Column: Healthy Routes

The Lymphatic System

by Gladys Kublik

The Circulatory system has a shadow; a system of veins and capillaries carrying fluid back to the heart. In some respects, it is very similar to the circulatory system, but the Lymphatic system has no pump and relies on the contraction of muscles to push lymphatic fluid back towards the heart. The lymphatic system is composed of a delicate network of branching vessels that span your entire body. It is one of the most overlooked systems of the body, despite the fact it plays a central role in your overall health.
After a brief description, we will look at ways to keep it functioning at optimum levels.

This network of tissues and organs primarily consists of lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph. The tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus are all part of the lymphatic system. There are 600 to 700 lymph nodes in the human body that filter the lymph before it returns to the circulatory system. Often called the “River of Life,” it performs the vital function of removing excess fluid and waste, destroying pathogens and delivering nutrients and oxygen to the cells of the body. This process protects your body from toxins, allows cells in the body to function at their best and is vital to healthy immune system function.

Lymph passes from capillaries to lymph vessels and flows through lymph nodes that are located along the course of these vessels. Cells of the lymph nodes phagocytize or ingest, impurities such as bacteria, old red blood cells, and toxic and cellular waste. When bacteria are recognized in the lymph fluid, the lymph nodes make more infection-fighting white blood cells, which can cause swelling. The swollen nodes can sometimes be felt in the neck, underarms and groin.

Another major function of the lymphatic system is the transportation of fatty acids from the digestive system. The digestive system breaks large macromolecules of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids into smaller nutrients that can be absorbed through the villi of the intestinal wall. Most of these nutrients are absorbed directly into the bloodstream, but most fatty acids are absorbed through the lymphatic system. In the villi of the small intestine are lymphatic capillaries called lacteals. Lacteals can absorb fatty acids from the intestinal epithelium and transport them along with lymph. The fatty acids turn the lymph into a white, milky substance called chyle that is transported through lymphatic vessels to the thoracic duct where it enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver to be metabolized.
Lymph flows into the thoracic duct, a large vessel that runs parallel to the spinal column, or into the right lymphatic duct, both of which transport the lymph back into veins of the shoulder areas where it mixes with blood and is returned to the heart. Like the veins of the circulatory system, lymphatic capillaries and vessels move lymph with very little pressure to help with circulation. To help move lymph towards the lymphatic ducts, there is a series of many one-way check valves found throughout the lymphatic vessels. These check valves allow lymph to move toward the lymphatic ducts and close when lymph attempts to flow away from the ducts. In the limbs, skeletal muscle contraction squeezes the walls of lymphatic vessels to push lymph through the valves and towards the thorax. In the trunk, the diaphragm pushes down into the abdomen during inhalation. This increased abdominal pressure pushes lymph into the less pressurized thorax. The pressure gradient reverses during exhalation, but the check valves prevent the lymph from being pushed backward.

Maintaining a healthy Lymphatic system is key to maintaining our overall health. Muscle contraction and deep breathing are vital to the circulation of lymph fluid, so exercise is an important factor. Water is also vital to the lymphatic system as it literally washes the cells and carries toxins into the lymph for removal by the various nodes and organs in the system.

Signs of a poorly functioning lymphatic system include fluid retention, bloating and swollen fingers, dry, itchy skin and cold hands and feet. The following herbs are excellent for cleansing the lymphatic system. They can be taken alone or in a combination of two or more herbs. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Not only a powerful immune-boosting herb, Echinacea combines well with astragalus to lessen congestion and swelling in the lymphatic system. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous). The Chinese have been using astragalus, which they refer to as Huang qi, for more than 2,000 years. “Huang Qi” means “life-force strengthener.” In addition to strengthening the life force, astragalus is an excellent lymphatic system cleanser. Alongside echinacea, it alleviates congestion and swelling in the body. Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis). In addition to having anti-inflammatory properties, goldenseal encourages lymphatic cleansing. As always, maintenance and prevention are the keys to good health.

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