Unlike other body systems that are linked to a major organ or grouping of organs, lymph is everywhere. Lymphatic fluid is permeating throughout the body, slipping in between cell walls, and commingling in capillary beds. It is no surprise that lymphatic function is intrinsically intwined with immunity, as the two systems work together to maintain optimal health.
The lymphatic system is often overshadowed by the immune system, but not here at Dr Morse’s! We are all about the lymphatic system, as it is a major system of elimination, comprises the majority of the body’s water, and is often the first system to send the alert when our defenses are compromised.
This article and associated webinar are doing a deep dive into the lymphatic system. We’ll discuss how the system functions and connects to whole body health and detoxification, and how we can support lymphatic health with herbal formulas and wellness rituals.
Lymphatic System Physiology
The lymphatic system has 3 major functions:
1. Cellular Highway
The lymphatic system delivers large molecules like metabolic cellular waste, damaged cells, destroyed bacteria, dietary fats from the gastrointestinal tract, and hormones like progesterone to the bloodstream for metabolism or storage.
This cellular highway is the primary focus of Dr Morse’s detoxification campaign; the lymphatic system is a major pathway of elimination. Lymph fluid moves metabolic cellular waste and destroyed bacteria out of the interstitial spaces in our tissues back into general circulation to be removed by the liver and kidneys. Lymph travels through all major organs to collect this cellular debris, making lymph a detoxifier for your detox organs, like the liver, GI, kidneys and lungs.
2. Fluid homeostasis
The lymphatic system moves fluids from tissues throughout the body to the heart to reenter circulation.
The lymphatic system maintains fluid homeostasis which helps to maintain normal blood pressure. As fluid in the body accumulates in capillary beds – where oxygenated blood from the heart is delivered to the cells of the body – lymphatic capillaries are present to mop up excess interstitial fluid and return it to general circulation.
3. Immune Signaling
The lymphatic system is a transport pathway for immune cells. Lymph nodes survey the lymph fluid picked up from the capillary beds looking for anything unfamiliar.
On its way back to the heart, lymphatic fluid passes through lymphatic nodes to be screened by lymphocytes for microorganisms. Once a foreign organism is detected, the lymph signals immune cells and the inflammatory response.
Break it Down
Lymphatic fluid is 96% water, making it one of the major storehouses of the 60% water content in the average human body. When comparing micro to macro – our body to the earth body - The lymphatic system is laid out like a river system, with smaller tributaries giving way to larger streams and rivers, eventually dumping back into the ocean.
Lymphatic fluid is transported from tiny lymphatic capillaries into lymphatic vessels which flow to lymphatic nodes, where most of the action happens. After lymph is screened in the nodes it continues to travel upward to one of two terminal ducts, where lymph fluid is dumped back into general circulation. Like with any natural watershed, optimal environmental conditions are necessary for the lymphatic fluid system to function properly: quality, shape, flow, and connectivity.
Of the 20 liters of blood plasma that pass from the arteries to the veins via capillary beds each day, only 17 liters return to venous circulation. The remaining three liters becomes lymphatic fluid.
Excess interstitial fluid present in capillary beds (of which there are an estimated 10 billion capillary beds in the body) passes through the single layer of overlapping endothelial cells that makes up the lymphatic capillary membrane and becomes lymphatic fluid.
Lymph fluid “is a collection of the extra fluid that drains from cells and tissues...plus other substances. The other substances include proteins, minerals, fats, nutrients, damaged cells, cancer cells and foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, etc). Lymph also transports infection-fighting white blood cells (lymphocytes).” ~ Cleveland Clinic, 02/23/2020
Similar to the venous system, lymphatic vessels do not have a pump, and the transport of lymphatic fluid from the capillary beds back to the circulatory system is a long, uphill journey. Like blood vessels, lymph vessels are segmented with a series of valves that allow for lymph to flow unidirectionally towards the heart.
Because lymph vessels do not have a pump, lymph flows from one chamber to the next using the pressure of skeletal movement (walking, exercise, dancing), respiration, and smooth muscle contractions. Read on to learn about helpful therapeutics for moving lymph.
There are four main lymphatic nodes throughout the body: the axillary lymph nodes in the armpits, the cervical lymph nodes in the neck, the inguinal lymph nodes in the groin, and the mediastinal lymph nodes in the chest cavity. These nodes filter lymphatic fluid looking for unwanted organisms.
The nodes are gatekeepers in a sense as "inside the lymph nodes are white blood cells [B cells & T cells], also called lymphocytes. These white blood cells attack and break down bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells (Macmillan.org.uk).” Therefore, any unwanted organism that has traveled out of the blood into lymphatic circulation is targeted and destroyed in these nodes.
The left and right lymphatic ducts are the final frontier of the lymph system, as this is where processed lymphatic fluid is dumped back into general blood circulation. The right lymphatic duct empties everything from the upper right torso, the right side of the head, and right arm into the right subclavian vein. The larger thoracic duct empties lymph from the entire rest of the body. These ducts operate under very low pressure and like lymphatic vessels, they have a series of valves that prevent backflow.
The lymphatic system is an organ system, having primary and secondary organs that all contribute to the function of the system as a whole. The two primary (central) organs are the thymus gland and bone marrow, and the secondary (peripheral) organs are the spleen, and lymph nodes such as the tonsils and adenoids.
The Thymus Gland is a small butterfly shaped glad that rests under the sternum that produces T-lymphocytes or T-cells. As a T-cell generator, it is also connected to the endocrine system, communicating with the pituitary gland to produce thymosin, a hormone necessary for the production of T-lymphocytes. It is quite large in infants and after puberty it begins to shrink.
Red Bone Marrow Lymphoid tissue found in all lymphatic organs is largely made up of lymphocytes, (B & T cells). These infection fighting cells develop from lymphoblasts in red bone marrow and make their way to all primary lymphatic organs: the spleen, thymus gland, and lymph nodes (tonsils & adenoids).
The Spleen is the largest organ of the lymphatic system and is tucked just beneath the diaphragm under the left lung.
“Lymphocytes in the spleen react to pathogens in the blood and attempt to destroy them. Macrophages then engulf the resulting debris, the damaged cells, and the other large particles. The spleen, along with the liver, removes old and damaged erythrocytes from the circulating blood. Like other lymphatic tissue, it produces lymphocytes, especially in response to invading pathogens.” ~ National Cancer Institute
The Tonsils (nodes) are a ring of lymphatic tissue just under the mucous membrane of the nose, mouth and throat. They are one of the first lines of defense for our immune system, as Lymphocytes and macrophages signal an immune response when they detect any unfamiliar organisms, and cause inflammation.
The Adenoid gland is in the upper airway just behind the nasal cavity. This gland functions much like the tonsils as a first line of defense against infection. It shrinks with age and by adulthood is completely gone.
The Lymphatic System and Elimination
Unwanted organisms enter the body in various ways: through the respiratory tract from the air we breathe, through the digestive tract on the food we eat, and into the blood stream from breaks in the skin. Lymph is there to absorb, scan, neutralize, and remove this cellular waste before it can cause us any harm. It does this constantly; it’s doing it right now. Pretty amazing!
Thus, the lymphatic system is a major organ of elimination, and as such, it has an entire series of Dr Morse’s detoxification formulas dedicated to supporting its proper function, Lymphatic System 1-4. Dr Morse refers to the lymph nodes as the septic tanks and the lymph vessels as the sewer system of the body. This is because it is the lymph's job to gather up cellular and metabolic waste that accumulates in interstitial spaces throughout the body, screen and filter it, and carry it back to the blood stream so that it can be removed by the liver and kidneys.
All processed lymph is pumped back into general circulation by the heart, and travels through the bloodstream to the liver and kidneys for elimination. Dr Morse’s detoxification strategy supports these three systems in unison: the liver with GI Renew #0-5, the urinary system with Kidney’s & Bladder #1-4, and the lymphatic system with Lymphatic System #1-4. These three systems are integral, and when one gets compromised, the entire system gets backed up. Have you ever had a septic system fail? If yes, then you get the picture.
Dr Morse recommends that these formulas be taken together to support the healthy processing, flow, and elimination of waste from the body. The Fab Four Kit includes Kidneys & Bladder 1, Lymphatic System 1, GI Renew (your choice) plus Endocrine Glands.
Dr Morse Herbs & Formulas
Primary: Lymphatic Herbs
Mullein leaf’s soft hairs are a doctrine of signatures indicating how the plant gently sweeps through the lymphatic system. It is known by herbalists as a mucous modulator as it has both mucilaginous gum (which can be hydrating in the presence of water or tightening in dry conditions) and some tannins. In the case of mullein, the saponin content helps to lift mucous from the lining of the respiratory tract to support expectoration. Mullein leaf is featured in Lymphatic System 1, Heal All Tea and Lung Detox.*
Red Clover supports the health of the glands, especially lymph glands. The coumarin content binds to protein in the interstitial fluid and increases waste clearance by macrophages. Rather than moving the lymph, what they seem to be doing is making it clearer, so that the fluid can be reabsorbed into systemic circulation more effectively. Find this gentle lymph mover in Lymphatic System 1, Chem/Metal Detox, and Blood Support. *
Cleavers is a mineral rich herb that gently supports the healthy flow of lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Its benefits can be enjoyed by juicing the leaf and stem or making a fresh plant tisane. It is difficult to dry and store so it is best to take advantage of it while it is in abundance all around you. Dr Morse loves working with cleavers, and you can find it many of his formulas including Adrenal Support, Kidneys & Bladder 2 & Kidney’s & Bladder 3.*
Poke root and Bloodroot are low dose herbs that are for short term use only. Dr Morse includes them in Lymphatic System 1, Lymphatic System 3 and Lymphatic System 4 to ensure the movement of lymphatic fluids. Poke root and bloodroot support the flow of all liquids in the body: blood, urine, lymph, bile and excrement are all stimulated by these herbs and blockages move like boulders in a flash flood.*
Secondary: Adjunct Herbs
Chickweed is a little herb with a powerful impact on whole body health. Its rich saponin content gives it an alterative function that seems to impact all detoxification channels in the body. The slimy demulcency of this herb indicates the presence of polysaccharides, allowing for lubrication of the GI tract giving it a gentle laxative action. For this reason, you will find chickweed in many of Dr Morse’s formulas including Lymphatic System 1, Kidneys & Bladder 2 and Kidneys & Bladder 4, GI Renew #0 & GI Renew #1. *
Echinacea is an excellent herb to support lymphatic health because it is an immunomodulator and stimulant. When taken as a tonic herb daily, it can help to support immune strength and resilience, and when taken short term it gets the immune system fired up. It contains powerful alkamides which tingle in the mouth and may be a local irritant when they pass over the tonsils, stimulating the immune response.*
Chaparral is a resinous desert shrub that helps to support a compromised immune system. This herb is included in Lymphatic System 2 and Lymphatic System 4 as an adjunct herb to support immune activity in the lymph system.*
Bayberry and Yarrow are helpful lymphatic system herbs as they are strongly astringent. This tightening and toning quality astringes, drains, and awakens the interstitial fluid that surrounds the cells of our bones, cartilage and tissues.*
Plantain is a mineral rich herb with an edible leaf. The plant has both emollient (slimy/hydrating) and astringent (tannic/tightening) properties, giving it an amazing drawing action. The hydrating and tightening characteristics of plantain also make it a wonderful herb to help support the lining of the gut.*
Lymphatic System Therapeutics
As you can see, the lymphatic system is everywhere, and its proper flow and function are necessary to keep the body feeling good. Since the lymphatic system maintains fluid balance in the body, a stagnant lymphatic system can cause a buildup of fluids and pressure in the body’s tissues, leading to a slew of discomforts. Luckily, there are many traditional therapeutics available to support the healthy flow and function of lymph.
As mentioned above, the lymphatic system doesn't have a pump, meaning that it must work against gravity to return to circulation. We can work with that! Light exercise will move both skeletal and smooth muscle throughout the body, which squeezes lymph vessels, moving lymph fluid from valve to valve. Taking a walk around the block, or dancing to your favorite tunes is enough to stimulate lymph flow.
Keep the body’s waterways flowing with plenty of minerals and hydration. We generally recommend fresh fruits, raw vegetables, and herbal teas as your primary means of hydration as they provide fluids to the body’s tissues as well as a balanced nutrient complex to support both lymph and kidney/blood homeostasis.
You can support the return of both blood and lymph from the legs back to the heart by elevating the legs. An easy way to ‘drain’ the legs is to scoot your gluteus maximus up to a wall in your house, or even better, the wall of the sauna, and position your legs at a 90 degree angle up the wall. Rest here with a good book for 10 – 15 minutes for some good lymphatic (and blood) drainage. Bonus points if you massage or gua sha your legs with some lymphatic herbal oil. For some great lymphatic massage routines for the whole body, check out Massage by Heather.
What is gua sha? This ancient Chinese lymphatic massage tool is one of the oldest forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine ever recorded. The tool itself can be made of anything hard and flat with rounded edges: river rock, quartz, jade, and wood are some of the most commonly found materials used to make a gua sha tool. The gua sha is held at a 45-degree angle to the skin, and is gently pulled, promoting the movement of stagnant lymph towards the heart.
*FDA warning: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.