Diet for the Lymphatic system
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Specific foods to support the lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is an extensive drainage network throughout the body that helps to rid the body of toxins and other undesirable matter.
For every blood vessel (tube) there is a lymphatic vessel (tube) adjacent collecting toxins from the blood. The lymphatic system contains many nodes, nodules, glands and organs and these all follow the network of the vascular system.
The lymphatic nodes are like little pockets to collect toxins, which then become nodules when they block up. These can sometimes be felt under the armpits or in your groin, especially when you get sick as they swell up with the toxins from the dead ‘bugs’ that the immune and lymphatic systems have dealt with.
The lymph nodes in the groin and under armpits are the closest to the surface so they are easier to feel, however lymph nodes are all throughout the body, especially around the intestines collecting rubbish from the gut. If you could open yourself up, you may see them like a string of pearls.
Just as an oyster sees a contaminant in the shell as foreign and tidies it up by making a pearl, the lymphatic system does this with our toxins. Organs and glands of the lymphatic system include the tonsils (often clogged up with germs and unfortunately commonly removed), the appendix (also commonly removed when it clogs up), and there’s the spleen and the liver.
When fluid cannot circulate properly and builds up in the tissues instead of being flushed out of the body via the lymphatic system, this is called lymphedema – also known as Lymphodema and Lymphoedema.
With lymphedema, the skin will usually look shiny, red and when pressed will leave pit marks, is often sore to touch, and is swollen compared to normal healthy tissue around the body. This is often seen on the lower legs of the elderly and those with diabetes.
Commonly lymphedema is seen as a side effect of cancer or its treatment, but it can be there for other reasons such as diabetes, poor circulation, injury, or where lymph glands or nodes have been removed.
Before considering dietary aspects, let’s take a brief look at the relevance of exercise and massage for lymphatic conditions.
If you can exercise, this will help your lymphatic system enormously. Our vascular system has our heart as the pump to move blood around but the lymphatic system’s only pump is movement. Moving around, walking, and general exercise can all help move lymphatic congestion.
Even massage, either self-done or with a massage therapist (or family member if you are lucky) can help move the fluids to flush the toxins out of the lymphatic system. If you have ever had a professional massage, you may recall how the therapist usually tells you to drink plenty of water afterwards as the massage will shift a lot of toxins that now need flushing out via urine. There are even very specific lymphatic massage techniques that trained therapists utilise.
A Google search can reveal simple techniques to move lymphatic system build-up with simple stroking massages and exercises. Some you can even do in an armchair e.g. elevating your legs on cushions and pulling back your toes to pump the lymphatics in your legs up to your groin.
Check with your doctor and do some research to know exactly what to do. It’s worthwhile. Anything you can easily do can help, including foods you choose to eat, and importantly, those not to eat.
We now look at the important relevance of diet for the lymphatic system. First – the foods to avoid.
Sodium chloride (salt)
Salt is commonly added to food and found in many processed foods. It can increase fluid retention in your body and make Lymphedema worse if you have it.
You can keep sodium salt levels down by avoiding processed foods, canned food, ham, bacon and other cured meats, pickled foods, commercial salad dressings, frozen meals, boxed/packet meals, soy sauce, ketchup, other condiments and fast food. If you ‘need’ to have something that tastes salty then potassium salts mixed with veggies and herbs are a good option. Dr Vogel’s brand is a good one.
Sugar and foods that contain sugar can clog and congest the lymphatic system and make it sticky and not flow too well. The lymphatic system also supports your immune system. Every teaspoon of sugar you eat kills 1000 white blood cells.
Wheat and other gluten grains
Grains in general are very acidic and make it very difficult to clear toxins from the lymphatic system.
Caffeine affects the liver as a toxin. Because the liver is part of the lymphatic system, it makes sense to remove caffeine from the diet to support the lymphatic system.
100% proof alcohol is so toxic that it can kill or make us blind. A diluted form is just a slower version of a toxin that is detrimental to our system.
Dairy products produce mucus that clogs the respiratory and then the lymphatic system.
All trans fats and cooked vegetable oils
These fats are created by pumping hydrogen molecules into vegetable oils. This changes the chemical structure of the oils and turns them from liquids into solids which are toxic for the body, clog the lymphatic system, and create inflammation.
Sugar and grains are refined carbohydrates. Almost any grain can be detrimental as it can increase inflammation due to being an acidic food substance. Grains may be fine if you don’t have any health issues, but if you are trying to support a condition or want to reduce the risk of inflammation and congestion, then grains are best avoided.
Additives, Preservatives and chemicals in general
These are incredibly toxic for your liver, lymphatic system, and body and well worth avoiding. We can do without adding unnecessary challenges for our bodies.
Although there is no specific diet medically recommended for Lymphedema, making nutritional choices that maintain the body’s overall fluid balance and clearing lymphatic congestion can certainly help.
Another good tip is to keep your weight down as studies have shown that keeping body fat levels down to a healthy weight can support Lymphedema considerably. Also, stay well hydrated because sometimes the body holds more fluid when it is dehydrated. Beware of drinks that dehydrate such as alcohol, coffee, tea and soft drinks/sodas.
To have a healthy lymphatic system you also need a healthy digestive system and a healthy liver, so while a diet for lymphatic support is not considered a cure, the idea is to eliminate foods considered detrimental, and include foods that support your body to give it the best chance to heal naturally and regain balance and vitality. That’s why it is so important to exclude antagonistic foods and drinks such as gluten, dairy, additives, and sugar.
A diet to support the lymphatic system has lots of low sodium, high potassium foods to enjoy and plenty of foods with the good fats to support any potential inflammation. You should also find that this diet will help you to shed any excess fat from your body, but if more weight loss is needed, then you may need to look at a weight loss diet – but first speak to your health care practitioner.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Specific foods to support the lymphatic system
Lemons and limes especially are a good aid to flush the lymphatic system via the liver. Citrus contain powerful enzymes that can help break down waste matter.
All berries, especially cranberries, are rich in antioxidant nutrients that help cleanse the lymphatic system. Their hydrating effects also help to keep lymph fluid flowing, rather than being stagnant.
Greens are great to assist the liver and lymphatic system remove harmful chemicals and toxins from your body.
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
The healthy fats in these seeds help to promote lymph flow. The fibre content also helps to clear toxins through the digestive tract that would otherwise block lymph flow due to slow digestion.
Chia and flax seeds
These are full of omega 3 fatty acids, which are excellent for lymph flow. Like pumpkin and sunflower seeds, chia and flax fibre help to keep the body’s processes moving and flowing naturally. Some vitamins are fat soluble, so healthy fats like these can help your body absorb nutrients from other foods that the lymphatic system needs to work efficiently.
Herbs and spices
Turmeric, garlic, coriander, chilli and black pepper are some of the best herbs and spices to cleanse the lymphatic system.
Spirulina, kelp, nori, wakame, chlorella and dulse are types of seaweed. They are algae rich in micronutrients and minerals, great to cleanse your body and support general detoxification and lymphatic clearing. They contain good levels of iron, omega 3’s, vitamin A, protein, magnesium, B vitamins, iodine, and chlorophyll. Spirulina and chlorella are often enjoyed in smoothies. They all make great salad and wrap ingredients as well as casserole additions. Try adding a sprinkle of these to your food whenever you can.
Client name and identifying information changed
Josephine had a radical mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis four years prior to seeing me. The lymph nodes under her armpits were also removed because they had found some spread of cancer after node biopsy. The surgery was followed by a course of chemotherapy and some radiation to other parts of her body where they found some ‘spots’.
After the completion of her treatment regime, Josephine was tested and found to be clear of any malignancies, but she was left with on-going issues of lymphedema especially in her arms. They were swollen with fluid as the lymphatic system could no longer do its job properly in that area of her body.
Apart from the lymphedema in her arms, Josephine also had blocked lumpy nodes in her groin. These were checked to be non-cancerous, and were possibly blocked up from the toxicity of her treatment.
Josephine had been doing self-massage taught to her by her physiotherapist which helped to a degree. She came to me to see if there was anything else that could be done to support her lymphatic system and to ensure that she had a diet as healthy as possible to try to avoid any further cancers.
With her diet, we focused on eliminating harmful foods such as gluten, dairy, sugar, additives, most grains (except rice), processed foods, caffeine and alcohol. Her diet comprised of healthy anti-inflammatory fats & proteins from wild caught fish, avocados, coconut products, nuts and seeds, as well as heaps of healthy vegetables with loads of greens and some low sugar fruits like berries and papaya. I also encouraged Josephine to drink plenty of purified water with a squeeze of lemon or lime to help her liver and lymphatic system.
A few weeks into the diet, Josephine found that the massages were working much better, the lymphedema in her arms went away, and the nodules in her groin area also dissolved. She felt the diet played a big role, particularly as previous results from massage were limited.