Why Our Neglected Lymph System Is A Key To Optimal Health
Mary is a spry 78-year-old woman with her right arm significantly larger than her left. Several years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The surgeon removed her breast, along with most of the lymph nodes in her right axilla (armpit). Since that time, she has had swelling of the right arm, which bothers her, especially at night.
You Have TWO Circulatory Systems
Most people don’t know that they have two separate circulatory systems in the body. The blood system is a closed system that keeps the red blood cells, and most proteins, inside at all times. This allows only the plasma to leak into the tissues and around cells bringing nutrients such as sugar, oxygen, vitamins and minerals – everything a growing cell needs. However, while most of the fluid is taken up into the veins after it feeds the cells, a significant portion is left behind. This fluid builds up over time and can create a lot of swelling. To get that fluid back into the circulation, the body has a separate system of vessels – twice as many as the blood vessels – called the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system has three functions:
- To bring fluid from around the cells back to the blood circulation
- To remove bacteria, viruses and other infections, and cancer
- To remove waste from the cells
Mary’s discomfort came because when the surgeon removed the lymph nodes it cut off the lymph vessels. Now her lymph system can no longer bring the excess fluid back to the heart so her arm gets bigger as the fluid increases.
The primary function of the lymph system is to drain excess fluid from around the cells. This amounts to about 15% of all the fluid that comes out of the blood to bathe the cells. As we move around, the lymph vessels push this fluid through one-way valves towards the heart. Here the fluid enters the veins and ends up back into blood circulation. Amazingly, the vessels themselves also have muscles that contract and push the lymph through the vessels.
Mary needs to wear a pressure sleeve to keep her arm from continuously getting larger. The extra pressure squeezes the fluid into the venous system to get back into the circulation. This doesn’t get all the fluid back, but it keeps her arm from becoming gigantic.
Lymphedema after left mastectomy with removal of lymph nodes.
Moreover, the lymph system cleans out the excess waste from cells. Since the blood vessels only take up dissolved fluids and salts, the lymph system must take care of the larger molecules and debris left behind. The lymph vessels are very porous, allowing proteins, bacteria, viruses, cancer cells and cell parts to get into the lymph. Macrophages in the lymph nodes engulf and digest waste to be recycled. (The lymph system is very environmentally friendly!) Also, larger nutrients, like fat from our intestines, cannot get into the blood vessels so the lymph systems pick them up an deposits them directly into circulation – without going through the liver first!
The lymph system takes up the constituents of blood such as proteins and minerals, but by far the most important part is fats. Most of the fats from the diet end up in the lymph system and are dumped directly into the blood.
Identify Lymphatic Issues
Now that you know what the lymphatic system is, and what it does, you can guess what will happen if it isn’t functioning well. Some of the problems associated with a poorly functioning lymphatic system include:
- Edema, or swelling
- Regional pain syndromes
- Toxic overload, including heavy metals
- Poor digestion
- Weight gain
- Rashes and skin problems
- Frequent infections, colds/flu or skin infections
- Cancer, especially lymphoma or Hodgkin’s Disease