What is the Lymphatic System and Why Should You Care?

May 18, 2015

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Honestly, I’m STILL a little nervous to say that out loud, even though here in DC it’s feeling a lot like actual summer… if I’m too happy about sun-dress season, will it snow on me?

As I plant and tend my gardens – and smile at the leafy green friends sprouting up in yards and alleys – I remember how many of the early spring herbs support detoxification in the body, either through the liver or via the more mysterious lymphatic system. Read on for more about that and some ways to prepare early spring greens.

Love Your Lymph

“The spleen is something of a lost continent in physiology.” This is definitely the best sentence I ever wrote in graduate school!

The spleen is part of the lymphatic system, and the lymphatic system is mysterious. Or, at least, under-researched and often misunderstood.
*Science geeks, download the whole paper (free) here:  [link expired, sorry]

The lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system, and it has “outposts” of lymphatic tissue at various places in the body. The lymphatic system does two complex things: creates immune cells, and filters and removes toxins from the blood stream.

The bulk of those immune cells are created in the spleen, which is located in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen. The other “outposts” of the lymphatic system are the lymph nodes, the tonsils, the adenoids, the Peyer’s patches, and the thymus.

You know when you have swollen lymph nodes? When you’re feeling ill and you can feel swellings just below the jawbone? That’s your lymphatic system working overtime to filter toxins out of the body.

The Peyer’s patches are located in the gut; the digestive system and the immune system are hugely inter-related, in order to keep foreign invaders from entering the body through foods you eat. (Case in point on how obscure the lymphatic system s: as I searched for a good image to link to here, it took many, many clicks to find an image that included the Peyer’s patches!)

The circulatory system (your arteries and veins) is powered by the heart: the heart pumps the blood through the body and there is a system of, well, circulation: leaving the central area to distribute oxygen etc, and returning eventually back to the central point. The energy of the heart, with help from your physical activity, makes that happen.

The lymphatic system has no heart to regulate its circulation. It is entirely dependent on your physical activity.

One reason among many that moving your body is important!

Many herbs that emerge in the early springtime are great lymphatic supports: that’s a nice reason to consider a spring cleanse! (I didn’t have time for a spring cleanse this year, but if you’re interested in joining me for a summer detox, see below!)

Next up, some ways to support your lymphatic system. Of course, well-balanced nutrition and stress reduction help all the systems of the body function at top speed. Here are a few extra tips for the lymphatics; most of them are herbs and those herbs are mostly rather obscure, it’s true.   But movement is free!

Ways To Support Your Lymphatic System

  1. Move your body.Raise your arms above your head every day. Better yet, do yoga.
  2. Skin brushing.Using a loofa, with a circular motion, start at the outside and move in toward the heart.
  3. Cleavers(Galium aparine). The happiest springtime herb I know. Juice it and freeze into ice cubes. Warning: it’s very, very cooling (a “refrigerant”) so if you tend to run cold, use care or add in warming ginger.
  4. Calendula(Calendula officinalis). This charming orange or yellow flower is b i t t e r – use small amounts in tea or tincture.
  5. Echinacea(Echinacea purpurea). Echinacea is well-known as an immune-booster, and one way it supports immunity is by working with the lymphatic system. Use powder or tincture.
  6. Red clover(Trifolium pretense). A gentle lymphatic, and the flowers make a pretty tasty tea. This herb was used traditionally in cancer formulas.
  7. Alfalfa(Medicago sativa). A gentle, mild lymphatic that makes a gentle, mild, nutritive tea.
  8. Burdock root(Arctium lappa). Sometimes I can find fresh burdock root at the organic grocery store. Chop it up ant make a decoction (simmer for 20 mintues), or sautee and eat as food. It’s nice mixed with carrots.
  9. Poke root(Phytolacca Americana). Only for the trained herbalist! This native weed is a powerful lymphatic, but used incorrectly it is poisonous

Want support in sorting out the herbs that will support your body best? Schedule a consultation.

Recipe: Nettle Soup

From The Macrobiotic Brown Rice Cookbook by Craig Sams
You can omit the brown rice from this recipe, if you like; if you plan to freeze portions for later, add rice only to individual bowls, and omit from the frozen portions.

1 pound stinging nettles
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
6 cups boiling vegetable stock or water
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Wearing gloves, remove the tops and tender young leaves of the nettles and discard the stalks.  Chop lightly.
In a large saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in the oil until golden.  Add the nettles and stir-fry for several minutes – until the nettles have shrunk to a quarter of their original volume.
Add the boiling stock to the nettle and onion mixture.  Stir in the rice, lemon juice, and seasonings, and simmer for 10 minutes before serving.


Recipe: Dandelion Greens With Toasted Garlic & Lemon

From Leafy Greens by Mark Bittman

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter (or use all olive oil)
5 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into thin slices
1 ½ pounds dandelion greens, washed and dried.
Salt and pepper
One lemon, cut into quarters.

Heat the oil and butter together over medium heat, in a large non-stick skillet or pot.
When the butter foam subsides, toss in the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until it becomes light and crunchy – 5 minutes or so. Do not let the garlic burn.
Remove garlic from the skillet with a slotted spoon.
Chop the dandelion greens coarsely, raise the heat to high, and sauté the greens until they are tender but not mushy – about 5 minutes.
Season to taste and remove to a bowl; if any pan drippings remain, pour them over the greens.
Top with the toasted garlic and serve with lemon wedges.