A Healthy Lymph System is Vital for Flu Fighting Immunity
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
The healthy function of your lymphatic system is required for an optimal immune response. Millions of Americans struggle with a sluggish and stagnant lymph system. If you are one of them, this is because your lymph system, in addition to its immune related chores, is also involved with clearing trash and the absorption and transport of fat. The speed with which you mount an immune response can be drastically impaired by poor lymph function. It is worthwhile to understand how well your own lymph system is working.
Lymph System 101
During the course of infection, cells that have identified an invader—such as the dendritic cells of your front line immune troops—must migrate into your lymphatic system and present their findings to a subgroup of lymphocytes called T helper cells that reside within lymph tissue.
Your T helper cells have various meeting rooms within lymph nodes and lymph tissue where they discuss the problem and refine their identification of the invader. (This is far superior than health care officials traveling to China to make a guess at which viruses should be in next season’s flu vaccine.)
Once T helper cells reach consensus, they present the identification tag of the invader (antigen) to the higher powered air force of your immune system, so that your military knows what the enemy looks like. Troops resting in the barracks of your lymph tissue then spring into action, having specific knowledge of the enemy’s appearance. At the same time, the call goes out to manufacture more immune troops, requiring your liver to send protein. This runs smoothly only if your system is adequate in many basic nutrients.
In addition to your liver providing nutrition for the formation of your immune troops, the latest research shows that your liver participates in antigen recognition and production of immune troops1 as well.
Various nutrients are needed to properly energize the immune cells so that they can move about. It’s similar to the necessity of having gasoline in your car and an engine that works. In addition, the condition of the highways that are being traveled upon is of utmost importance. In the case of your immune response, those highways and roads are your lymphatic system. If your roads are cluttered with sludge or in a state of disrepair, dendritic cells have a harder time getting to the meeting rooms of the T helper cells, troop production is reduced, and the speed of deployment is handicapped.
When a viral enemy is rapidly multiplying, a swift immune response can make all the difference in the severity of infection.
What is Lymph Stagnation?
Lymph stagnation is not a common medical term, but it should be. If doctors understood the subject they would have much better results with their patients. A properly flowing lymph is essential for a speedy and effective immune response. A stagnant or congested lymph spells trouble, in direct proportion to the amount of stagnation present.
The fluid between every cell of your body becomes lymph fluid as it enters your lymphatic vessels. Waste products of metabolism that are too large to put into your blood and breathe out are transported via your lymph to your liver for processing. The greater the amount of wear and tear you are under, from any source, the more trash must be hauled out through this system.
Your lymph fluid flows toward two main thoracic ducts (about the size of garden hoses) on either side of your spine between your shoulders. A sluggish and stagnant lymph system is marked by a variety of symptoms related to the pressure buildup in this area of your body, a type of internal “constipation.”
Your lymph circulation does not have its own pump. Rather, it runs primarily on muscle contractions that massage it along. Therefore, inactivity and loss of muscle tone are major problems for healthy lymph flow.
The classic symptoms of lymph stagnation involve stiffness and pressure in your shoulder area. This is a location where muscles (stress tension), nerve-related stress (brain stem excitation such as anxiety, stress overload, or pain), and the thoracic ducts of your lymph system all converge (they all cross talk with inflammatory cytokines). A problem in any one of these systems causes problems to the others. For example, a history of whiplash injury can severely handicap lymph function due to the injured tissue. Even once the injured tissue heals, the lymph congestion may remain. Part of true fibromyalgia always involves significantly impaired lymph function in the shoulder area, causing trash to back up in muscles and make them hurt.
Your lymph system is a pressure system. When it is stagnant in the main shoulder area it forces pressure and waste products up into your head. This can cause headaches that start in the back of your neck and work their way up. It can cause pressure headaches on the top of your head or behind your sinuses. It causes you to make excess mucous following a meal, as a way to discharge waste that cannot make it through the normal lymph channels. It causes you to have excess mucous in the morning, which is plan B for getting rid of excess trash that could not be processed normally.
It often results in ongoing sinus problems. Fluid in your head must drain down through your lymph system, which, if sluggish in the shoulder area, causes risk for those head fluids to become stagnant. A stagnant lymph is responsible for repeat ear infections in children, as the back up of fluid in the ear’s eustachian tubes becomes a breeding ground for infection.
Your lymph system likes to do its cleaning at night. If you have problems, the thoracic ducts will swell while you are sleeping (an overworked trash removal system) and press on nerves that go to your hands and arms and to a lesser extent your legs and face. Compression on these nerves may cause your hand or arm to fall asleep while you are sleeping. Many people notice they have such a problem every now and then, which invariably is associated with a flare up of lymph troubles due to wear and tear overload. Those who have this problem frequently have significant lymph stagnation.
Because your lymph system is a pressure system, if it is stagnant you will be more susceptible to changes in environmental pressure. Those who feel worse when a weather front comes through or following an airplane ride often have lymph sluggishness. Even the gravitational pull of a full moon or a new moon can adversely influence a congested lymph system and cause symptoms of stagnation.
Your lymph system also has the duty to absorb and transport most of the dietary fat you consume. Thus, high fat meals in someone with pre-existing lymph stagnation will have a high likelihood of severely slowing down lymph flow, thus being highly immunosuppressive in addition to provoking snoring or sleep apnea.
I know a number of examples of people who woke up with extreme dizziness, rushed to the ER, and had numerous tests run, only to find out there wasn’t anything wrong. If only the doctor had asked if they’d eaten right before bedtime (the answer is always yes). The fat content of the food forced extra sludge into the lymph when the lymph wanted to do its housecleaning. The pressure backed up fluid in their eustachian tubes, forcing pressure on the balance centers in the ear and caused dizziness. Recurring dizziness not related to standing up too fast, ear popping, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is always made worse by lymph stagnation and often caused by lymph stagnation.
Too much dairy fat in young children often congests their lymph system, and sets the stage for repeat ear infections.
On the other hand, dietary fat is in some ways a stimulant to the flow of lymph, along with physical activity. Too much fat, especially a large meal or eating before bedtime, can stress lymphatic flow. The issue is worse if a person is already in a trend of sluggish lymph function. It’s a real mistake if you are fighting a bug.
Stress is a major challenge to your lymph system, as it literally shrinks your thymus gland—a main training center for lymphocytes. Additionally, too much stress tends to create surplus amounts of trash that must be cleared through your lymph system.
Half of your lymphatics are actually around your digestive tract and work to maintain proper immune response to whatever is in your gut. Constipation in your digestive tract causes a back up in your internal lymphatics, as there is no place for new trash to flow. Gut health is vital to lymph function and internal lymph flow. Lymph trash flows into a major vein, and then to your liver for processing, then mostly through your gallbladder, into your gut, and out. A problem anywhere along this functional lineup of trash handlers causes a rebound effect, like dominoes falling in the wrong direction.
Edema or water retention is another classic sign of a struggling lymph system. Thus, by definition, fluid buildup in your legs or the need to use medical diuretics are signs that your lymph system and thus potential immune response are not in tip-top working order. In fact, blood pressure medication can actually cause lymph stagnation by lowering the normal “push” that your circulatory gives indirectly to your lymph system.
The function of your lymphatic system can vary widely, ranging from highly effective, to various levels of stagnation and impaired immune response, until we reach the fibromyalgia level of major lymph problem.
Regardless of the state of your lymph function, it is vital to improve or maintain optimal function, so that your immune system can work better to fight a flu infection.
Getting a good response to exercise is basic for improving lymph function. Stagnation of your body is public enemy number one. Any exercise helps.
A simple exercise for those with a very congested lymph system is to lay on your back and place each hand on your opposite shoulder (this takes tension off the thoracic ducts in your shoulder area). Keeping your feet flat, move your feet up toward your rear end and keep them about shoulder distance apart. Put your knees together, forming a teepee look with your legs (this rolls your hips out and takes pressure off the thoracic duct moving from your gut up the left side of your spine). Stay in this position for 2 to 20 minutes, however long it takes for you to feel the pressure decline, at which point your lymph will move better. This simple exercise helps many people prevent or stop a potentially difficult lymph headache or major pressure problem. It is a favorite for people with fibromyalgia, as they may not be fit enough to do aerobic activity.
Of course, massage of the upper back invariably helps move your lymph along and those with a long-term history of lymph problems will eventually need to be able to tolerate deep tissue massage in this area to break up the “scar tissue” that is linking their connective tissue into such a stiff condition. Chiropractic can sometimes help, but results are short-lived unless the underlying lymph problem is addressed (as the lymph pressure will just push the spine back out of alignment). It is generally best to have muscles massaged and relaxed before an upper back adjustment is attempted, especially in those with long-term lymph struggles.
Best Nutrients for the Lymph System
I was one of the original users of arabinogalactan in clinical practice (it is far superior to Echinacea, which I no longer use due to allergy issues). In the 1990’s clients, who had just been to the hospital with their infant who had been running a high fever for three days, stopped by my office on their way home to see if I had any suggestions (the doctors offered nothing). Because arabinogalactan is a carbohydrate with no toxicity, I suggested they may want to give it a try as some preliminary studies showed it helped ear infections in children. They mixed some up in my office and gave it to their child. They called when they got home, the fever had broken. Countless children have benefited ever since.
My second choice is proteolytic enzymes, especially bromelain4 and papain, which are themselves “garbage eaters” and anti-inflammatory5 nutrients (they help reduce excess trash formation). Many digestive enzyme products have a secondary benefit of cleaning internal trash, which of course helps move sluggish lymph.
Quercetin can help relieve the congestion6 that is associated with lymphatic overload, while helping front line troops stabilize7 and be more effective. Quercetin8 has been shown to help reduce the likelihood of the flu.
Oregano oil9 is a potent immune support nutrient based primarily on its active component, carvacrol. Carvacrol, as well as other oil components in oregano such as p-cymene and thymol are terpenes that are also fat-sludge solvents, i.e., they help dissolve sludge in the lymph system (and gallbladder for that matter). This is one reason oregano is so helpful for clearing out baseline sinus congestion along with its other multiple immune support benefits. Such baseline sinus issues are often fungal in nature. Oregano is one of the best natural antifungals10 available.
Those with fluid retention issues often benefit from herbs like horse chestnut11, hawthorn berry12, and grape seed extract, which help strengthen and tone capillaries, the water holding tissues between capillaries and the lymph system, and the lymph system itself.
Any nutrients that help reduce inflammation, boost energy, or help you tolerate stress will also help your lymph system by reducing the amount of trash it has to deal with in the first place.
Any nutrients that help your liver, gallbladder, or digestive tract handle trash better also help lymphatic stagnation because improvement will enable trash to flow out of the lymph system and smoothly get out of your body. Thus, some people will benefit from a more detailed understanding of the entire subject of detoxification.
Any nutrient that helps you sleep better will help your lymph system because sleep is the main time your lymph tries to do its housecleaning chores. If you feel worn out when you wake up, it is directly reflective of how poorly your lymph system functioned while you slept. While a lack of sleep will always make matters worse, improving your lymph function in general will always help you sleep better.
Improving the function of your lymph system is required for optimal immunity. If you do get sick, your lymph system will have its hands full mounting an immune response. It will also work overtime trying to clear trash that is coming from the battlefield. If you can’t keep up with the trash clearing, your body will run a fever to break the toxic bonds of waste products coming from the infection.
The more that your body feels like it is being run over by a Mack truck, the more the garbage removal capability of your lymph system is being tested. At this time, using higher amounts of lymph clearing nutrients will help rid you of that horrid feeling and improve your body’s ability to get over the hump and win the battle.
If your lymph system remains clogged during a battle, when you do finally get better you will be at much greater risk of a recurring infection or a new infection taking hold.
When you support your lymph system function, both in terms of its health and in a time of need, you will have a better immune response to fight the flu.
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