The Lymphatic System
Sometimes referred to as the vacuum cleaner and sanitizer of the body, the lymphatic system plays a critical role in tissue health and immune response.
It is also a link between the circulatory system and the immune system.
The lymphatic system is made up of a vast network of one-way vessels that complement the circulatory system, as well as lymphatic organs that support the immune system.
To understand what the lymphatic system is and how it works, we have to consider the circulatory system, a closed loop system that delivers nutrients, water and oxygen to our tissues. At the point of delivery, blood vessels become tiny (known as capillaries) and because they are limited by size and pressure, they can only reabsorb small particles and some fluid on the way back to the heart. This leaves larger molecules like proteins, waste products, toxins and extra fluid behind in the interstitium, the space between the layers of tissue where all this stuff floats around.
Nestled next to the blood capillaries are lymph capillaries. Lymph capillaries are different because they originate in this space and move fluid in only one direction. They are made of flat, slightly overlapping cells with anchoring filaments (like little strings) that attach to surrounding tissue. When enough interstitial fluid builds up in the space around the lymph capillary, it is pulled open allowing fluid and large molecules to enter. The fluid then becomes known as lymph and begins a long journey through many one-way vessels all the way to the terminus (just under the collarbone) where it is returned to the blood stream.
Along the way, lymph is filtered through lymph nodes where the first responders of your immune system can break down large molecules into smaller, harmless bits and send a wider alert to your body if there is an infection that needs attention.
To support the work that goes on at the lymph nodes, the lymphatic organs are responsible for making and storing lymphocytes, antibodies and other immune cells. These organs include:
Thymus gland, Spleen, Lymph nodes, Bone marrow, Tonsils, and Appendix
Keeping Your Healthy Lymphatic System Going Strong
Although your lymphatic system has been hard at work regulating your fluids, catching invaders and helping your tissues stay healthy your whole life, there are a number of ways you can support it's work.
Exercise. During exercise, lymphatic vessels are given a pumping boost by the muscles contracting around them. If you are feeling sluggish or achy, a brisk walk can help get your lymphatic system moving.
Stretching. The simple act of stretching, (nothing fancy, you don't have to be flexible) gives your lymph capillaries and vessels a little stretch too, allowing them to pick up fluid from your tissue and get it moving along the lymph pathway.
Deep Breathing. Deep Breathing acts as a natural pump on the larger lymph vessels deep in your chest and abdomen. These vessels carry all the lymph from your legs and deep abdomen to the "terminus" or place just under your collar bone where all of the lymph in your body is returned to the bloodstream. Deep breathing can help reduce lymph build up in the legs!
Hydration Staying hydrated helps your lymphatic system work efficiently. When you are dehydrated, there is less interstitial fluid available in the tissue to trigger the lymph capillaries to open. If they don't open well, it's more challenging to clear the big molecules, proteins and waste products from your tissue.