The Art of Not Getting Sick (Part Two)
By David Pollack, D.C.
Note: Part one of this article ran in the November 2021 Natural Awakenings. To access that magazine online, click on Issues at Part 1 Link.
Last month we discussed the three most popular nutraceuticals for immunity, from a functional perspective. Not just Do I have enough vitamins? but How do I get them, how do they work, and what might it mean internally if they don’t?
This month we’ll talk about how to supercharge the most body’s most underappreciated system—the lymphatic system—to achieve higher immunity overall.
The Body’s ‘Sewer System’
The lymphatic system is best described as the body’s sewer system. The waste from our organs, tissues and cells drains into the lymphatic system, which is a set of glands and vessels (like our blood vessels) that run throughout the body, from our brains to our feet.
The stuff our body makes is quite toxic, so it’s very important that our cells and organs aren’t sitting in this inflammatory stew. Sometimes our lymphatic system becomes clogged. This is called lymphatic congestion. If our body can’t drain its waste, it can’t function properly and will be ill-prepared to fight infection by bacteria, viruses or fungal invaders.
If we are constantly inflamed, our immune system will become fatigued from constantly trying to repair the damaged tissues. Our cortisol levels will become elevated, further over-activating our immune response. The result is stress, weight gain, poor sleep and moodiness, among many other reactions.
Bad and Good Fat
The lymphatic system is also the highway for fat transportation—which means lymphatic congestion can stop weight loss in its tracks. We can diet, we can exercise, but it won’t matter. Fat is absorbed into the lymphatic system during weight loss, and if that system is congested, there’s nowhere for the fat to go.
Even more important, lymphatic congestion blocks the health benefits of “good” fats. These fats are used by our nervous system; our brain and nerves are mostly made of good fat. Our heart requires omega 3s, healthy fatty acids, to beat properly and keep on pumping. Our skin is made of fat. (Moisturizer is usually just synthetic fat we slather on as temporary nourishment.) Omega 3s and fish oils also lower inflammation. When the lymphatic system is clogged, it can’t transport these healing fatty acids. Thus we are constantly inflamed, and our immune system stays in overdrive.
Reasons for Lymphatic Congestion
The lymphatic system serves as the major highway for our white blood cells. Lymph is a soup of white blood cells (think pus—yuck), fat and cellular wastes. This stuff is like peanut butter. It’s really thick and has a tendency to clog, particularly at the big joints, such as behind the knees, elbows, hips and shoulders.
Our lymphatic system drains back into our bloodstream just under our clavicle, or collarbone. This is the most common area of congestion. Any physical injury to the shoulders, lower neck, upper back or ribs can create a physical blockage to the area through compression or impingement. This type of issue requires direct physical correction to decompress the area.
A second common reason for lymphatic congestion is chronic digestive problems of any kind. (Gallbladder issues, in particular, are notorious for causing lymphatic congestion.) Repairing the digestive problem is critical to successfully improving lymph flow. Some lymphatic massage will likely also be required.
A third reason, though there are many more, relates to chronic stress or anxiety. There are various ways these issues intertwine, but the simplest explanation is that when we’re stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly, with our shoulders and upper chest.
Typical yoga breathing is normal breathing, which happens to be the major “pump” for moving lymph: Abdominal breathing creates a vacuum. In addition, when we’re chest and shoulder breathing, we tighten the muscles around the clavicle—the number-one cause of lymphatic compression.
For readers wondering how to know if their lymphatic system is congested, here’s my answer: If you are tired, achy, and have brain fog, it’s likely. If you have chronic digestive problems, it’s likely. If you have had any injuries to the neck, shoulders, upper chest or ribs, it’s likely.
We generally hear of the lymphatic system only in relation to cancer, but this under-loved body system is important for many reasons. It is second only to the digestive system in its influence on immune prowess.