Lymph cancer is on the march. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is now one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the United States, having more than doubled in incidence since the 1970s. The American Cancer Society estimates that 66,670 men and women will be diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, with one third of them dying from it.
A perverse paradox indeed, considering that one of the key roles of the lymph system is to protect your body from those very cells that are now overwhelming it and causing such a high mortality rate. A system designed to handle the worst of the worst our bodies face, the lymph system works hand in hand with the immune system to protect your body from attacks — both intrinsic and extrinsic. But now, thanks to a combination of bad diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and a toxic environment, this vital system is being pushed past the breaking point
The lymph system is one of the most under appreciated systems in our bodies. So let’s take a few moments to get a better understanding of where it comes from, what it does, how it works, and what can go wrong with it — before we look at how we can turn things around.
Where it comes from
Up until the early 1900s, scientists were unsure of the exact relationship of the lymph system to the circulatory system — a bit of the “which came first, the chicken or the egg” mystery if you will. It took the dedication of Dr. Florence Rena Sabin and a fetal pig to finally unravel the mystery. Dr. Sabin discovered that lymphatic vessels did, in fact, arise from veins. She found that the outer layer of cells on veins sprouted buds, much like stems growing out of the branches of trees. As these stems grew outward, they connected with each other. Thanks to the work of Dr. Sabin, it is now known that the lymphatic system develops from the existing vessels of the circulatory system.
A University of Pennsylvania News release entitled Separated Before Birth: Molecular Signals Part Fetal Blood and Lymphatic Vessels details the birth of the lymphatic system. According to the article, researchers have discovered that the SLP-76 and Syk proteins, which were known to have a signaling function in white blood cell development, also play a key role in the development of the lymphatic system. During fetal development, these unique proteins signal cells from the circulatory system to “split off” and become the separate parallel network of vessels we call the lymphatic system.
Surprisingly, although “born” from the circulatory system, the lymph system is twice the size of the circulatory system. Twice as much lymph as blood is present in our bodies, and we have twice as many lymph vessels as blood vessels.
What it does
Put simply, the lymphatic system (lymph system for short) serves as a collecting duct for excess fluid and as a filtering system to screen out foreign organisms. Yes, even the dirt particles from the taxi’s exhaust you breathed in last week find their way into the lymph system. In essence, the lymph system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drains fluid (called lymph) from tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream. The main roles of the lymphatic system include managing the fluid levels in the body, filtering out bacteria, and housing certain white blood cells. Lymph fluid is filtered through the spleen, thymus and lymph nodes before being emptied into the blood.
Lymph comes from the Latin word lympha, meaning “clear water.” Slightly yellowish but clear, lymph is any tissue or interstitial fluid that enters the lymph vessels. It is similar to blood plasma, but contains more white blood cells. Lymph originates as blood plasma lost from the circulatory system, which leaks out into the surrounding tissues where the lymphatic system collects this fluid through a bio-chemical process called diffusion — moving it into lymph capillaries and ultimately back into the circulatory system. Once in the lymphatic system, the fluid is called lymph and has almost the same composition as the original interstitial fluid.
Lymph also carries other substances, the composition of which depends on where it is found in the body. In the limbs, lymph is rich in protein, especially albumin. In the bone marrow, spleen, and thymus, lymph contains higher concentrations of white blood cells. And in the intestine, lymph contains fats absorbed during digestion.
Interestingly, lymph fluid does not travel the same road or by the same mechanisms as your blood. In fact, this is an open system that travels in only one direction (toward the heart), orchestrating many players throughout your entire body to work together to protect your delicate systems. So let’s take a closer look at each player before we talk more about the workings of this essential ensemble.
The Lymph Vessels
Lymph vessels, also called lymphatics, carry lymph in only one direction — towards the heart. Throughout all the tissues of the body, lymph vessels form a complicated, spidery network of fine tubes. The smallest vessels, called lymph capillaries, have closed or dead ends (unlike vessels in the cardiovascular system, which form a circuit). The walls of the lymph capillaries are composed of only a single layer of flattened cells. Material in the interstitial fluid passes easily through the gaps between these cells and on into the capillaries. Lymph capillaries in the villi of the small intestine are called lacteals. These specialized capillaries transport the fat products of digestion, such as fatty acids and vitamin A.
The Lymph Capillaries
Blood capillaries cannot absorb proteins and other large molecules dissolved in the interstitial fluid. But because the walls of lymph capillaries are much more permeable (allowing material to pass through easily), these large substances enter the lymph capillaries and are eventually returned to the blood.
This function of lymph capillaries is particularly important in the small intestine. Whereas carbohydrates and many other nutrients are small enough to pass directly from the intestine into the bloodstream, fats are not. Lacteals (the lymph capillaries in the small intestine) are able to absorb fats and other nutrients that are too large to enter blood capillaries. After digestion, the lymph in lacteals contains as much as 1 to 2 percent fat. Milky-white in appearance, this thick mixture of lymph and tiny fat globules is called chyle. It becomes mixed with the blood after lymph drains into the thoracic duct.
The exchange of materials (oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and wastes) between the blood and the cells in the body occurs through the lymph capillaries. In the body of an average person, over the course of an average day, roughly 25.4 quarts (24 liters) of plasma fluid are forced out of the capillaries into the interstitial fluid surrounding the cells. After bathing the cells, providing them with nutrients, and picking up their wastes, this fluid is drawn back into the capillaries. However, only 85 percent of the total fluid is drawn back into the bloodstream. The remaining 15 percent, roughly 3.8 quarts (3.6 liters), remains in the interstitial fluid.
If this small amount of fluid were allowed to accumulate over even a brief period of time, massive edema (swelling caused by excessive bodily fluid) would result. If left unchecked, the body would blow up like a balloon, tissues would be destroyed, and death would take place. This condition is prevented by the presence of lymph capillaries, which run alongside blood vessels in most tissue spaces. The lymph capillaries act as “drains,” collecting the excess fluid and returning it to the venous blood just before the blood reaches the heart.
Lymphocytes, the primary cells of the lymphatic system, make up roughly one-fourth of all white blood cells in the body. Like other white blood cells, they are produced in the red bone marrow. Lymphocytes constantly travel throughout the body, moving through tissues or through the blood or lymph vessels. There are two major classes of lymphocytes: T cells and B cells. The letter T refers to the thymus, where those lymphocytes mature. The letter B refers to the bone marrow, where that group of lymphocytes matures.
About three-quarters of the circulating lymphocytes are T cells. They carry out two main defensive functions: they kill invaders and orchestrate or control the actions of other lymphocytes involved in the immune process or response. In addition, T cells recognize and destroy any abnormal body cells, such as those that have become cancerous.
Like T cells, B cells are also programmed to recognize specific antigens on foreign cells. When stimulated during an immune response (such as when foreign cells enter the body), B cells undergo a change in structure. They then produce antibodies, which are protein compounds. These compounds bind with specific antigens of foreign cells, labeling those cells for destruction.
The Lymph Nodes
Scattered along the pathways of lymph vessels are oval or kidney bean-shaped masses of lymphatic tissue called lymph nodes. These nodes are the filters of the lymph system. They range in size from microscopic to just under 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in length. The smaller lymph nodes are often called lymph nodules. You have most likely heard of lymph nodes in the context of cancer since these masses trap cancer cells that try to pass by and are a good gauge of the health of adjacent systems.
Between 500 and 1,500 lymph nodes are located in the body; most of them usually occur in clusters or chains. Principal groupings are based in the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, pelvis, and groin (at the top of your legs). Some (those in the neck, armpits, and groin) you can feel and some (those in the abdomen, pelvis, and chest) you cannot. The lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin are especially important because they are located where the head, arms, and legs (the extremities) meet the main part of the body (the trunk). Most injuries to the skin, which allow bacteria and other pathogens (disease-causing organisms) to enter the body, are likely to occur along the extremities. The lymph nodes at the junctions of the extremities and trunk filter out and destroy the pathogens before they reach the main part of the body and the vital organs.
Each lymph node is enclosed in a fibrous capsule. Lymph enters the node through several small lymph vessels. Inside, bands of connective tissue divide the node into spaces known as sinuses. The specialized tissue in these sinuses harbors macrophages and lymphocytes, both of which are types of white blood cells. Macrophages engulf and destroy bacteria and other foreign substances in the lymph. Lymphocytes also act to identify and destroy foreign substances. (If foreign invaders are abundant and macrophages and lymphocytes have to increase in number to defend the body against them, the lymph node often becomes swollen and tender.) Once the lymph has been filtered and cleansed, it leaves the node through one or two other small lymph vessels.
Tonsils, Adenoids and Peyer’s Patches
Tonsils, Adenoids and Peyer’s patches are small masses of lymphatic tissue (some sources consider them specialized lymph nodes). These tissues serve to prevent infection in the body in areas where bacteria is abundant. There are five tonsils: a pair on either side of the inner wall of the throat (palatine tonsils), one near the rear opening of the nasal cavity (pharyngeal tonsil, AKA adenoid), and a pair near the base of the tongue (lingual tonsils). This “ring” around the throat helps trap and remove any bacteria or other foreign pathogens entering the throat through breathing, eating, or drinking. Peyer’s patches, which resemble tonsils, are located in the small intestine. The macrophages of Peyer’s patches prevent infection of the intestinal wall by destroying the bacteria always present in the moist environment of the intestine.
The other organs involved in the lymph system
Your spleen is under your ribs on the left side of your body. Though considered to be part of the lymphatic system, the spleen does not filter lymph (only lymph nodes do that). Instead, it filters and cleanses blood of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. It also destroys worn or old red blood cells. As blood flows through the spleen, macrophages lining the organ’s tissues engulf and destroy both pathogens and worn red blood cells. Any remaining parts of decomposed red blood cells, such as iron, are returned to the body to be used again to form new red blood cells.
Other functions of the spleen include the production of lymphocytes, which the organ releases into the bloodstream and blood storage. When the body demands additional blood (such as during stress or injury), the spleen contracts, forcing its stored blood into circulation.
Your thymus is a small gland under your breastbone that helps produce white blood cells. Your thymus continues to shrink as you age.
In a fetus and infant, immature or not fully developed lymphocytes are produced in the bone marrow (the sponge-like material that fills the cavities inside most bones). A certain group or class of these lymphocytes travels to the thymus where thymic hormones change them into T lymphocytes or T cells. While maturing and multiplying in the thymus, T cells are “educated” to recognize the difference between cells that belong to the body (“self”) and those that are foreign (“nonself”). Each T cell is programmed to respond to a specific chemical identification marker—called an antigen—on the surface of foreign or abnormal cells. Once they are fully mature, T cells then enter the bloodstream and circulate to the spleen, lymph nodes, and other lymphatic tissue.
The lymph system has three main jobs:
- Balance fluids
- Filter lymph
- Fight infections
How the lymph system works
As lymph capillaries carry lymph away from the tissue spaces and towards the heart, they merge to form larger and larger vessels. These larger lymph vessels resemble veins, but their walls are thinner and they have more one-way valves to prevent lymph from flowing backwards. Whereas the cardiovascular system has a pump (the heart) to move fluid (blood) through the system, the lymphatic system does not. It relies on the contraction of muscles to move lymph throughout the body, although the larger lymph vessels have a layer of smooth muscle in their walls that contracts rhythmically to help “pump” lymph along. But it is primarily the contraction of skeletal muscles, brought about by simple body movement and the mechanics of breathing that move lymph on its way.
The successively larger lymph vessels eventually unite to return lymph to the venous system through two ducts or passageways: the right lymphatic duct and the thoracic duct. Lymph that has been collected from the right arm and the right side of the head, neck, and thorax (area of the body between the neck and the abdomen) empties into the right lymphatic duct. Lymph from the rest of the body drains into the thoracic duct, the body’s main lymph vessel, which runs upward in front of the backbone.
Both ducts then empty the lymph into the right and left subclavian veins, which lie under the collarbone. Flaps in both subclavian veins allow the lymph to flow into the veins, but prevent it from flowing backward into the ducts. The subclavian veins empty into the superior vena cava, which then empties into the right atrium of the heart.
What can go wrong
The lymph system’s role of removing proteins is vital to keeping edema down since proteins draw water to themselves. If the lymph system becomes sluggish, or is damaged by surgical removal of lymph nodes, edema can develop. This type of edema is called lymphostatic edema — or a high protein edema.
Other causes of edema can be a chemical imbalance in the body caused by liver disease, diabetes, or a variety of other ailments. This type of edema is called lymphodynamic edema, and requires other forms of therapy due to the fact that it is caused by a chemical imbalance. (Kasseroller, R., Compendium of Dr. Vodder’s Manual Lymph Drainage, Haug, Heidelberg, 1998)
Glandular Fever (mono, Epstein-Barr)
Infectious mononucleosis, commonly known as glandular fever, is a viral infection, which is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It is characterized by a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and extreme fatigue.
Young people aged between 10 and 25 years are most vulnerable to this infection, which is also sometimes called the “kissing disease.” According to the National Institutes of Health, Epstein-Barr causes 85 percent of mono cases. Incidentally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 95 percent all people have been infected by Epstein-Barr by the ages of 35 to 40.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma begins in a lymph node (usually in the neck), causing swelling and possibly pain. After affecting one group of nodes, it progresses on to the next. In advanced cases of the cancer, the spleen, liver, and bone marrow may also be affected. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas encompass over twenty-nine types of lymphomas. Their exact cause is unknown.)
Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils in the mouth and often, but not necessarily, causes a sore throat and fever. Most tonsillitis is viral in origin and is quite frequently caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in fact.
HIV and AIDS are directly connected to the lymphatic system. In fact, one of the conditions used to identify HIV infection is a condition called persistent generalized lymphadenopathy. This is defined as having two or more enlarged lymph nodes that are not next to each other and are not in the groin. This area is excluded because lymph nodes are commonly enlarged there. The lymph node swelling is caused by the rapid multiplication of the virus itself at these sites. Later in the course of the illness, the lymph nodes actually shrink. Ultimately, the ability to effectively control HIV will require increased knowledge of the lymphatics. Continued research will lead to an understanding of how infectious organisms invade the lymphatic system and overcome its normal protective role.
The lymphatic system allows the body to more efficiently clear excess cholesterol out of the arteries. When the lymph system is clear, cholesterol can travel easily thereby reducing any build up in the arteries. Excess cholesterol is carried through the lymphatics to the veins and then to the liver, where it is broken down and discarded.
Why lymphoma is one of the fastest growing cancers
The lymphatic system is critical to the body’s surveillance against cancer. The lymphatic system is one of the most common avenues for the spread of cancer cells throughout the body. Medicine will immeasurably add to its ability to conquer cancer when we learn more about how cancer cells influence the development of new lymphatic vessels and pathways, establishing the route for these cells to spread to other parts of the body. This process known as “lymphangiogenesis” is an emerging focus within the scientific cancer research community. But why wait for doctors to figure it out. We actually know many of the problems already.
The Lymph System Does Not Have a Pump of its Own
The lymph capillaries and vessels pick up the lymph fluid and start pumping it away from the cells. Lymph vessels do not have an active pump like the heart. Instead, lymph vessels have one-way valves, and muscle motion pumps the lymph. The larger lymph vessels have a layer of smooth muscle in their walls that contracts to move the lymph fluid along. But the primary lymphatic pump results from the contraction of skeletal muscles and the mechanics of breathing. If you don’t use your muscles, if you don’t exercise, if you don’t breathe deeply, lymph stagnates. That means that waste products hang around far longer in the lymph reducing its ability to remove things such as dead cells, toxins, allergens, etc. from healthy tissue in a timely manner, thereby putting severe stress on the immune system. With longer exposure to these toxins, the health of organs and tissue is compromised.
The dramatically lower incidence of lymphoma in Sri Lanka, China and Japan — and the much higher incidence of lymphoma in the industrialized nations (see Cancer Rates Comparison) – provides a very strong indication that nutrition – and more specifically, high consumption of nutrient dead, highly processed foods may be a prime factor in lymph disorders. Also, high consumption of meat, dairy and an imbalance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids are highly suspect.
The high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals we are exposed to overwhelm the ability of the lymph system to deal with them.
Lack of Exercise
A sedentary lifestyle creates a stagnant lymph system. Lymph circulation depends solely upon your breathing and muscle movement. Physical exercise and diaphragmatic deep breathing are critical to lymph cleansing and to healthy immune response. Thus, the sedentary lifestyle not only contributes to obesity (now epidemic) in first world countries, but also to the onset of cancer, likewise epidemic in first world countries.
How to optimize your lymph system
Such a vital and complex system may leave you feeling a bit intimidated when it comes to taking steps to optimize the functioning of the entire lymph system. But the reality is that this is a good example of a little effort going a long way. Simple, easy (heck even enjoyable) measures can make a huge difference in the health of your lymph system.
Use enzymes supplements
It is a harsh inescapable reality that the vast majority of food we eat is either enzyme dead from the start or cooked, killing off any potential living beneficial enzymes. Being a realist, I will not suggest that you alter your entire diet, rather that you add one simple step — supplement with enzymes.
- Use digestive enzymes with your meals to ease the burden of complex fats and proteins on the lymph system.
- Use systemic proteolytic enzymes between meals
- To cleanse the blood of debris: Proteolytic enzymes are the primary tools the body uses to “digest” organic debris in the circulatory and lymph systems. Supplementing merely improves the effectiveness of the process.
- To remove Circulating Immune Complexes (CICs) from the body: As CICs accumulate in the soft tissue of the body, they trigger a constant allergic response from the lymphocytes in your immune system (particularly in the lymph system) thereby overwhelming it. Using proteolytic enzymes eases the burden markedly and frees up your immune system for its real work.
Do Body Cleanses
One of the best things you can do for your lymph system is to make a routine of doing cleanses to take some of the burden off this system. For more information on cleansing programs that should be mandatory parts of your health routine see:
- Blood Cleanse
- Liver Cleanse
- Liver health is a key to lymphatic health. The liver produces the majority of lymph, and lymph fluid provides a major route for nutrients from the liver. The integrity of the lymph system is dependent on immune cells in the liver that filter out harmful bacteria and destructive yeasts. If liver function is compromised, the lymph system is compromised.
- Intestinal/Colon Cleanse & Detox
I don’t often cite trendy media phrasing, but in this case I can say without hesitation: “Just do it.” (Thank you, Nike). We are conscious reasonable beings (well, most of us) and to make a conscious decision NOT to exercise is to sentence yourself to slow death. As I mentioned above, if you don’t move, your lymph stagnates and you die.
Lymphatic drainage massage can stimulate the opening of the initial lymphatic and increase the volume of lymph flow by as much as 20 times. To learn more see Lymphatic drainage strokes.
Sauna and Steam Baths
Help your lymph system out by eliminating toxins through sweating. Your skin is not just a covering, it is also the largest organ in your body, and one of its primary roles is the elimination of toxins through the pores. Saunas and steam baths greatly accelerate the process. Also, the heat increases your heart rate and your breathing, both of which help move lymph fluid along.
PS: Keep Your Tonsils and Adenoids
Swollen tonsils and adenoids are merely a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. They play an important role in the functioning of your immune system and your lymph system. Tonsils should never be removed before age 4, because prior to age 4, they are a major supplier of the cells and proteins that help to protect you from being infected with viruses and bacteria, and they still play an important role after that age. Like their related lymph nodes, they too swell up when taxed by allergens and invaders. Removing them merely weakens your defenses. Note: it is not unusual for tonsils and adenoids to swell temporarily at around age 8 — normal, that is, in children eating large amounts of wheat, corn, and dairy.
The bottom-line is that if you give your lymph system a helping hand by living and eating pure and smart in addition to making a habit of cleansing and exercising, then this essential ensemble (your lymph system) will serve you well, protecting and defending your entire body in return.
I have chronic lymphocitic
I have chronic lymphocitic leukemia and lyme disease. I learned this about4 years ago. Thank goodness the “doctor” I see says that the number is small & I don’t need to worry. I have been researching natural cures for about 10 years & use a wide variety of natural herbs and products. Thank you so much far a clear and understandable explanation. I appreciate what you do!!!
I have chronic lymphocitic
I have chronic lymphocitic leukemia; would lymph node therapy (like a massage but not a massage) help my immune system or spread the cancer? The LNT helps increase the flow of the lymphatic system and works to detox the liver and spleen. Thanks.
I would love to speak to you
I would love to speak to you Liz.
I have lymphostatic since
I have lymphostatic since 2004 and no doctors or lymphadema PT can’t answer my question or can’t give me information on how I can help mysel doing something that can improve my condition. Thank you for this article I have learn things I was never told in the past 12 years. I need to be connected with people that have my condition, with groups, clinic research and to anyone out there that knows how I can keep this under control. I’m very appreciative for all your research on this article. Thank you
I have CLL and my cholesterol
I have CLL and my cholesterol numbers have gone up a lot in the past 2 years. My other heart numbers are real good including blood pressure. I eat a mostly plant based diet (very little cholesterol ever diet wise) and watch my saturated fats. May the elevated cholesterol numbers be the lymphatic system having trouble?