As new research reveals, our long overlooked and misunderstood lymphatic system does way more than we ever suspected. Jody Scott explores how we can help it, help us.
For more than a decade, This is Water, by the late David Foster Wallace, has been a little book with a cult following because it reminds us to pay attention to the simple yet essential things that are all around us, all the time, but hidden in plain sight. “We have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water,’” he wrote.
Our long overlooked and misunderstood lymphatic system is essential for good health yet far from simple. It’s part of the immune system and is made up of a network of vessels, nodes and organs that work to keep body fluid levels in balance, defend against infections and remove cellular waste.
But lately it’s been enjoying more attention in beauty, wellness and seriously scientific circles. Some even claim that lymph, the pale fluid that bathes the tissues and is made up of 96 per cent water, is as important as blood.
Our current and acute case of “lymphomania” possibly began in 2019 when supermodel Elle Macpherson, then 55, Instagrammed the flat-bellied results of her lymphatic drainage massage at the hands of US celebrity body sculptor Sheila Perez. Around the same time, Victoria’s Secret Angels began seeking abdominal massage from London physiotherapist Flavio Morellato. Now, Hailey Bieber, Jennifer Aniston and Kendall Jenner are fans of LA-based, Brazilian lymphatic masseuse Rebecca Faria, who is reported to have a 2,000-plus waitlist.
Patient zero may never be known. The “French Beauty Massage” – a palpating rolling technique that seeks to stimulate lymph flow – has been around since the 1930s, while the deep, gentle abdominal massage known as Chi Nei Tsang in Chinese medicine, is centuries old. In Ayurvedic medicine, the lymphatic system is known as rasa dhatu, or “river of life”. Treatments have ebbed and flowed since Ancient Greeks first observed lymph (named after Lympha, the ancient Roman deity of fresh water) in around 300BC.
Fast forward 2,000 years and there is a renewed interest in manually remodelling puffy faces, bloated bellies and fluid-filled thighs. We’re also embracing DIY with dry body brushes, massage devices, rollers, suction cups and gua sha tools, along with infrared saunas, cryotherapy and rebounders for their aesthetic and preventative health benefits.
The methods of shifting intercellular fluid on offer vary from the gentle, feather-light strokes of the Dr Vodder technique to more painful palpitations, strokes and compressions, sometimes using tools. Although purists argue deep massage targets muscle and misses the lymphatic system that lies just beneath our skin.
But it’s the momentum in lymphatic research that is most exciting, as scientists discover our mysterious river of nodes, vessels and almost invisible fluid does more than we ever realised.
Professor Natasha Harvey, head of Lymphatic Development Laboratory and director of the Centre for Cancer Biology at the University of South Australia and SA Pathology, says it’s a golden age to be in a rapidly moving field of research, one that in recent decades is experiencing a resurgence. “New tools and technologies that have been developed in the past 20 years or so have greatly aided our ability to study the lymphatic system and recognise that lymphatic vessel dysfunction contributes to human disease,” she says.
Until recently, the role of the lymphatics were poorly understood and barely acknowledged by Western medicine. The lymphatic system was known as the body’s drain or garbage disposal system that helped clear toxins, bacteria, viruses, waste products and excess fluid from our tissues, absorbed digestive fats and transported immune cells wherever they were needed. Cancer cells were also known to travel via the lymph. And for a long time that was all we knew about it.
However, recent studies have discovered the lymphatic system is an active player in the development of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, inflammation, cancer, autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders, glaucoma, inflammatory bowel diseases and obesity. Advanced imaging has also revealed lymph vessels in bone that promote healing and regrowth.
Harvey says in the future, therapies that repair lymphatic vessel dysfunction may be used to treat conditions such as obesity, lymphedema or Alzheimer’s disease.
Like all ecosystems, humans are healthiest when our rivers run clean, clear and uninterrupted. Sluggish or congested lymphatic flow can lead to stagnation, inflammation and illness.
“I like to think of the lymphatic system as a highway responsible for directing immune cell traffic throughout our bodies, monitoring the health of our tissues, maintaining tissue fluid balance and absorbing lipids and lipid soluble nutrients from the digestive tract,” Harvey says. “Interruptions to that highway can have far-reaching consequences for many aspects of our health.”
Unlike the blood, which is pumped by our heart, our lymphatic system does not have a central pump to keep it moving. We are also unable to accurately measure its flow or function without medical imaging. But fluid accumulation, recognised as tissue swelling or heaviness, can be a sign things aren’t functioning well.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Dr Marina Christov says other signs of sluggish lymphatics can include enlarged lymph nodes, breast swelling and tenderness, bloating, skin problems, brain fog, fatigue, food sensitivities and excess weight or cellulite.
“In my practice, cases of challenging chronic pain cannot be resolved without mobilising stagnation in the lymphatic system,” Christov says. “We achieve this through movement, dancing, bouncing, deep breathing, massage, tapping, gua sha, dry brushing, acupuncture, herbs and meditative practices. It is also essential that patients increase pure water intake and eliminate substances that add to the toxic load and burden the body.”
Daily movement is key to help keep our lymph fluid moving. That means embracing deep diaphragmatic breathing, daily exercise, hot baths, cold-water swimming, saunas, self-massage, hydration, proper sleep and avoiding inflammatory, processed foods. When sitting for long periods on flights, try compression stockings, deep breathing and leg paddling.
And it’s good to avoid tight-fitting bras, underwear and clothing that constricts lymph flow around the groin and armpits where there are a highly concentrated number of lymph nodes.
Christov says taking care of our emotional health is also important. “I often notice lymphatic congestion in patients who cannot let go off toxic emotional states or relationships that are blocking them in life,” she says. “Holding on to long-standing grief, can also cause stagnation. Being run-down and overwhelmed for long periods of time can diminish the joy one feels for their life and this, too, can negatively impact this system. Having poor emotional boundaries is another example. Everything is interconnected. You can skip and dry brush all you want, but if you do not address the deeper emotional blockages within the psyche, you will remain stuck.”
She says the concept of flow is central to holistic medicine. “For total health and wellbeing, we need to spend equal time unblocking as well as building. Hence, movement is of the essence. Emotional as well as physical.”
In other words, go with the flow.
Read in Vogue Australia here: https://apple.news/AOAKcvF9hR2Ku9YeEM4RGMg