The flow of lymph fluid
The lymph system’s primary function is to isolate infection and cellular detritus from the rest of the body and deal with it. Imagine you are looking at a handful of living cells through a microscope. A capillary (the smallest blood vessel) delivers blood with its oxygen and nutrients. The local cells use these nutrients and excrete waste. There may be pathogens or antigens present that create an immune response, leaving dead cells and perhaps live infection. Some of the blood and waste products are picked up by tiny veins. But much of the vascular fluid and waste — and hopefully all of the live infection — is picked up by tiny lymph vessels. This process is happening all over the body all the time.
Like tributaries trickling into a stream that feeds a slow-moving river, the lymph system transports lymph fluid through ever-widening vessels, moving it through 500 filtration and collection points — your lymph nodes. At each successive node the lymph fluid is filtered and bacteria is removed. If lymph fluid is blocked in one lymph node it will usually take a detour, but when blockage is extreme it can cause the lymph fluid to back up and cause swelling in the surrounding tissue, a condition known as lymphedema.
The far-reaching lymph vessels merge at certain points to form lymphatic trunks. You have six major lymph trunks in your body, each responsible for draining filtered fluid from one region of the body.
The lumbar and intestinal trunks drain a large volume of purified lymph fluid upward from your lower extremities, pelvis and abdomen into the cisterna chyli, a widened collection pouch at the base of the thoracic duct (see diagram).
Digestive fats from our food are meanwhile absorbed in the small intestine and then drawn into the lymphatic system for transport to the bloodstream via the cysterna chyli. This milky mixture of digestive fats and lymph is known as chyle.
The now enriched and purified lymph travels up your torso through the thoracic duct along the left side of your esophagus. It merges here with the lymph from your left trunk and arm, and finally returns to the bloodstream at its junction with the left subclavian vein, located above your heart and under your collarbone. A much smaller volume of filtered lymph fluid from nodes and trunks along the right side of your head, neck and arm is fed back into the bloodstream by the right lymphatic duct, on the right-hand side of your collarbone.
Amazingly, the lymphatic system has no central pump but depends on muscle contraction and manual manipulation to move fluid. Deep breathing is another essential way we can enhance movement of lymph through our bodies. And importantly, the organs of elimination (skin, kidney, liver, bladder, small and large intestines) need to be doing their jobs well so that the lymph does not get overwhelmed with waste products.
If the lymph system gets blocked or overrun (due to illness, surgery, toxic overload or lack of activity), lymph fluid backs up. This can cause swelling, joint pain, nausea and fatigue. Stagnant lymph may be stored within nodes for a long period of time but eventually becomes too toxic for the body to handle well.
Negative effects of chronic lymph blockages
All things in nature have a natural progression; when this motion is inhibited or jammed, concerns arise — and when it occurs in your lymph system, you feel it quickly.
Think again of a river: a healthy river runs clean and clear. A brackish river chugs along, thick with soot and silt that gets snagged, pocketing pollution in small pools along the way. Eventually, the sluggish river can become a breeding ground for bacteria and disease. The same is true for your lymph.
Because lymph cleanses nearly every cell in your body, symptoms of chronic lymph blockage are diverse but can include worsened allergies and food sensitivities, frequent cold and flu infections, joint pain, headaches and migraines, menstrual cramps, arthritis, fibrocystic breasts, breast tenderness, sinusitis, loss of appetite and GI issues, muscle cramping, tissue swelling, fatigue, mental fuzziness, mood irregularities, depression, parasites, skin breakouts, acne, and cellulite. In general, you may feel tired and toxic, with a heaviness in your abdomen. In Chinese medicine, practitioners call this “excessive damp” that undermines your whole health.
Stagnant lymph can also interfere with the system’s ability to cleanse more potentially hazardous concerns, such as bacteria and cancerous or diseased cells from organ tissue. Viral infections, bacteria, and cancerous or mutagenic cells move through the lymph fluid, where they are targeted and destroyed in the lymph nodes — when the system is adequate to the task.