by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
If you’ve dealt with Lyme disease for any length of time, you’re already aware of the value that adding detoxification strategies to your treatment protocol can deliver. Detox can help you combat aggravating Herxheimer reactions, lessen inflammation, boost your energy, improve sleep, and so much more.
Most people think of the liver and digestive system when they consider where detox happens in the body, but there’s another system that plays a crucial role in detoxification that you might not be as familiar with: the lymphatic system. It’s a vast drainage network of organs, vessels, and other structures throughout the body, including:
- Thymus gland
- Lymph nodes
- Lymph ducts
- Lymph vessels
- Lymph capillaries
- Mucous membranes of the bowel
These well-coordinated structures actively move the lymph, a colorless fluid containing pathogen-fighting white blood cells (WBCs), proteins, and salts, throughout your body. The entire lymphatic system is an integral part of your immune system. If you can keep it operating efficiently, you’ll be better-equipped to fight off Lyme disease and coinfections like bartonella, babesia, or mycoplasma.
Let’s take a closer look at some facts and information about the lymphatic symptom, and what you can do to keep it working smoothly.
What is The Lymphatic System?
Similar to the action of the cardiovascular system, many of the functions of the lymphatic system happen without much awareness on your part. However, if you’ve ever had a cold (and who hasn’t?), you’ve probably felt swollen, bean-shaped bumps in your neck — those enlarged lymph nodes are a sign your body’s working to fight an infection on your behalf.
The function of the lymphatic system is that of a waste management center for the body. It transports lymph to the lymph nodes where it removes cellular garbage like metabolites, excess fluid, worn-out red blood cells (RBCs), toxins, infections, and other harmful substances. There, the lymph nodes evaluate the waste using immune cells (called lymphocytes), then clean and discard it.
Each of us has approximately 600 to 700 lymph nodes; the number varies depending on the size of each node, the side of the body the nodes are located on, and whether a person is male or female. Lymph nodes are located in clusters, and the main areas are:
Once the lymph fluid leaves the lymph nodes, it is returned into the cardiovascular system by way of the right and left subclavian veins, a pair of veins found deep in the neck. Then, the whole process repeats itself.
If the lymphatic system didn’t complete the task of removing your body’s fluid surplus, the fluid would accumulate, and you’d notice swelling. Each day, the lymphatic system cleans and drains up the 3 liters of lymph.
When Lyme is Part of the Picture
In a perfect world, the lymphatic system could diligently perform its duties without interruption. But there are several factors that can throw a wrench into its sophisticated operations, including Lyme disease.
When Lyme or other chronic illness is mixed with our toxic and fast-paced world, our bodies have to contend with more cellular debris than they can handle. This leads to congestion in the elaborate lymphatic drainage system and produces symptoms like:
- Body aches
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Brain fog or Lyme brain
- Sore throat
- A feeling of puffiness or bloating
It’s important to make mention of a more extreme case of an impaired lymphatic system: Lymphedema. This condition occurs when a blockage in your lymph system causes the protein-rich lymph fluid to accumulate in tissues of the body, resulting in severe swelling. Lymphedema most often occurs in one part of the body — such as an arm or a leg — but there could be instances where it develops bilaterally.
The most well-known causes of lymphedema are cancer related, such as when a cancerous tumor impedes lymph flow, or when lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer treatment or other surgical procedure. However, lymph nodes can become blocked by other means as well, such as an infection by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, and by congenital abnormalities.
Although lymphedema may not be a classic symptom of tick-borne diseases, Lyme patients can potentially develop it. Indeed, you may have heard patients describe this distressing symptom, but it’s not widely understood which of the stealth microbes may be the culprit.
Treatments for lymphedema usually involve pressure-gradient wrapping techniques, compression garments, and manual lymph drainage (MLD) from a certified therapist. But for this article, we’ll focus on minimizing lymph congestion, the milder variation of an overtaxed and overworked lymphatic system, and supporting healthy functioning.
How to Support and Cleanse Your Lymphatic System
Unlike the cardiovascular system, which has a distinct pumping mechanism that causes the heart muscle to contract and relax cyclically, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a central pump. Instead, the flow of lymph throughout the body is determined in two main ways:
- The contraction of surrounding muscles, tissues, and joints
- The contraction of specialized muscles that reside in the lymphatic vessel walls
What does this mean for you? It means that engaging those key muscles, tissues, and joints are key to supporting your lymphatic system and promoting immune health. Plus, if you needed an excuse to indulge in a massage, you’re about to get one!
Read on to learn some easy ways to detox your lymphatic system and ease congestion.
1. Get Moving.
Since your lymphatic system doesn’t have that central pump, it’s important to engage in movement and exercise as much as your body tolerates. The reason: Contracting and relaxing your muscles and moving your joints aids lymph flow. And there’s no one type of activity you must do — the sky’s the limit, depending on your own personal capabilities and preferences.
If you’re having a rough day symptom-wise, simple range of motion (ROM) exercises like raising your arms, marching your feet in place from a seated position, and calf raises are a great place to begin. As you feel stronger, you can add in low-impact activities like yoga, Pilates, walking, biking, or swimming.
Eventually, you can move up to more intensive activities like running, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or weight training. Exercises like rebounding on a trampoline or vibrational activities like Power Plate are thought to be particularly beneficial for increasing lymph flow and stimulating the lymphatic vessels.
Ultimately, choose an activity that’s right for your current level of fitness and the symptoms you’re trying to manage without causing a flare-up. When it comes to stimulating the lymphatic system to work more effectively, any movement is better than none at all.
2. Stay Hydrated.
To keep the juices flowing (literally), you’ll want to minimize your intake of dehydrating beverages like alcohol and caffeine, in favor of more hydrating drinks like purified water, mineral water, and herbal teas. Why? The composition of lymph fluid is mainly water (a whopping 95% or so), so maintaining adequate fluid levels helps to keep lymph moving and minimize congestion and sluggishness.
Bear in mind that conditions like POTS that sometimes overlap with chronic Lyme can make maintaining appropriate fluid levels a bit tricky. In that case, adding trace minerals or a pinch of sea salt to your water can be an easy hydration fix for some people.
3. Take Supportive Enzymes and Herbs.
Taking the right natural supplements can help ease inflammation that might clog up your lymphatic system, as well as break down, bind to, and dispose of proteins, bacteria, toxins, and other substances that can lead to dysfunctional lymphatic flow. Some top recommendations from Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan, include:
- Bromelain, papain, and peptidase: All are protein-digesting enzymes. “Having these in your system helps break down some of the proteins that contribute to inflammation,” Dr. Rawls says.
- Turmeric: Responsible for the bright yellow color in curry, turmeric helps balance inflammatory responses.
- Sarsaparilla: Derived from the bark of a thorny vine found in South America, sarsaparilla binds to and helps dispose of endotoxins that are released from microbes during die-off.
- Red root: This herb is another one that binds to toxins and flushes the system. “But note that red root is a coagulant and can thicken the blood, so avoid it if you have a history of cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Rawls.
4. Dry Brush Your Skin.
At roughly $15 to $20, a dry brush is an affordable way to detox the lymphatic system, and it’s easy to track one down at a local health food store or online retailer. Using one to create a brushing action against bare skin is thought to stimulate the lymphatic system, remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and improve circulation.
For some people, dry brushing may have an invigorating effect. The best part of dry brushing? It takes a matter of minutes to complete — a bonus for people who have fatigue as a major symptom of Lyme disease. Here are the steps to get you started:
- Start by brushing one foot, using smooth strokes in the direction of your heart.
- Next, move to your legs — first brushing all sides of your lower legs, followed by all sides of your upper legs. Always brush in the direction of your heart. Repeat on the other leg. When you get to the backside of your legs, don’t forget to include your buttocks and back, too.
- Then, move to your upper extremities, brushing both sides of your palms, forearms, upper arms, and shoulders toward your heart.
- Finally, brush your chest and abdomen. Ease up on the pressure a bit for these areas (especially the chest), because they tend to be more sensitive than other parts of the body.
- If possible, follow your dry brushing routine with a shower, and use a natural moisturizer to hydrate your skin.
To find the right dry brush, opt for one with natural bristles (usually boar’s hair or vegetable fiber) instead of a synthetic one; the bristles in synthetic brushes can be too harsh on the skin. Although you can use any size brush to stimulate the lymphatic system, one with longer handles will help you reach your back more easily.
5. Explore Manual Lymph Drainage.
Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is a therapeutic massage technique that gently supports and activates the lymphatic system. A trained therapist employs a variety of hand techniques (circles, pumping and scooping motions, soft strokes, gliding, etc.) to target lymph nodes and vessels.
The type of technique used varies depending on the area of the body that’s being treated. The mild friction across the skin encourages lymph to flow less effortlessly, so no massage oil is used during a session. A typical appointment may last 45 to 60 minutes, and there’s a general sequence that each massage should follow.
In addition to its ability to detoxify the lymphatic system, MLD may also be a good fit for you if you’re looking for relief from pain or digestive dysfunction, trying to tone your parasympathetic nervous system (the calming and restorative branch of your nervous system), or exploring how different types of massage might improve Lyme symptoms. To find a certified therapist in your area, check out the MLD Institute International for massage therapists, or the Lymphedema Association of North America (LANA) for certified healthcare professionals like nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists.
Certainly, there’s still a lot to learn about the benefits the lymphatic system has on our health. But as you work to optimize this intricate network within the body, you’ll begin to experience more energy and vitality, and you’ll have yet another tool in your toolbox to help you heal from chronic Lyme disease and coinfections.
Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.
You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.
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