Ways to help your “other” system fight infection…

Your body’s ability to resist infections depends on a healthy lymphatic system, which drains excess fluids and captures (and kills) cancer cells, bacteria and viruses. But immunity, it turns out, may be only part of what this system does.

Intriguing new finding: For the first time, scientists have identified a “shadow” plumbing system that rapidly drains wastes from the brain. Age- or injury-related damage to the glymphatic system (named for the glial cells in the brain) could impair drainage and contribute to many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Key facts about the lymphatic system…


After blood delivers nutrients to the body’s tissues, it “leaks” into the empty spaces between cells. The lymphatic system picks up this fluid (now stripped of red blood cells) and returns it to the circulation. Along the way, it passes through one or more of the body’s hundreds of lymph nodes, which are packed with infection-fighting immune cells. The lymphatic system also includes the adenoids, tonsils, thymus and spleen. What happens when this system becomes overworked or “congested”? You might notice that some of your lymph nodes—in your neck, under the chin, in the armpits, etc.—are swollen and tender. This usually indicates that an infection is brewing in a nearby area of the body. Your legs or arms also could feel puffy and bloated or swollen—a sign that lymphatic fluid is accumulating faster than it can be removed.

During a routine checkup, your doctor will feel for swollen lymph nodes in the neck, in front of the ears and around the armpits and groin, etc. Swelling and/or tenderness means that drainage is impaired. Examples: Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area could mean that you have a pelvic or urinary tract infection. Swelling just in front of the ear could indicate an ear infection. Important: If you notice swollen and/or tender lymph nodes that enlarge or persist for more than a few weeks, see your doctor—even if you have no other symptoms. It could be a sign of an immune system disorder (such as lupus) or cancer.


You’re less likely to get an infection —and recover more quickly if you have one—if you follow these steps to help lymph flow efficiently…*

• Contrast hydrotherapy. This involves applying heat to an area, followed by immediate exposure to cold. The contrast causes tissues to alternately pump and relax, which pushes fluid through the lymphatic system.

What to do: Let’s say that you notice swelling in one or both armpits. Soak a washcloth in water that’s about 104°F—the temperature of a hot bath. Apply it to the area for three to five minutes, continuing to reheat the cloth when it starts feeling cool. Next, soak a cloth in ice water and apply it to the same area for a minute or two, then switch back to heat. Repeat the cycle three to five times, and do it three times a day until the swelling goes down. If there’s no improvement within a few weeks, see your doctor.  

• Dry brushing. Gently passing a brush (or a loofah) over the skin, from the extremities toward the heart (corresponding to the flow of lymphatic fluid), causes the underlying tissues to contract/relax. This pushes accumulated fluid just under the skin into deeper lymphatic vessels. I often recommend dry brushing that includes the face for patients with skin problems that may be caused by congested lymph, such as frequent blackheads.

What to do: Use a high-quality brush, preferably one that’s made with natural bristles—it should feel stiff but still have a little “give.” Slowly brush the affected area (or the whole body) with pressure that is firm but not painful. After a session, your skin should be slightly pink. If it’s red or irritated, you’re pressing too hard. Each session should last five to 10 minutes. Do it twice a day to keep your lymphatic system functioning efficiently.

• Self-massage. Some massage therapists are trained in lymphatic drainage massage. Professional treatments are a good choice for patients with lymphedema, swelling that may occur after a mastectomy or other cancer treatments. But for less serious lymphatic congestion, self-massage works just as well.

What to do: Very lightly stroke the congested area, slowly moving your fingers at least a few inches from the affected area toward your heart for a few minutes. If you are coming down with a cold, for example, gently stroke swollen lymph nodes every few hours.

• Pokeweed salve/liquid. I often prescribe this herbal therapy for patients with hard or tender lymph nodes due to inflammation/infection. The active ingredients are transported through the skin and act as a lymphatic solvent. Improvement usually occurs within a few days. It’s typically applied two to three times daily for two weeks.

Pokeweed is available at most health-food stores, but I advise using it only under the supervision of a doctor who specializes in herbal remedies. The herb contains alkaloid compounds that can potentially cause serious side effects, including changes in heart rate and/or difficulty breathing. People with kidney disease or other chronic conditions should not use pokeweed.

• More water. If you’re dehydrated, the kidneys are less able to filter and eliminate wastes. Buildups of cellular by-products thicken lymph and impair normal circulation. The usual advice is to drink eight glasses of water a day, but some people need more—or less. One way to ensure proper hydration is to check your urine to see if it is pale yellow.

For a more accurate assessment: Buy a pack of urine dipsticks. They are inexpensive and sold at pharmacies with indicators to check specific gravity, a measure of urine concentration. If you’re drinking enough water according to the specific gravity reading (ask your health-care provider for your optimal reading), use the dipstick once a week. Otherwise, use it daily until your hydration status improves.

*These therapies are generally safe but should be avoided by people with diabetes or other conditions that impair circulation and cause temperature insensitivities.

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