The Lymph System and the role of diet

Anyone who has popped a blister will be familiar with ‘lymph’ – the clear fluid that forms part of our body’s circulatory system. The lymphatic system is vital to our immune system and ability to fight infection and disease. Just as the blood carries oxygen to all parts of the body, Lymph carries the infection fighting cells, called Lymphocytes, (you can see the result of their work when an infected cut becomes weepy and yellow). And just like blood, lymph moves around the body through the lymph vessels, a fine network of tiny capillaries that ‘recycle’ blood plasma through organs and tissues that can clean out any waste products. The lymph system also transports fats from the small intestine to the blood.


The Lymph Nodes are part of this system, and contain tissue that is capable of removing various toxins and damaged cells (such as cancer cells), preventing such pathogens from circulating to other parts of the body. This is the reason a doctor checks for swollen glands, (enlarged lymph nodes), to indicate areas of infection.


The Lymphatic system includes the spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and other lymphoid tissue which are involved in the production of Lymphocytes.Cleaned lymph re-enters the blood stream via a special duct situated in the neck. If the lymphatic system has been unsuccessful in removing pathogens, then any surplus will continue to be transported into the blood with potential to infect other  parts of the body.


It is my belief that keeping the Lymph system clean is the most important tool we have to fight infection, and diseases like Cancer. If the lymphoid tissue and lymph nodes do not have to clean out toxins such as preservatives and chemicals, and they are not overloaded with fats from our diet, then there is more capacity to deal with any mutated cells and bacteria that pass through.


It is widely accepted that exercise has many benefits to our health. Being ‘fit’ makes us feel better, helps us maintain an ideal weight, enables us to perform our daily tasks with ease, and reduces fatigue and the effects of stress. Improved cardio-vascular fitness can reduce the risk of heart disease. Weight bearing exercise stimulates the bones to produce new tissue, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Exercise is also a vital to the lymph system.


Lymph flows through the body in a network of capillaries, similar to blood vessels.  Blood is transported in a closed circuit, pumped around the body by the heart. On the other hand, Lymph is not a closed system. It is squeezed in and out of tissues where needed, entering the lymph vessels that transport it to the lymph glands where toxins are removed, and returning ‘cleaned’ lymph to the blood. Since there is no pump, the Lymphatic system relies on muscular contractions to help move the lymph through the capillaries. Exercise, by stimulating muscular contractions, helps to ensure the lymph flows freely. It seems sensible to me that after several hours of laying in bed, exercise first thing in the morning would be beneficial to stimulating the lymph system. Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), performed by light rhythmic strokes in a specific sequence, can also help to stimulate movement of the lymph.


In cases where the lymph is not flowing freely, it may accumulate in an area of the body and the tissues can become swollen. A common example of this is swollen ankles that can result from flying. Some people suffer from puffy ankles on a regular basis, and find relief by elevating the feet.


The condition, known as Lymphedema, may be mild, lasting just a short time, or in severe cases may require medical treatment. Lymphedema has several causes, generally resulting in the loss or damage of lymph vessels. Certain cancer treatment, including radiation and surgery, particularly when lymph nodes are removed, can produce Lymphedema. It can be caused by any trauma to the Lymph system from other sources such as burns, tattooing, liposuction, injuries, heart disease and obesity.


Light to moderate exercise is important for a person with lymphedema. However, the person should monitor the area for any signs of discomfort. Exercises that are good to stimulate lymph flow include walking, swimming, light aerobics, bike riding, and yoga.


The primary job of the lymph system is to clean out toxins and foreign substances, damaged cells (cancer), and infection. Foreign substances that cannot be used by the body include industrial and agricultural chemicals, preservatives, nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. Lymph also transports fats from the intestine. It stands to reason that if the lymphatic system is busy dealing with an abundance of these substances, it may be too overloaded to combat cancer or infection.

Another major issue is the relationship between cancer and sugar. All of our cells need glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Healthy cells follow a life cycle of growth, division and death. Cancer  cells, however, defy this cycle, mutating and building up in one place as a tumor or circulating around the body in the lymph. In his book ‘Anticancer’,  David Servan-Schreiber MD, PhD, writes in regards to sugar, “when we eat sugar, or white flour, or foods with a high ‘glycemic index’, the blood levels of glucose rise rapidly.  The body immediately releases a dose of insulin to enable the glucose to enter the cells.  The secretion of insulin is accompanied by the release of another molecule, called IGF (insulin-like growth factor), whose role it is to stimulate cell growth. He writes that “insulin and IGF not only stimulate the growth of cancer cells, but also their capacity to invade neighboring tissues.”  Furthermore, insulin and IGF have another effect: “They promote the factors of inflammation, which also stimulates cell growth, and acts in turn as fertilizer for tumors.” Again, the lymph system becomes involved in this process.

Here are my tips to help you find a healthy balance with your food choices to keep the lymph system functioning at full capacity:


As much as possible, eliminate toxins from your diet. Do not eat foods with preservatives or that have been processed with chemicals (such as white flour). Reduce alcohol, coffee and other substances that are not used by the body. Avoid processed (white) sugar, and use small quantities of naturally occurring sweeteners such as fruit, stevia (a herb) or honey. Reduce fats, particularly animal fat which is the most difficult for the body to process. Use small amounts of quality cold pressed oils (such as olive oil) and switch to cooking methods that do not heat the oil, as this turns it into a toxic substance. Foods can be steamed or cooked in a sauce and the oil added just prior to serving. Eat plenty of vegetable, particularly leafy greens, raw whenever possible. Choose whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and root crops (potatoes) over processed carbohydrates (pasta and white rice). Drink plenty of pure water.