within your bodies.

And, visualizing the basic anatomy and the purpose of your lymph system helps when you're ready to perform manual lymph drainage and dry brushing.  If you enjoyed this post, then be sure to check out:

Ways to boost lymph flow naturally (includes a guide to dry brushing)

And, if you want a great step-by-step guide to dry brushing with a diagram, be sure to sign up for Rain Organica's newsletter.

Stay tuned for videos demonstrating dry brushing and manual lymph drainage techniques.

Promoting lymph flow

Here are just a few ways to promote lymph flow in your body:

  • Breathe! Slow, deep breaths can stimulate lymph flow.  I’m sure you’ve heard of diaphragm breathing, and that’s what we’re going for here.  You’ll oxygenate your blood, calm yourself, and help improve lymph flow.  Talk about a win, win, win!  If you don’t know how to do diaphragm breathing, check out this link.
  • Stay hydrated. When you’re dehydrated, lymph thickens making it difficult for your lymph system to move fluid (think trying to move molasses vs. water).  The best way to hydrate?  Drink room temperature (or more preferably hot) water throughout the day.  Most of us don’t get enough water daily and it usually takes a conscious effort to drink enough water, but also be cognizant of overdrinking water (signs of overdrinking might include a headache – I find this especially true when I choose to sip on hot water only throughout the day or very pale colored urine.  I’m not advocating for overdrink water, just be sure you’re drinking enough of the clear stuff – and, yes, filtered tap water works just as well as Kirkland brand and is better for the environment too).
  • Dry brushing. Before you hit the shower, spend a few minutes dry brushing.  You can also do this any time of day (you don’t have to wait til you shower).  This wonderful technique also promotes lymph flow.  I’m walking through the steps of dry brushing further down in this post, so if you’re wondering how to dry brush, be sure to check out this article written by Leslie Deems, DACM.

Today's in tune segment:

Have you ever experienced clarity or been your most mentally creative after exercising or after a hike?  Active Meditation is a thing, the mystic Osho coined the term also known as dynamic meditation in the 1970s. 

Some of my best ideas and best decisions come to me while I'm active, and more than a few folks in my life have noted how well exercise or walking or gardening help stimulate their creative flow. 

If you're stuck spinning your wheels, try a quick 15 minute walk or pair a 5 minute stretch session with a quick walk and see what happens. 

Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

Brandy's LinkedIn Bio

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