Cancer and the lymphatic system have a pretty interesting relationship. The lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system. Unlike blood, there is no pump to circulate lymph; it flows through the body via muscle movement.
Lymph is a clear, fatty fluid produced by blood marrow, organs, and glands that moves throughout the body, carrying nutrients and removing waste that are too big to move through veins. The system is comprised of lymph nodes, vessels, and lymphoid tissues. The gut is the body’s lymph storehouse, containing 80% of our immune cells in lymphatic tissue (1).
Cancer And The Lymphatic System
Lymph moves through the body and is filtered in the nodes. Lymphocytes in the nodes kill abnormal cells (cancer), viruses, and harmful bacteria. The liquid then transports the waste to the liver and kidneys for detoxification and subsequent removal through the excretory system.
Any intruders that the lymphatic system doesn’t recognize (e.g., toxic chemicals and pollutants) go along for the ride and are carried throughout the body, including in the blood and organs. This is why cancer tests include a lymph biopsy: if cancerous cells are prevalent in lymph, it’s a sign that they exist in the organs as well. What the immune system (of which lymph is a huge part) can’t kill is transported and makes its way through the lymphatic system—this is how cancer can spread.
Symptoms of a sluggish lymphatic system include:
- Brain fog
- Breast swelling or soreness during menstruation
- Cold hands and feet (poor circulation)
- Dry or itchy skin
- Leg discoloration
- Morning stiffness or soreness
- Swollen fingers
Keeping Your System Flowing
We can see then how important it is to keep lymph flowing freely, to prevent toxins and cancerous cells from settling in any one place to take hold and proliferate. Here’s what you can do to reset your system.
Regular exercise helps keep everything in the body working properly: We simply aren’t meant to be sedentary. Muscle movement, strength and tone are important to move lymph. Studies show that exercise increases lymph flow 2-3 times that of when at rest.
Gravity is a useful force with any liquid and bouts of zero gravity help to drain lymph. Not all of us live near an amusement park to ride a roller coaster so gentle jumping on a trampoline—called “rebounding”—is one of the best ways to improve lymph flow. It’s low impact and you can do it at home. Two minutes at a time 3-10 times a day does wonders for circulation.
Placing your body or parts thereof in an upside-down or inverted position allows gravity to pull in the direction opposite of the normal upright, thereby pulling lymph through nodes and toward the heart. An inversion table is ideal for this. Some yoga positions are extremely beneficial for this purpose as well. You can find photos and instructions for some poses here.
3. Deep Breathing
With each breath, we take in oxygen to feed our blood. However, the pressure and muscle stimulation of conscious deep breathing also promote lymph flow. There is much more lymph in the body than blood, so it’s important to push it along. Plus, pranayama yoga breathing exercises are very effective and have been shown to have many benefits for the body and mind (2).
4. Dry Skin Brushing
With a stiff dry natural bristle brush, gently brush the arms and legs toward the heart before showering in the morning to get your lymph flowing. Lymph ducts are located in the chest, so make sure to follow the proper movement.
Dry skin brushing also helps remove toxins excreted through the skin. External pressure followed by the warm shower stimulates flow from both outside and within and washes them down the drain.
5. Drink Water
Many of us don’t drink enough plain (filtered) water and since lymph is a fluid, it can become too thick in times of dehydration. Getting plenty of warm water and herbal tea helps keep everything in the body moving as it should, improving digestion and lymph flow in the process.
Lymphatic massage, whether performed by a trained therapist or on your own, is proven to facilitate flow and proper drainage (3). Additionally, since chronic stress can contribute towards a sluggish lymphatic system, massage can help reduce stress and muscle constriction (4).
Deficiency in this important nutrient is common and can be a sign of poor lymph flow and thyroid dysfunction. Dulse, Himalayan salt, mushrooms, and beets are exemplary sources of iodine to help your body rid itself of toxins.
8. Red Foods
The red pigment in pomegranates, cherries, red grapes, beets, berries, and other red foods contains phytonutrients including antioxidants that stimulate lymph.
9. Overall Diet
What you eat directly affects every cell in your body. Eliminating processed foods that are laden with synthetic chemicals and other toxins takes a tremendous strain off your lymphatic system. Food that contains genetically modified organisms and pesticides are considered foreign invaders by your body and what lymph can’t handle will remain, leading to illness and disease. Lymph will thicken with residual toxins, making it harder for your body push through to eliminate. Whole foods, with an emphasis on organic raw fruits and vegetables, provide the nutrients you need without the bad stuff. The Ayurvedic practice of eating seasonal fruit on its own is known to promote lymph health (5).
Maintaining a vibrant lymphatic system will help to prevent the development of cancer and other serious illness. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there; giving lymph the attention it deserves supports your immune system and delivers nutrients where they’re needed.