The Art of Lymph Support
This post, originally published in April of 2022, has received a major update about the association between the health of our lymphatic system and thyroid health.
Way back in 2005 in nutrition school, I learned about the lymphatic system and was utterly captivated. I couldn’t write fast enough and I remember my hand cramping from taking pages of notes.
Come to find out, it’s an integral component of the circulatory system and in ancient medical traditions, they’ve long known that it’s just as critical to our health and wellbeing as our vascular system.
It’s a channel of fluid between our blood circulatory system and our cells, plays a critical role in immune health, and is a major factor in our inner ability to detoxify. More on this below.
The doctor giving this presentation was none other than Dr. John Douillard, Ayurvedic medical practitioner, who states, “The lymph travels with the nerves, arteries, and veins and is by itself twice as big as the arterial blood supply system—and maybe twice as important. The lymphatic system removes waste and from every cell in your body while regulating the immune system.” He continues, “The lymphatic system is like the drains in your house and the blood is like the faucets.”
(Go here to hear Dr. Douillard interview me and my Essential Thyroid Cookbook co-author, Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, about thyroid health. And go here for my post about how he took us to task about gluten.)
Despite its critical importance, unfortunately, in Western medicine, the lymphatic system isn’t often discussed outside of a lymphedema or lymphoma diagnosis.
Because of its vast immune supportive and detox properties, I’ve been teaching my clients and student about it for years. And it took on a new role of importance when I discovered the link between lymph health and…hair loss. It hit me over the head and was corroborated by Dr. Douillard. And again, this post has been updated to discuss the link between lymph health and thyroid health. More on both of these topics below…see headings.
First, more on what the lymphatic system does…
Most of our cells receive nutrients directly through the lymph, not via direct contact with our blood. Lymphatic fluid helps to transport essential nutrients such as salts, minerals, and proteins, working in unison with our circulatory system to deliver nourishment to our cells.
Lymph transports waste from our cells into the bloodstream and then our other systems of detoxification, primarily the liver, kidneys, and colon.
If our lymphatic system gets bogged down with too much waste, including too many undigested food particles (mostly from a diet too high in protein), it can get congested and essentially blocked or stagnant. Talk about inflammation.
Our lymphatic vessels don’t pump lymphatic fluid per se; they rely on muscle contraction and, to a lesser degree, nerve impulses. This is why physical activity is critical to lymphatic health. And my favorite way to “pump” lymph is to rebound. More on this below.
One way to know if it’s backed up and you’re not detoxifying properly is swollen nodes at the jaw/neck area, puffiness at the ankles and/or behind the knees, and stiff fingers upon waking—all of which point to debris of dead cells.
In addition to the jaw/neck/throat, swollen nodes also cluster in armpits, the groin area, and along the spine. This swelling is easy to identify in the jaw/neck area and can not only indicate compromised detoxification, but also that the body could be fighting an infection.
Your lymphatic system produces and circulates lymphocytes (white blood cells) and other immune regulatory cells that launch a seek and destroy mission on pathogens such as viruses, parasites, bacteria, and fungi.
I think it goes without saying that anything that protects your body from foreign invaders and helps with detoxification is undoubtedly a critical component of our immune system!
We certainly can’t sidestep the discussion of lymph health and…autoimmunity. While this association hasn’t been “well studied,” many experts in the functional medicine community certainly speak to it in the context of “dysfunction of lymphatic flow.”
I mean, it makes sense—if we’re backed up with toxins, the immune system is going to look to the bloodstream and go, “Hey, what is this? This ain’t supposed to be here. Let’s launch an attack, shall we?” Which is part and parcel of autoimmunity—an overactive, hypervigilant immune system. Except in the case of autoimmunity, the body gets its wires crossed and attacks self (our own tissues) vs. nonself (those viruses, parasites, bacteria, and fungi).
Again, talk about inflammation. We need the ability to “take out the trash” and if these pathogens hang around too long…well, you get the picture.
Your Lymph System and Follicle Health
An additional thing I’ve learned from Dr. Douillard is about glymphatics, or brain lymph. That’s a whole topic in itself, but a few years ago, something hit me like a ton of bricks.
If we consider that we have a whole lymphatic system in the vicinity of our scalp follicles, why wouldn’t congested glymphatics cause inflammation that would not only cause hair loss, but also keep the follicles in a state of inflammation such that the follicles can’t get signaled for new growth?
Now, I’m not suggesting that congested glymphatics is the only reason for alopecia! Hair loss is always multi-factorial. But I ran this idea by Dr. Douillard, who said, “Yes!”
Indeed, a lot of my alopecia clients have swollen lymph nodes. And stiff fingers in the morning. And puffiness. And when we start a discussion on lymph/glymph, a lot of lightbulbs go on. Keep in mind, we also have a lot of nodes around the ears—couple that with congested glymphatics, and you often have a recipe for inflamed hair follicles.
Your Lymph System and Thyroid Health
Dr. Douillard continues in this article, “As far back as 1988, researchers knew that 90% of hypothyroid cases were due to an autoimmune concern that was originally described as a lymphatic congestive condition of the neck and thyroid. In 1912, the Japanese doctor Hakura Hashimoto was the first to describe the thyroid condition that we now call Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. However, he actually called this condition struma lymphomatosa. This is because of the congestion of the cervical lymph nodes that is present in this condition. Over the years, the related lymphatic congestion was the defining factor of the condition, leading to names like lymphocytic thyroiditis, lymphadenoid goiter, and others. Eventually, the medical community finally settled on calling it Hashimoto’s—and, as a result, the underlying lymph congestion has been dismissed as just a symptom of sluggish thyroid function, instead of a potential cause.
“The first sign of lymphatic congestion is the building up of excess weight around the belly and hips, then pushing into other areas of concentrated lymph. This could cause muscle stiffness, fatigue, skin irritations, swelling, water retention or bloat, hypersensitivity reactions, weakened immunity, headaches, moodiness, brain fog, and much more— all of which are also symptoms of a thyroid imbalance.”
We know how critical digestive health is for reversing any autoimmune condition, given that 70-80% of our immune system is in the gut. Yes, we want to sleuth out food sensitivities. We want to address any possible gut infections, like yeast/candida or H.pylori. And we want to ensure that we’re converting T4 into T3, which takes place in the gut (and liver).
According to Dr. Douillard, it may be an issue to begin supporting the lymphatic system prior to addressing our microbiome. He states, “Once a digestive imbalance has been resolved, support for the body’s lymphatic congestion can be started. Starting lymphatic therapies before the underlying digestive imbalance is resolved can be problematic. When the lymphatic congestion around the thyroid reaches the level of an autoimmune condition, there is excessive lymphatic congestion that is attempting to protect the thyroid from an overzealous immune reaction. In this advanced stage, the lymphatic system slows down in an attempt to halt the overzealous immune response that has turned on its own thyroid. During this advanced stage, it is best not to support the lymphatic system issues until the underlying factors are resolved, and you have received proper medical attention.”
Get it Moving
While I recommend heeding Dr. Douillard’s recommendation (above) to address digestive issues before starting any lymph therapy, I’ve made the gentle suggestions you see below for my clients for years with a great deal of success. My non-medical opinion is that that they can be done simultaneous to a gut-healing protocol, but speak with your medical provider for proper guidance, especially if, as Dr. Douillard states, you have “advanced stage” Hashimoto’s/hypothyroidism…or any autoimmunity.
While “lymph support” may sound complicated, it’s not. It’s EASY to move lymph. And what I love is that it typically requires no supplementation or appointment—you can do this at home. (For people who are really backed up, I do suggest lymphatic drainage massage with a qualified professional, but you want to go low and slow with this. My recommendation is to go with someone who’s trained at the Vodder School.)
No matter what lymph-supportive practice you choose to employ, go low and slow, as draining lymph too quickly can cause a detox reaction.
1. Self massage
Many people benefit greatly from lymphatic self massage:
- Place your fingers on either side of your neck right under your ears.
- Gently move the skin in a downward motion towards the back of your neck.
- Repeat 10 times by gradually positioning your fingers lower and further down from your ear.
- Place fingers at the top of your shoulders.
- Gently massage by bringing the skin closer to the collarbone.
- Repeat 5 times.
2. Get a rebounder
While most any movement will help to move lymph, a rebounder is highly effective, as the pumping activity pumps lymph.
Make sure you get one with the bungee cords vs. springs—it’s a very different quality of bounce. Again, go low and slow, especially with rebounding. Start with only 2-3 min. at a time because if your lymph is considerably congested, rebounding for too long can incite a detox reaction and make you feel really crappy. Too many people view rebounding as “easy,” so they “go long” and if their lymph is congested, regret it.
3. Dry brushing
Talk about amazing. Go here for my Dry Brush handout.
4. Hydrate hydrate hydrate
As Dr. Douillard says, “One of the most common causes of lymph congestion is dehydration. Water and only water can adequately rehydrate the body. The best lymph moving rehydration technique is to sip hot water every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Do it religiously for one day. If by the end of that day you are experiencing a dry mouth and are now thirsty for this once tasteless sip of hot water, this is a good indication you are dehydrated and your lymph is congested. If this happens, try this rehydration therapy: sip hot water every 10-15 minutes for 2 weeks straight. Keep a thermos of hot water nearby to make it easy to follow this protocol.”
While I take a “food first” approach as much as possible, I also take a “self care” approach as much as possible. While I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from getting a lymphatic drainage massage (if you’ve ever had one, you know how ah-mazing they feel), you’ll get a ton of mileage simply by heeding the suggestions in this post.
I can promise that your immune system and detox pathways—and hair follicles and thyroid—will all benefit. This is seriously one of the best ways to practice self care.