Lymph and the Immune System

A healthy functioning lymphatic system is an area of health that fascinates me. I’ve been focused on helping people improve their lymph flow for many years in practice. It may seem esoteric but the lymphatic system is an important part of your overall health and impacts the way we feel in our bodies on a daily basis. 

Although, the lymphatic system is coming into its own in recent years–no longer seen as “second fiddle” to the other major circulatory system in the body, which is of course the blood. This is due to improved imaging technologies as well as developments in cellular, molecular and genetic approaches to understanding human physiology.  

Our blood circulates because it has a pump, the heart, whereas lymph must be moved along by the contraction of the musculature around the lymphatic vessels. This is why movement is so key for healthy lymph flow. In addition, lack of constriction in the connective tissues and the free flow of molecules through what is called the extracellular matrix (ECM) is essential for optimal lymph health. 

Why is this so? Lymphatic fluid carries away all the leftover byproducts of cellular metabolism and from our tissues overall. It is our major waste management system! If the lymph system isn’t functioning properly then swelling, or edema, will occur and toxicity will build up first and foremost. Sluggish lymph also makes us more susceptible to infections. If the lymph system were to shut down altogether, death would ensue within approximately 24 hours. 

Lymphatic vessels permeate every part of our bodies (except the bone marrow and retina) even into our heads, surrounding the brain. Lymphatic fluid drains from the head when we sleep and this is why sleeping on one’s side is important for lymph flow. Swelling and sluggishness in various areas of the body is related to the lymph system. Many people complain about puffiness around their eyes, or in their faces overall. One’s fingers, ankles and extremities in general are frequently the areas where we see the effects of a sluggish lymph system. Frequent sore throats are also a common complaint as the tonsils are big clumps of lymphoid tissue. 

Copious amounts of lymphatic channels also surround the intestinal tract and are immediately activated when we have a meal or eat ingest anything into our gut. If your digestive system is irritated, or you have food sensitivities, there is likely a connection with your lymph. Food sensitivities are only one way lymph relates to your immune system. 

The lymph system plays a central role in overall immunity since it protects your body against foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. It produces and releases lymphocytes (white blood cells) and other immune cells that monitor and then destroy these pathogens. It is well established that an infection of any kind will need aid from the lymphatic system to help eradicate the pathogen. Leftover effects of an infection vary widely but many patients I see with long-term effects from viral and bacterial infections have major issues with both connective tissue tightness, stiffness and many have swollen or tender lymph nodes. Addressing lymphatic health is always part of my approach. 

The lymph nodes are like little sponges along the delicate vessels that make up the lymph system. Lymphatic fluid percolates through the lymph node and usually has to pass through several nodes to be fully filtered or “cleaned” of debris from normal metabolic processes that take place all day, every day. This reduces your overall body burden of waste and oftentimes indirectly helps you become less reactive to allergens as well as less susceptible to infection. 

Many people are familiar with the idea of lymph nodes since over the course of our lives we may have had a swollen node during an acute illness or even chronically swollen nodes in our necks, armpits and/or groin area. Lymph nodes can be painful or they may be swollen without any accompanying pain. Sometimes this chronic process can be associated with frequent sore throats, chronic sinusitis, hypersensitivity to many foods and environmental substances and a general sense of malaise. 

Basically, lymph nodes are immunological meeting places able to produce white blood cells called lymphocytes and specific antibodies to fight off various pathogens.  Lymph nodes can also create specialized antibodies that kill cancerous cells. This is why the lymph system must be evaluated if there is a cancerous process happening in one’s body. Damage to lymph nodes and lymph vessels can occur from trauma, burns, radiation, infections, or compression or invasion of lymph nodes by tumors. There are a number of parasites connected to lymphatic health that are well established in medical literature. 

When the lymphatic system cannot fully resolve an infection it can result in immunodeficiency. The immune system is incredibly complex and not all people recover fully from various exposures. This is where my role as a naturopathic doctor is needed–antibiotics and acute measures are no longer effective and a more comprehensive evaluation of immune function is often necessary. I use whole-body thermography as part of that evaluation. To learn more about the specific technology I use, you can visit the AlfaVue website as well. 

Want to learn more about the lymphatic system and hormone health specifically? Check out Dr. Nash’s article The Lymphatic System: A Critical Factor in Female Hormone Balance