Your lymph system plays a huge role in protecting you from disease, but most people don't know much about it.
The Internet is full of questionable information about the body and how to care for its various systems and organs—and the lymph system is no exception. A quick Google search brings up articles claiming it needs to be detoxed for optimal function and better overall health. Bloggers advise doing things like taking special herbs, dry brushing your skin, ditching your underwire bra, and hanging upside down on an "inversion table" to flush your system of toxins—and they claim if you neglect your lymph system, you risk eczema, arthritis, chronic sinusitis, and other health issues with varying degrees of severity. Yikes.
At Health, we're skeptical of any advice relating to detoxing. After all, science proves our liver and kidneys already provide a one-two punch for filtering out the majority of the harmful foods and substances we ingest. Plus, certain types of cleanses do more harm than good, and can have serious consequences. That's why we read up on all there is to know about the lymph system, and reached out to doctors who treat it every day. Here, an overview of what the lymph system does—and the final word on whether it needs to be cleansed.
What is the lymph system?
The lymph system is network of tissues and organs that transport lymph fluid through the body. It's part of the immune system, helping the body fight infections. It's also “the forgotten child of the vascular system,” says Thomas F. O’Donnell, MD, who works in the vascular surgery department at Tufts Medical Center.
Also called the lymphatic system, it is comprised of lymphatic vessels that run throughout the body (with the largest vessel being the thoracic duct, which collects a large portion of the body's lymph); lymph nodes, located in the neck, armpit, groin, and inside the center of the chest and abdomen; the tonsils and adenoids, which are collections of lymphoid tissue similar to lymph nodes; and the spleen and thymus, which are lymphoid organs.
How does it work?
When your heart pumps blood to the capillaries, the lymph fluid—the watery, nutritious fluid in the blood—needs to go outside the blood vessels into the soft tissues of the body to “feed” them, says Esther Rehmus, MD, a hematologist/oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital. Once that fluid is there, it can’t return through the veins to the heart; it’s up to the lymph system to move the fluid back through the body.
The lymph fluid filters through lymph nodes. If the lymph nodes detect foreign bodies like bacteria and viruses in the lymph fluid, the nodes trap the intruders and produce more infection-fighting white blood cells to destroy them. “Think of little PAC-MEN cleaning up the filth,” says Dr. Rehmus. “If you have a cut on your arm and the lymph nodes up in your armpit are red and tender, or if you have a head cold and the nodes in your neck are red or tender, that means they’re doing their job.”
From there, the lymph travels through the thoracic duct in the chest or the right lymphatic duct, and then to an area on the side of the neck near the jugular vein, where it joins the blood system again. Some lymph also transports fats from your GI tract to your bloodstream.
Do you need to detox your lymph system?
If you’re a reasonably healthy person, you should never have to worry about your lymph system or its function, says Dr. Rehmus. It’ll do its own thing, and your lifestyle doesn't impact it at all.
So all that talk of toxic buildup in your lymph system and the need to detox it? “Quackery,” says Dr. Rehmus. “You can’t increase the health of your lymph system. It works wonderfully on it’s own, and there’s nothing to detox.” Be wary of so-called experts who claim you can help rid your body of toxins in the system by adding certain herbs to your diet or heading to the sauna. Exercise and massage help move lymph through the body, but daily movement and not sitting or being sedentary for too long should take care of this.
What can hurt your lymph system?
When lymph nodes are removed or damaged—usually due to cancer treatment—it can cause lymphedema, or swelling in the arms or legs. Lymphedema occurs from a blockage in the lymph system, preventing fluid from traveling through the body properly. This condition increases your risk of infections.
Another potential lymph system problem: leukemia and lymphoma can develop there. But cleansing or detoxing the system has no impact on this, says Dr. Rehmus. The only external factors that seem to impact your risk for these cancers are Agent Orange (an herbicide used by the United States military during the Vietnam War) and heavy (non-cigarette) smoke exposure, says Dr. Rehmus.
If your lymph system isn’t working properly, you'll notice fluid accumulation in the limbs. You’ll see swelling during the day, which may go away at night, says Dr. O’Donnell. Over time, the fluid may not go away at night and you may see changes in the skin in the area, he says. If you experience these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
In general, the lymph system is a powerful tool for nourishing our tissues and helping our immune system by cleaning up bacteria and pathogens. It doesn’t need to be detoxed—it does that on its own. By staying active, you can keep your lymph system functioning properly.