by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Like Cinderella, the lymph labors quietly in the shadows to clean up the mess made by virtually all the other systems of the body. Widely regarded as a lesser sister to the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is actually a crucial player in your body’s ability to ward off disease and heal from injury.
The lymphatic system is recognized by doctors in Europe and the Far East for its importance in preventive health care. They understand how lymphatic function supports every other system in the body, including the immune, digestive, detoxification and nervous systems. In fact, many believe that poor lymph health underlies a host of conditions, from cellulite to cancer.
By contrast, in America our practitioners don’t think much about the lymph system until something goes wrong — usually when infection causes a swollen lymph node, or worse, when we develop cancer in a lymph gland, or cancer elsewhere that metastasizes through the lymph vessels.
The reality is that you have twice as much lymph fluid in your body as blood. The lymph continuously bathes each cell and drains away the detritus in a circulatory system powered only by your breathing and movement. If the movement of the lymph stopped entirely you would die in a matter of hours.
What can you do to ensure your lymph system stays healthy? There are a number of ways to support lymphatic function that should be part of every woman’s health habits. Let’s start by exploring this amazing system.
Anatomy of the lymph system
Strung along the lymph vessels like pearls knotted on a string, the lymph nodes serve as a series of cleaning filters. Lymphatic fluid percolates through the nodes, being purified and immunologically boosted at every stage.
The lymph vessels and nodes are made of lymph tissue, but so are many other parts of the body. One crucial function of lymph tissue is generating and storing white blood cells, the blood cells that fight infection. Besides the lymph nodes, principal lymph organs include the bone marrow (where white blood cells called B-lymphocytes are made), the spleen, tonsils and the thymus gland (where T-lymphocytes are made). Lymphoma is a group of related cancers of the lymphocytes.
The largest concentration of lymph tissue in the body surrounds the intestines. Called gut-associated lymphatic tissue, or GALT, this tissue is the guardian of this largest gateway through the body’s defenses, and it actively separates desirable nutrients from undesirable pathogens, and helps mount a defense whenever needed.
The flow of lymph fluid
The lymph system’s primary function is to isolate infection and cellular detritus from the rest of the body and deal with it. Imagine you are looking at a handful of living cells through a microscope. A capillary (the smallest blood vessel) delivers blood with its oxygen and nutrients. The local cells use these nutrients and excrete waste. There may be pathogens or antigens present that create an immune response, leaving dead cells and perhaps live infection. Some of the blood and waste products are picked up by tiny veins. But much of the vascular fluid and waste — and hopefully all of the live infection — is picked up by tiny lymph vessels. This process is happening all over the body all the time.
Like tributaries trickling into a stream that feeds a slow-moving river, the lymph system transports lymph fluid through ever-widening vessels, moving it through 500 filtration and collection points — your lymph nodes. At each successive node the lymph fluid is filtered and bacteria is removed. If lymph fluid is blocked in one lymph node it will usually take a detour, but when blockage is extreme it can cause the lymph fluid to back up and cause swelling in the surrounding tissue, a condition known as lymphedema.
The far-reaching lymph vessels merge at certain points to form lymphatic trunks. You have six major lymph trunks in your body, each responsible for draining filtered fluid from one region of the body.
The lumbar and intestinal trunks drain a large volume of purified lymph fluid upward from your lower extremities, pelvis and abdomen into the cisterna chyli, a widened collection pouch at the base of the thoracic duct.