What is the Lymphatic System?

Your lymphatic system is a main part of your immune system whose function is to keep you strong and healthy and protect against disease.

How does it work?

Lymphatic fluid, also called lymph, circulates throughout your body, beginning in the interstitial space (the area between your cells) then moving into larger vessels called lymph vessels. The largest vessel is called the thoracic duct, which drains 75% of the lymph from your legs, pelvis, abdomen, left chest, left upper extremity, and the left side of your neck and head. The other 25% of lymphatic fluid is drained by the right lymphatic duct, including the right upper arm, right chest, right lung and right side of the neck and head. The lymphatic fluid circulates throughout these vessels where it encounters lymph nodes along its path. The job of lymph nodes is to filter bacteria, waste and other damaged cells including cancer cells. Also found in the lymph nodes are specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes which protect against outside harmful organisms. Your spleen, located in your left upper abdomen behind your ribcage, is the largest lymph organ, whose main purpose is blood filtration.

Just as your lymphatic system looks out for you, you need to look out for your lymphatic system. It is a reciprocal relationship. The reason is that unlike your circulatory system which automatically pumps blood throughout your body via the heart, the lymphatic system is a passive system and does not have a pump. This means that lymphatic fluid is moved only when it is compressed as a result of muscle contraction through musculoskeletal movement, respiratory movement and smooth muscle contraction (found in the walls of organs such as your liver, pancreas and intestines). If you sit for long periods of time, your lymphatic fluid can become stagnant, preventing the healthy flow which checks for and filters unwanted harmful matter throughout your system. Debris starts to collect. Getting up and moving your body will assist in the natural lymphatic drainage process.

What Can You Do to Enhance Your Lymphatic System’s Function?

The good news is you can greatly assist your lymphatic system by not remaining stationary for long periods of time. For instance, if you are working at your computer, you can set an alarm every 30 minutes to get up and stretch, go look out the window, or go get a drink of water. If you are unable to get up, even wrist and ankle circles, and flexing and pointing your feet under the desk can help get things moving. If I’m sitting at my computer for a long time, I will roll my chair away from my desk, take a deep inhale, raise my arms over my head, clasp my fingers, and pause for about five breaths. This also brings more mental clarity and a surge of energy.


When you do have more time to devote to exercising, which I absolutely advise making it a priority, you can try some of the following forms of movement to assist in lymphatic drainage: Brisk walking; Swimming; Yoga; Stretching; Strength Training; Gyrotonics; Pilates. There are many more forms of movement, but herein are just some ideas to get you started. Do these for a minimum of 20 minutes at least 3-4 times per week.


Breathing exercises are also an excellent way to get lymphatic fluid moving. Following is a simple technique to start your breathing exercise routine.

Find a comfortable seated position in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, which may mean scooting your sitz bones forward. Sit tall with your heart center open and shoulders rolled down and back. If you need more support, place a pillow behind your back. Hands can rest comfortably in your lap or on your thighs. Close your eyes. Relax your jaw, your forehead, and the muscles around your eyes. Relax your neck and shoulders. Take a deep inhale through your nose and exhale out through your mouth. Do this five times. Variations can include inhaling through your nose and holding for the count of 2-3, then exhaling through your mouth. There are several wonderful breathing exercises. Use this example just to get started.

During deep breathing, you are initiating movement in your diaphragm, lungs, and intercostals (muscles between the ribs), pulling lymph away from your extremities back into the bloodstream to be processed. Through deep breathing, you oxygenate your cells and organs and enhance the function of your lymphatic system by helping to balance fluids, filter out foreign invaders, and eliminate unwanted matter.

Stay Hydrated

And I will end with advice I give to all my patients: remember to stay hydrated. Especially as we enter hotter months, you may not realize how much bodily fluid you are losing, sometimes just by sitting. To stay hydrated, I start with a glass of water in the morning, and sip water throughout the day. I keep water on the kitchen counter and next to my computer when I work. To keep your lymphatic fluid and blood flowing properly and keep your cells and tissues hydrated, you must provide your body with plenty of H2O.

When it comes to snacking, since fruit is easily digestible, a piece of fruit as compared to potato chips, muffins, or cookies that often contain excess salt, will benefit your body by adding vitamins and nutrients without requiring excess fluid to be drawn from your tissues to aid in the digestive process. Ask yourself, are you thirsty after eating pizza or pretzels? Are you ever thirsty after eating pineapple, watermelon, or grapes?

In Summary

Your lymphatic system is a main part of your immune system, whose function is to keep you healthy by seeking and eliminating foreign invaders and damaged and unwanted cells. It does not have a pump like the circulatory system, so movement is important to keep the lymphatic fluid moving throughout your body. Physical movement, breathwork and staying hydrated are key elements in helping to keep your lymphatic system functioning properly.

Stay tuned for more Nutritional and Lifestyle Tips.

Center for Health and Longevity
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