Love, and look after, your lymph
Few people have heard of lymph, or the system it flows through; the lymphatic system. This system forms part of your immune system and having a healthy lymphatic system is fundamental to having a healthy body. If your lymphatic system becomes damaged, you can become unwell.
Why is this?
Well, your lymphatic system is responsible for cleansing your skin and body’s tissues like muscles and internal organs. It moves good cells like immune cells and hormones around the body and transports energy producing cells after you eat a meal, to your muscles. It also recognises and removes damaging cells like bacteria and viruses. If your lymphatic system isn’t working properly, your skin and tissues become clogged up causing skin changes, your immunity becomes reduced making you more susceptible to infections and, because the energy cells aren’t getting into your blood stream, you become tired and lethargic.
How does the lymphatic system work?
The lymphatic system works alongside your blood system, so everywhere you have blood vessels, you’ll have lymphatic vessels. However, unlike your blood stream what has your heart constantly pumping blood through your veins, the lymphatic system relies upon muscle movement. The lymphatic system runs in one direction – from the tip of your toes and fingers, right up to your neck. It is responsible for producing immune cells and it transports these cells, along with other ‘good’ cells like hormones and blood cells to other areas of the body.
The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, nodes and organs that work together to keep our body in tip top condition. The lymph vessels transport fluid filled with all sorts of cells, including ‘bad’ cells like viruses and bacteria to lymph nodes. There are approximately 400 – 700 lymph nodes in our body and these act like ‘filtration stations’ which recognise and destroy any damaging bad cells, such as viruses and bacteria.
This process produces macrophages and lymphocytes. These are types of white blood cells. A macrophage recognises and munches foreign bodies, and the remains are devoured by lymphocytes. Macrophages and lymphocytes are some of our immune cells which fight in battles with invaders – like viruses. And if we have a healthy lymphatic system, mostly these fighters win the battles. However, if our lymphatic system – and therefore our immune system, isn’t healthy, it isn’t working as effectively as it should and so we can become unwell.
An important job the lymphatic system does is to remove swelling/fluid from our tissues, like when we sprain an ankle, or if you have surgery. There is a very close ‘relationship’ between the blood system and the lymphatic system. At a minute level there is ‘fluid’ exchange between the veins and the arteries. Arteries take blood away from the heart, veins return it. And, at the point where the venules and arterials join, fluid filters out into the surrounding tissues, the interstitium. The fluid is at this point often referred to as ‘interstitial fluid’ but it is really lymphatic fluid.
This fluid is full of blood cells, hormones, fat cells. The lymphatic collectors pick up the fluid and transport it to the lymph nodes, which filter out any damaging cells. The ‘filtered’ fluid then goes back into the lymphatic system and eventually spills back into the blood system at your collar bone.
This continual process of fluid exchange and filtration keeps our body tissues clean and healthy.
So, what happens if our Lymphatic System isn’t working properly?
There are several things that can cause our lymphatic system to not work properly:
Not Moving – our lymphatic system relies on muscle movement to help move the lymphatic fluid out of the tissues and around our body. You will very often see elderly people with swollen feet and ankles and this is because as usual, fluid is filtering out into the surrounding tissues but because the muscles aren’t being used, the fluid builds up. And by sitting with their legs dangling downwards, gravity is pulling the fluid into the feet and ankles.
Stress – can cause HUGE ‘unseen’ damage to our lymphatic system. Stress hormones are called Cortisol and are produced by our adrenal gland – better know as adrenalin. These produce our ‘fight or flight’ feelings – that feeling of heightened awareness when your tummy has like butterflies in it and makes you feel that you can run a marathon. In small ‘doses’ and in short periods of stress, cortisol makes us feel motivated and enables us to get the job done. However, in prolonged periods of stress, continued release of cortisol makes our adrenal gland become enlarged, which produces more cortisol, which enlarges our adrenal gland – a bit of a vicious circle. Cortisol decreases the number of immune cells that are produced by our lymphatic system AND the lymphatic vessels become smaller. This means that:
there is reduced numbers of immune cells being produced, which means we are more susceptible to disease and infection. Therefore, when we have long stressful periods, we often become unwell. Having spent a lot of time with cancer patients, nearly all will say that their diagnosis came after a traumatic event, or a prolonged period of stress.
transport of immune cells and other ‘good’ cells is not as effective due to the smaller size of the lymphatic vessels. Therefore, our muscles are not receiving the ‘energy’ cells they need to function properly.
An important issue caused by stress is this: the lymphatic system is the primary delivery system for energising every cell of the body after each meal. Triglyceride fats are transported from the lymphatic-collecting ducts in the intestines, providing baseline energy for the body. When the lymphatics become congested, energy levels will drop, making us feel tired and lethargic, and these fats can potentially be stored around our middle, giving us our ‘spare tyre’.
Surgery – when we have a surgical procedure, the surgeon cuts through our lymphatics. So, lymph fluid spills out of the lymphatics. The lymphatic system protects the area that has been cut by sending immune cells to ward off any bacteria. Due to a natural inflammatory response by our tissues, fluid fills the tissues causing swelling. Usually other ‘healthy’ lymphatics will take up the job of the damaged and cut lymphatics and remove the swelling from this surgical site. However, sometimes our lymphatic system can become overwhelmed by the swelling and the swelling will remain for much longer.
Obesity – an increase in the amount of overweight people in the UK, and in fact in the world in general, means that lymphoedema caused by obesity is on the rise. This is because people are becoming less mobile and more sedentary, and are eating more processed, fast food. Due to the increase in technology, the human race has slowed down, in that we are not moving as much as our mothers and fathers did. Remote controls mean we don’t have to get up to turn the TV over; children now spend more time on gadgets then on playing outside. Our working environment spills over into our home time and we spend more and more time sitting on our phones or laptops and we’re NOT moving.
As I explained in the section ‘How does the Lymphatic System work?’, we NEED to move to enable our lymphatic system to function properly. Without movement, fluid builds up in our tissues. When you have the added issue of being overweight, the fat cells start to compress the lymphatics, so they aren’t removing fluid out of the tissues. If you have a large tummy, it presses down on the lymph nodes in your groin, and so those lymph nodes aren’t working properly and aren’t draining or filtering the fluid from the legs or lower abdomen. This is when lymphoedema occurs. Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that currently CANNOT be cured. Once you have it, you have it for life and it is a case of managing it on an ongoing basis. Lymphoedema has numerous problems associated with it and is a topic for another article. However, I can assure you, you DO NOT want to get lymphoedema.
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