Understanding Lymph and Lymph Toxins

What's Sluggish Lymph?

Male anatomy, illustration
PIXOLOGICSTUDIO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Lymph is the fluid in your lymphatic system. Blood reaches tiny capillaries that have small holes in them to let some of the fluid escape or seep out into the tissues. Along with the fluid are some small proteins, but red blood cells and large proteins are retained in the blood because they are too big to get out. This fluid is not called lymph until it is collected and drained away from the tissues by the lymphatic system.

If you search "lymph + toxins," there are all kinds of odd search returns, including articles that focus on detox diets and lymph-boosting nutrition. There are also articles urging you to adjust your diet and lifestyle to “cleanse” the lymph system, in addition to many references to holistic care and plugs for dietary supplements and organic products.

In some of these articles, claims are made that tend not to be grounded in science, including ones that implicate a “sluggish or clogged lymph system” with nearly every type of malady that is highly prevalent in normal, otherwise healthy people. Is there any truth to this?

All of Your Ailments Are Probably Not Due to “Sluggish Lymph”

Blocked lymphatic flow does occur and can create many different problems, and poor lymphatic circulation might be very important in some situations; however, these articles seem to suggest that “sluggish lymph” may be extremely common and that it’s to blame for much more than has thus far been proven.

For instance, in one article, the lymphatic system is described as your body’s sewage system, along with the warning “if you suffer from any of the following, it may be a sign your lymphatic system is clogged and needs a serious cleanse…” The statement is followed by a list generic and very common complaints: skin conditions, arthritis, unexplained injuries, excess weight or cellulite, headaches, chronic fatigue, sinus infections, and digestive disorders.

Another article suggests that the medical establishment does not want you to know about “the cleansing power of the lymph system” because doctors are fixated on a mindset in which malevolent diseases require the doctor to swoop in heroically to save you, with regular visits and medication; and that doctors are simply not open-minded enough to accept the truth that toxic lymph is at the crux of all ailments known to mankind.

In these articles, “flushing toxins” is often mentioned as something that happens as a result of ingesting certain super-foods or vitamin supplements, without explanation of how the lymph system is involved. Claims are made that certain foods improve lymphatic circulation, but no evidence is cited. Detoxification remedies receive mention, and related products are advertised in the margins.

Setting the Record Straight

Along with good hydration, the lymph system does have a role in cleansing—it’s not that doctors are not aware of this function, but rather that “cleansing” gets translated into clinical terms such as clearance, metabolism and excretion, and it is widely recognized that the liver, kidneys and lungs upstage the lymph system when it comes to excretion and detoxification of harmful materials; the lymph system is seldom an isolated actor, but rather it works in concert with other organs and systems, the circulatory system, liver, kidneys and other structures.

Now, if you are talking about the immune system, and not some vague notion of toxins and harmful impurities, then the lymph system does deserve a shining spotlight.

Why the Lymph System Is Amazing

The lymph system is marvelous, is important, and it might even be true that the lymph system “doesn’t get enough respect” in Western medicine, as one article suggests—but all these things combined fail to support the use of coffee enemas or taking a bath in clay, nor do they provide any evidence that such therapies work by boosting sluggish lymph circulation.

Once these things are out of the way, it’s possible to truly marvel at the lymph system and all it does.

It's also true that scientists have a lot more to learn about the lymphatic system. For instance, for decades it was “common knowledge” in medicine that the brain has no lymphatic vessels. Well, in the last couple of years, there have been an increasing number of reports that suggest the opposite may be true. The details are still being studied.

What’s in the Lymph?

What’s in your lymph? The answer depends in part on what patch of your body is being drained, and what you have been eating, drinking or otherwise partaking in. For those who don’t like the sewer analogy from above, lymphatic channels might just as well be thought of as “watershed streams.”

Smaller tributary vessels feed into larger ones, eventually delivering lymph to “the Amazon river of all lymph vessels,” the thoracic duct; and then, on into the ocean—the bloodstream. No doubt, before the lymph is delivered to the blood, there is some mighty filtering, processing and magnificent immune cell activity going on.

Lymph contains a variety of substances, including:

  • Proteins
  • Salts
  • Glucose
  • Fats
  • Water

and, importantly...

  • White blood cells

Lymph may also contain bacteria, which might be picked up by the lymph system and carried to a lymph node for destruction. In people with cancer, lymph may carry malignant cells from one site to another. That is why, for instance, in women with breast cancer, sometimes the lymph nodes in the armpit region need to be removed.

What’s a Sluggish Lymph System?

Unless things have changed very suddenly, you can’t go to the doctor and get a test for a “sluggish lymph system,” unless perhaps you have lymphatic channels that are actually blocked or dysfunction, resulting in swelling of the tissues. Such blockages are known to occur after certain surgeries and as a result of traumatic injury.

There are plenty of ways lymphatic channels can become truly blocked, such as invasion or compression, for instance due to a tumor or malignancy. Some parasites are also known to create  lymphatic obstruction, leading to swelling of limbs. But the “sluggish lymph system” as described in popular detox articles,  as the source of all ailments in a wide swath of the population, does not have much science to back it up yet.

The Best Recommendation for Your Lymph

In contrast, the importance of exercise and movement in lymphatic drainage is based on science and represents yet another reason moving your body is good for you. Lymph gets pumped when you move your muscles, not by a lymphatic heart.

For those concerned about their lymph drainage, lymphatic massage, also called lymphatic drainage, is a technique developed in treatment of lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid that can occur after lymph nodes are removed during surgery, most often after a mastectomy for breast cancer.

And, of course, good hydration, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are all good for your general health, and they might just help with your lymph toxins, too.

Sources:

Lu M, Munford RS. The Transport and Inactivation Kinetics of Bacterial Lipopolysaccharide Influence its Immunological Potency in vivo. Journal of immunology (Baltimore, Md: 1950). 2011;187(6):3314-3320. doi:10.4049/jimmunol.1004087.

Mingozzi F, Spreafico R, Gorletta T, et al. Prolonged contact with dendritic cells turns lymph node‐resident NK cells into anti‐tumor effectors. EMBO Molecular Medicine. 2016;8(9):1039-1051.

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