Lymphatic System Part I: Dry Brushing

This article was featured on YOGINIOLOGY, a beautiful online presence created by Julie Schoen that connects, supports, inspires and encourages women.

In my clinical practice and in my personal life I have become more and more obsessed with the Lymphatic System. I have begun to see it, along with the cardiovascular system, as the first thing that needs to be looked at in physical health.  The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system, comprised of a network of vessels throughout the body that carry fluid from the tissues to the heart.

The most important functions of the Lymphatic system for the body are that of regulating immunity and filtration of toxins.  Along with other white blood cells, the lymphocytes within the lymphatic system are our first line of defence against disease and infection (T and B cells and Natural Killer Cells). They are found in the lymph nodes, and lymphoid organs, including the tonsils, spleen and the thymus.  These organs produce and circulate lymphocytes, and are closely connected with bone marrow production and even our digestion!  In the partner part of the circulatory system, the cardiovascular system processes around 20 liters of blood a day.  An integral part of this process is when capillaries filter plasma from blood cells into the lymphatic system, cleanse it, after which it gets absorbed back into the bloodstream again. The lymphatic fluid carries waste, bacteria, and dead cells from the organs and tissues, and works with other organs in the body to manage fluid levels.  …needless to say we definitely want a well pumping system.

You can think about this like the plumbing in your house.  When all is functioning normally, the water and other liquids pass through with no problem.  When hair and food and other things that shouldn’t be in the drains collect, the system gets clogged and stops working.  Similarly, lymph fluids carry the body’s cellular sewerage away from the tissues to the bloodstream, where it can be filtered by the liver and the kidneys. It’s all part of an interconnected system at which the Lymph is the Great Mother, or Queen.  (I like to think of the Cardiovascular System as the King or Father).

We find lymph nodes concentrated around the throat, armpits, chest, abdomen and groin, which are situated near arteries. Lymph empties via external or internal routes into lymphatic ducts, which drain into one of the subclavian veins in the neck area.

Why is it so important to be proactive about lymph health? Doesn’t it just take care of its self?  No, it doesn’t.  As human animals, we are meant to be moving (and eating and drinking foods that are easy to digest and and assimilate).  The lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pumping system, and it must be manually pumped.  Lymph is moved by extrinsic compression of the lymphatic vessels, through muscular contraction.  This is a huge reason why sitting all day is so bad for us. It is not our biological make-up to be sitting.  If you have to be at a desk a lot, make a point of standing up every 25 minutes and walking around, or doing a handstand, or a sun salutation (studies show we don’t hold efficient attention for longer than that anyway).

We can assist moving lymph in the following ways:

  • Rhythmic movement/exercise:  walking, hiking, vinyasa or flow yoga, jumping, dancing, including activities that put positive stress on the cardiovascular system, and get the heart rate up.  Additionally any activity that encourages large movements of the major joints (shoulders, hips, knees, neck)
  • Dry brushing
  • Massage + oiling
  • Deep breathing.
  • Sweating: saunas and/or movement that makes you sweat are amazing.  Doing physical activities that make you perspire and generating heat from the inside helps move the circulatory system and keep it from getting stagnant.  But as with everything, too much can be counterproductive.  Excess sweating, like dripping pools on the floor, done regularly for long periods of time depletes the system, and disturbs with the electrolyte balance in the body.

Other life-rhythm practices to keep the lymphatic system healthy and not on constant over-load:

  • Eliminate stress – when possible toxic people, substances, and environments
  • Stay hydrated, sipping on 2 litres of water a day. (This varies with constitution)
  • Drink lemon infused water in the morning, first thing.
  • Get out in fresh air and nature.
  • Consistently eating an organic diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables.
  • Rest and relaxation when needed, and establishing a sleeping routine.
  • saunas, steam rooms, sweat lodges
  • reduce salt intake!

Symptoms of a sluggish lymphatic system:

  • inability to fight of infections, getting sick a lot
  • fatigue, even after enough sleep
  • cellulite and/or lack of tone.
  • poor circulation
  • regularly swollen Lymph nodes
  • acne
  • headaches
  • water retention
  • weight gain or inability to lose fat
  • feeling heavy
  • achy joints and skin

Symptoms of a depleted Lymphatic system
A person who is thin can also have a depleted lymphatic system, usually this surfaces because of poor hydration and impaired circulation, and leads to dry skin, drop in collagen production leading to more wrinkles,  loss of tone in skin and body structure, cellulite, fatty organs and being prone to exhaustion, weakness and sickness.

Dry Brushing!

For this post I will introduce one of my favorite practices that can help you get started on lymphatic health dry skin brushing!

The Skin + Lymph
You may have heard that the skin is the largest organ of the human body.  Amazingly, up to ⅓ of your body’s waste in excreted through it. A large portion of the lymph vessels and nodes lay just under the skin, and dry brushing in a movement toward the heart, helps activate the drainage of lymph and stimulates blood circulation.  Additionally, this practice helps remove dead skin cells and stimulates sweat and oil glands, assisting in the cleansing process as well as the ability to keep skin clear and moisturized.  Your skin will begin to glow as your circulation improves.

While superficial, a big topic is cellulite and skin tone, which are just outward manifestations of a circulatory system that could be happier. These are not only problems of heritage or excess fat for your body type. It is largely related to lymph in that it is an accumulation of wastes and fluids underneath the skin, due to poor circulation.  Dry brushing, along with other lifestyle practices (briefly listed above, and which I will discuss in future articles) can help move lymphatic drainage, and you will definitely notice a marked increase in tone, skin moisture and smoothness.  Dry brushing is an awesome way to help out.

Once you develop a  dry brushing routine, and you can get it done in 5 minutes a day.

What you need
The first step is to find a brush or brushes that suit you.  When you begin dry brushing your skin might be quite sensitive.  The skin will be either sensitive because it is a delicate part of your body (in which case, use a delicate brush), or in an area that shouldn’t be as sensitive, because you have stagnation there, commonly hips, thighs, etc.  Find a brush that doesn’t hurt, but which you feel enough stimulation. Delicate for sensitive areas like the neck, armpits, groin and breasts.  And something firmer for other areas.  Many people use silk body brushing gloves for sensitive areas.  I actually have the 3 different ones below.
When you need it
Dry brush in the morning, before exercise or a shower (whichever comes first). Try before a warm salt bath, as it opens pores and aids in absorption of salts.

How to do it
To brush, begin with your feet, working your way up in upward strokes towards your neck the down your chest toward the heart. Spend a little extra time in the areas with higher concentration of lymph nodes and problem areas of stagnation like cellulite.  You do not need to be rough, and do not brush your face {I will talk about face massage for this another post).  Make sure to always brush toward the heart.

After care
Apply oil for moisturizer after a shower or bath, never before dry brushing.  Avoid lotions and other moisturizers that are full of chemicals and fragrances.  Oil, like sesame, coconut or jojoba with a little essential oil will be best absorbed by the skin and keep it happy.  I will delve into the amazingness of self-oiling and massage in a future article.  Stay tuned, and until then, start dry brushing!

Read the next post in the series for an oil scrub recipe!

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