Lymphatic drainage and how it affects your health

The lymphatic system is often referred to as the “second circulatory system” and flows throughout the entire body. It is a complex network of nodes, ducts, lymphatic tissues and lymph vessels that produce and transport lymph fluid from the tissues to the circulatory system, and as well has an important role in the immune system. The lymphatic system aids in the detoxification of the body and removal of metabolic wastes.

When your lymphatic system is sluggish or clogged, it creates a condition of stagnation which can promote fatigue. Some symptoms include lumps, bumps, pain and swelling of the lymph nodes. Most often this occurs because the nodes are damaged by radiation therapy, medications, or removed by surgical intervention. Lymph nodes are in clusters, in the neck, under the arms, in the groin and behind the knee. If you press these areas you may feel lumps and some may feel painful.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no pump (such as your heart) to keep fluid flowing, it depends on muscular action to move the lymph along. Some causes of a blocked lymph system are due in part to stress (chronic muscle contraction), lack of exercise, improper diet, certain medicines, surgery or medical interventions such as breast and lymph node removal because of cancer. The accumulation of lymph is termed lymphedema, when large amounts of the fluid accumulate in the arms or legs after surgery. Lymphedema can occur right after surgery, or the onset can be delayed and it can occur months or even years later. There is also a condition called primary lymphedema, the cause of which is unknown.

Those who stand for long periods resulting in swelling in their legs and ankles need to move their lymph back into the circulation system. This can be done most effectively by exercise or, if the problem is severe, by using compression stockings, or elevation of the legs above the heart level.

Exercise is the natural way to keep the lymph flowing. For those who have lymphedema after breast surgery, exercise should be performed with a compression sleeve in place. Up to 25 percent of breast cancer patients who have their nodes removed develop lymphedema. For those unable to exercise there are a few methods of lymph self-care.

I spoke with Liz Fletcher, European trained esthetician of Paradise Beauty Salon and Spa in old town Kapaa, to obtain her recommendations for those who accumulate “water” on their legs and arms. Liz advised that self-administered manual techniques for lymph drainage include gentle” pumping” under the arm and through the leg crease coupled with light massage and stroking of the skin in the direction of lymph flow, generally towards the heart. The massage should be very gentle, not lengthy and only involve the skin, not the muscle layer of the body since many lymph nodes reside directly under the skin.

She also recommended dry body brushing as another effective technique for moving the lymph back into the circulatory system. Liz stated that dry body brushing should be practiced daily just before showering or bathing. The brush used should be made of only natural vegetable bristles: synthetic bristles should be avoided because they are too harsh. The brush should always be kept dry and not used for bathing.

When dry body brushing, the body should also be dry and the brush should pass gently over the skin in the direction of lymph flow — towards the heart. Liz recommended using long sweeping strokes, passing over every part of the body, except the face! There should be no back and forth or circular motions and no scrubbing. If the skin turns red, the pressure is too much. Dry body brushing is a traditional method to help remove dead skin build-up, help stimulate the lymph to move it along and it is also considered by some as an anti-cellulite treatment.

At the Paradise Beauty salon, the therapists incorporate manual lymphatic drainage with each facial and in the case of the advanced clinical facials they use a micro-current machine for lymphatic drainage. The dry body brushing is given in conjunction with the body detox wrap.

As always, the best care is preventative care. Eat right, Exercise sensibly, Reduce the stress and hang out with happy, positive people and you’ve got most of it handled!

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Jane Riley is a certified personal trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, (808) 212-8119, www.janerileyfitness.com.

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