Lymphatics 101

What is lymph?

Like the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is connected to nearly every cell in the body, including the fat cells.  After these living cells feed off the nutrients delivered through the bloodstream, they produce metabolic debris that is then carried away by the lymphatic fluid, also known as lymph.

Lymph originates as plasma, the yellow liquid component of blood.  Our bodies contain over twice as much lymph as they do blood –approximately six to ten liters.  Translucent or milky white in color,  lymph can be composed of a variety of substances, including lipids, proteins, enzymes, hormones, urea, dissolved gases, bacteria, viruses, and other debris.

Where does lymph circulate?

Lymph flows through a network of ever-widening vessels similar to the network of capillaries and veins used to circulate blood.  The initial lymph capillaries are fragile vessels just one cell thick.  Approximately 70 percent are considered superficial capillaries, meaning they are located just underneath the skin (where cellulite forms). Often located in fatty tissues, lymph collectors are large vessels that carry the lymph through to the lymph nodes.  A series of one-way valves along the lymph vessels gives the lymphatic system the characteristic appearance of a string of pearls, known in scientific circles as “monoliform” shape.

After the lymphatic fluid makes its way through the extensive network of lymph nodes and vessels, it eventually drains into one of two major ducts located in the chest area underneath the collarbone.  The right lymphatic duct collects lymph from the right arm and the right portion of the head, neck, and chest while the thoracic duct (also known as the left lymphatic duct) collects lymph from the rest of the body.  Your lymph then drains into your blood’s circulatory system and once again becomes plasma in the bloodstream, just prior to reaching the heart.

What is a lymph node?

Lymph nodes act as small filters that trap waste products in the lymphatic fluid and eliminate them from the body.  Lymph nodes are usually shaped like a small kidney bean and range from a few millimeters to one or two centimeters in length.

The average person is born with six to seven hundred lymph nodes distributed throughout the body, with more than half located in the abdominal region.  Large concentrations of lymph nodes can also be found in the neck, armpits, inner elbow, groin, and behind the knees.  It is interesting to note that our lymph nodes are concentrated in the major folds of the body, allowing for the highest degree of protection when the body is in the fetal position.  The major exception is the cluster of lymph nodes in the malleolar region (the back of the foot), an area that one lymphatic specialist is quick to point out as the mythical weak point of Achilles.

The lymphatic system is, in fact, integral to our resistance to disease.  If the lymph fluid contains potentially harmful organisms, such as a virus, a lymph node can swell to several times its normal size as white blood cells (also known as lymphocytes) and other immunity agents are rushed to the site.  When doctors check along the sides of a patient’s neck for “swollen glands”, they are actually feeling to see if the lymph nodes are enlarged and thereby fighting an infection.  If a lymph node traps cancerous cells and cannot eliminate them from the body, the node can become a source of secondary growth (metastasis) for the cancer.  That is why it is relatively common for certain forms of cancer, such as breast cancer, to spread to the surrounding lymph nodes.

If lymph is so important, why haven’t I heard much about it?

In spite of the fact that your lymphatic system is of indispensable importance to virtually every cell in your body –especially when it comes to issues of infection and disease –practitioners of Western medicine tend to overlook it.  Historically, it is likely that the medical community was slow to recognize the lymphatic system because of the transparency of the fluid and the difficulty in seeing lymphatic vessels even upon dissection. There are indications that the ancient societies of China, Samaria, Babylon, Egypt, and India were all aware of the presence of lymph circulating throughout the body, but it was not understood as a complete anatomical system until the seventeenth century.

The historical neglect of the lymphatic system is still evident in modern thinking.  Dr. Oz refers to lymphatics as “the next frontier of discovery in human disease… long ignored because of their subtlety and complexity.”  But even YOU: The Owner’s Manual scarcely makes reference to the lymphatic system, despite the fact the 544-page tome is intended to cover everything you need to know about your body in order to live a healthy life.

Many of us don’t even know we have a lymphatic system, much less understand how to care for it. We are bombarded with messages about the importance of caring for the cardiovascular system.  We eat “heart-healthy” meals.  We try to get in our thirty minutes of “cardio” a few times a week.  But we rarely hear about the lymphatic system in any kind of discussion about wellness, especially when it comes to preventative health care.

If we are to make any progress in treating cellulite, it is wise to start paying attention to the neglected lymphatic system.

*To learn more about the relationship between cellulite and the lymphatic system, read our interview with world-renowned lymphatic specialist, Dr. Bruno Chikly.

Dr. Chikly’s Lymph Drainage Therapy by Bruno Chikly, M.D.
Understanding the Lymphatic System at
Lymphatic System at
Philosophy of Osteopathy, Chapter VI: Lymphatics, by Andrew Taylor Still, D.O.


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dani says:

I recently came across your blog and absolutely adore it. I adhere to a healthy diet (raw milk/yogurt/kefir, grass-fed meat, saturated fats including coconut oil, minimal grains, etc) but was wondering if you could give me some specific ways to take care of and improve my lymph system. Inherently I feel that my lymphatic system is out of balance, and the node in my left neck has been swollen for years. I was wondering about a fast, a supplement, anything I can do. Any info will be much apprreciated, thank you!


Great question, Dani. Obviously the best thing you can do for your lymphatic system is eat a healthy diet and minimize any substances your body would recognize as toxic (especially fluoride!). It sounds like you already have a good start on that. To take it a step further, I have a little routine I think of as my “lymph love” time. When I really want to get the lymph flowing, I do as many of these activities as I have time for.

First, I start off with some gentle exercise like yoga or rebounding. After that, I massage any tense areas (I use a foam roller or my theracane). Back when my skin was bad, I would then use a facial steamer. Then it’s to the bathroom for some dry skin brushing.

Next comes my favorite part: oil bathing. I am planning on writing a brief guide to oil bathing soon, but here are the basics. First, you rub some oil into your skin. Then, soak in a hot tub for 10 or 15 minutes before scraping the oil off. This is how they used to bathe in ancient Greece and Rome and I don’t know why we don’t do it this way anymore. It feels amazing and it is the best exfoliating technique on the planet. Romans used a tool called a strigil to scrape off the oil. I was lucky to find this nifty gadget, but before that I used a spoon and it worked just fine. After the oil is mostly scraped away, I rinse off in a cool shower and maybe rub in a bit more oil after drying off.

Of course, you don’t have to do all the steps here. Whatever appeals to you is fine. You can find other ideas in the links in the left sidebar where it says “Start treating cellulite…” I hope you find this info helpful, Dani. Thanks again for your question!

Kate says:

Have you looked at rebounders (mini trampolines) for cellulite? Supposedly rebounding is good for lymph flow.


Yes!! I have one in my basement and I use it all the time. Makes me feel 5 years old again–those things are so much fun. It does seem to get the lymph moving. Ironically, I like to use my rebounded if I feel a small headache coming on. It seems to clear it right up. Thanks for your comment, Kate!


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