Be Well: There’s an Entire System in Your Body You Don’t Know About

Those bean-shaped glands you feel on the sides of your neck when you’re sick? There’s more where that came from—about 600 more of them scattered throughout your body, to be exact. If you’re looking to get a leg up on your health amid a seemingly endless sick season, don’t forget about your lymph.

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine 

Our suspicions of getting sick or coming down with something are usually confirmed when we feel a small lumping form on either sides of our neck. Beyond that telling sign, most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the functions of our lymphatic system. Yet this system plays a vital role in our health, working in close partnership with our immune system to fight off pathogens and keep us in tip-top shape.

Think of the lymphatic system as a transportation infrastructure that ensures fluid balance in the body, keeping all other systems functioning smoothly, says Spring Saldana, a massage therapist and massage therapy program chair at Northwestern Health Sciences University. Comprised of tissues, vessels, and organs, the lymphatic system spends most of its time collecting extra fluid and other substances like glucose and protein from tissues—collectively called lymph—and returning it to the bloodstream.

The lymphatic system also plays an integral part in our immune system, centered on the lymph nodes. There are about 600 of these bean-shaped glands scattered throughout the body in the neck, groin, and armpits. Saldana likens lymph nodes to car washes along the lymph highway that monitor and clean the lymph as it travels through.

The Finest Filters

These clusters of nodes clean the lymph, acting as filters that remove bacteria, viruses, damaged cells, cancer cells, and toxins. The nodes also contain white blood cells that serve as early warning systems for pathogens. Known as lymphocytes, these cells identify the bad actors and create antibodies that fight them off. Many times, the white blood cells get rid of foreign invaders before you even knew they were trying to make you sick, Saldana says.

So what exactly is happening when you can feel your lymph nodes, especially in your neck? It usually means that your nodes are working furiously to clean any brewing infections, such as strep throat or mononucleosis. “You might have an infection in your upper respiratory track or throat and the car wash stations can’t clean fast enough,” Saldana says. “The lymph nodes are overloaded, so they swell.”

There are times when your lymphatic system goes awry. It often shows up as swelling called lymphedema, most commonly in the arms and legs. Parts of the lymphatic system can be damaged from surgery, injury, or cancer treatment like radiation. But when unexplained swelling occurs, it might mean that your heart, liver, or kidneys aren’t functioning properly. Then it’s time to get your swelling checked out, Saldana says.

Stimulating the Lymphatic System

Making sure your lymph stays in fine form is smart because it plays such an essential role in your overall health. Saldana suggests focusing on these three key areas:

1) Exercise

Gravity does a lot of the work to move lymph throughout your body, but exercise really gives that process a boost. That’s because there is no organ supporting the flow of lymph and its work to filter out metabolic waste and pathogens. The best way to keep the lymph flowing through your lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels and then back into your bloodstream is through movement, Saldana says. Activity that causes muscle contractions and an increase in your heart rate is especially effective.

2) Deep Breathing

One vital muscle contraction that occurs around the clock is breathing thanks to your diaphragm, the muscle that sits right below the lungs. Engaging in deep breathing will really get the lymph moving. That’s because the diaphragm helps pump lymph to your chest and into the thoracic duct—the largest lymphatic vessel, Saldana says. Deep breathing is key for everyone but especially important for those with lymphedema.

3) Massage

Getting massages is another form of muscle contraction that can enhance the flow of lymph throughout your body. That’s because 80 percent of the lymphatic system is superficial, sitting close to the surface of our skin. “The pushing and pulling of massage moves your tissues for you and helps draw fluid into the lymphatic vessels,” Saldana says. “Manual lymphatic drainage massage, provided by a trained professional, will affect the superficial lymphatic vessels. Even a relaxation massage will help lymphatic function to some degree.”