The immune system and lymphatic drainage

The Immune System

The immune system is our defense system against disease, both diseases we currently have and those we don’t. It consists of many biological structures and processes that work in concert with one another to protect us. The main components are the white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system (or complement cascade), the spleen, bone marrow, thymus and the focus of this article, the lymphatic system.

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that is part of the circulatory system, but has its own unique functions. Its purpose is three-fold: maintaining the balance of fluid between the blood and tissues, absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients in the digestive system, and forming a vital part of the body’s immune system. However, this system does not always work optimally. Lymph flow is regulated by both active and passive methods in the body and can be altered, reduced or even stopped by several different mechanisms. This can lead to pain, swelling (including lymphadema), reduced immune function, disease, and adverse effects to the autonomic nervous system. Thankfully, flow can often be restored with minimal effort.

Graphic of the lymphatic system with labels

The lymphatic system.

For those with impaired flow, there are three primary methods for restoring it: dry-brushing, lymphatic massage and lymphatic drainage therapy. You may have heard of dry-brushing before. Lymph flow is divided into two main sub-flows, the deep and superficial flow. About 85% of lymph flow takes place in the superficial flow. That’s the flow that dry-brushing can help most with. With dry brushing, a soft-bristled brush is used to help move the lymph under the skin. Patients are typically told to brush toward the heart, as lymph all eventually seeks to return to the heart (since it IS part of the circulatory system, after all). Click here for a video about it. Lymphatic massage is a light massage technique that also typically seeks to address the superficial flow. Here is an instructional video on do-it-yourself lymphatic massage. Lymphatic drainage therapy is a different beast.

Lymphatic Drainage

Distinct from lymphatic massage, Lymphatic drainage is a highly systematic approach that involves treating not only the superficial flow, but the deep flow as well, including that for the organs. I trained in Dr. Bruno Chikly’s method of lymphatic drainage. There, we not only learn to palpate lymphatic flow, but also map it out on the body so we can re-route lymph as necessary.

We have a basic approach that we take. First, we improve the flow where lymph ultimately seeks to end up; an area behind the clavicles we call the terminus. Then we work our way down the body to wherever our target is, but using strokes toward the appropriate lymph nodes or major lymph vessels, where superficial flow dives into the deep flow. Lastly, we work our way BACK to the terminus, again with strokes directed toward major drainage points. So basically, we clear a path for the lymph, get it moving the way it wants to move, then “rinse” the path all the way back to where we started.

Done properly, lymphatic drainage can calm the nervous system, reduce pain, reduce swelling, and bolster the immune system. There’s no time like the present to get your immune system in tip-top shape.

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