Your lymphatic system is made up of a series of vessels and nodes. It contributes to two vital bodily functions: transportation and immunity. It performs these functions in close interaction with the circulatory system.
When your heart pumps blood to all parts of your body, some of the fluid making up the blood, escapes. This “leaked” fluid forms what we call interstitial fluid. That is, this is the water that surrounds your cells, that bathes and nourishes them. It is also the dumping ground, the place where your cells dispose of metabolic waste.
Tiny lymph vessels collect this waste-laden fluid from around the cells. Once inside the lymphatic vessels this fluid is called lymph. The lymph is filtered through many lymph nodes and is cleansed of all metabolic waste. Ultimately this cleansed lymph is returned to the blood stream.
This process of transport and cleansing also helps to:
- maintain blood pressure and blood volume
- keep the concentration of proteins in the interstitial fluid at the correct level
- diffuse nutrients from red blood cells
- circulate nutrients, dietary lipids and lipid soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K
The immune system connection
Your lymphatic system also forms part of the body’s immune system. It provides a home for B-cell lymphocytes (produced in lymph nodes), and also hosts predatory cells, such as phagocytes and macrophages. These cells attack and destroy, or “eat” up foreign invaders such as toxins, viruses and bacteria, that are lying around in the fluid around your cells.
Once it’s collected, your lymph is literally on a one-way trip to the cleaners. Lymph vessels contain valves (similar to those found in our veins) to stop back-flow. As lymph moves deeper into the system it passes through numerous lymph nodes. These nodes slow down the flow of lymph giving the mop-up crew – lymphocytes, macrophages and phagocytes – plenty of opportunity to clean up. When the fluid is completely filtered and sanitised it is “safe” to be returned to the blood and recirculated throughout the body, returning to the blood stream via the subclavian veins.
This clean up work can be a dangerous business. Lymph nodes are constatly exposedI to dangerous agents such as bacteria, toxins, viruses and even cancer cells. Sometimes the lymph nodes are overwhelmed and become swollen and tender to touch. This is what is happening if you’ve ever experienced swollen glands when you’ve had a sore throat or bad dose of ‘flu.
Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no heart to pump fluid around. Instead the movement of lymph relies on:
- fluid pressure within body tissue
- contraction of surrounding muscles
- contraction of the smooth muscle in the lymph vessel
- pressure from the pulsation of nearby arteries
- negative pressure in the chest during breathing (particularly the in-breath)
Your body would quickly be overwhelmed by the accumulation of waste by-products and other toxins, if the fluid in our body wasn’t constantly circulated and renewed, leaving you vulnerable to ill-health and disease.
Here are some things you can do to keep this system healthy:
- stay well hydrated
- get regular exercise
- eat nutritious food
- receive lymphatic massage
- reduce your stress levels
These tips are also wonderful ways to look after the whole body.
Lymphatic system care
Want to learn about how to maintain a healthy lymphatic system? Check out this article How to look after my lymphatic system for more information.