Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
The immune system gets all the glory—especially these days. But when was the last time you thought about your lymphatic system? This little-talked-about (but super-important) network of tissues, vessels, and organs is responsible for maintaining proper fluid balance in the body, absorbing and transporting fats from the digestive tract, and clearing out old red blood cells to be replaced with new ones. Plus, the lymphatic system is a critical player in the body’s immune response and detox mechanisms, removing waste, bacteria, viruses, toxins, and byproducts of the body’s normal metabolic processes, and recognizing and attacking abnormal cells that can lead to cancer. So, yes—lymph support is important.
The lymphatic system is made up of tiny tubes called lymphatic vessels. Lymph fluid—a clear, watery liquid—moves through these vessels and the lymph nodes, small, soft clumps of cells clustered in the neck, groin, armpits, and elsewhere in the body. The lymph nodes contain white blood cells (lymphocytes) that attack bacteria, viruses, and damaged or cancerous cells. The lymph fluid then carries the waste products back into the bloodstream where they’re ultimately removed from the body, mostly through urine or feces.
Normally, the lymphatic system functions like a well-oiled machine. But some infections, diseases, injuries, and inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis) can damage lymph nodes and disrupt the normal flow of lymph fluid. More common, everyday factors—including lack of exercise, inadequate hydration, stress, and obesity—can also impact the lymphatic system, slowing movement. Fluid buildup, swollen ankles, puffy eyes, congested head, bloating, and constipation may mean that your lymphatic system isn’t operating at full capacity. If you experience any of these symptoms, starting a lymph-support regimen may be just what you need.
7 Ways to Get Your Lymph Flowing
Keep those fluids flowing, enhance toxin removal, and boost your defenses by cultivating these lymph-supportive habits:
1. Stay super-hydrated
Water is crucial for keeping lymph fluid flowing, and even mild dehydration can slow its movement and inhibit the removal of wastes and toxins. The National Academies of Sciences recommends 2.7 liters of fluids a day for women, 3.7 for men. Plain filtered water is best; or spike it with lemon juice for extra lymph support. And instead of gulping a bunch at once, drink small amounts throughout the day to keep your system hydrated and flowing freely.
Dry brushing your skin provides lymph support by stimulating the movement of lymph fluids and encouraging the release of toxins. Use a natural bristle brush with a long handle (a removable handle makes brushing smaller areas easier). The brush should be dry, so do it before, not during, your shower. Using light strokes and brushing upward toward your heart, brush the soles and tops of your feet, then move up the length of your legs. Do the same with your palms and the backs of your hands, then lightly brush your belly, chest, and neck, always toward the heart. The whole routine should take about 5 minutes. Do it daily or, at a minimum, three times per week.
Deep belly breathing—known as diaphragmatic breathing—enhances the movement of lymph fluids and promotes the transport of toxins. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, allowing your belly to expand. Then exhale, feeling your belly deflate, for a count of eight (a longer exhale soothes the fight-or-flight response and eases stress). Practice deep breathing throughout the day, gradually increasing the length of each inhale and exhale, to support your lymphatic system.
Unlike the circulatory system, which pumps blood through the body via the heart, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a fluid-pumping organ. Lymph relies on movement and the contraction of muscles to get around. More active forms of exercise, such as running, biking, dancing, or tennis, promote the flow of lymph fluid and provide lymph support. But any kind of movement—brisk walking, climbing stairs, golf, yoga, or Pilates—supports lymphatic flow.
Lymph fluid travels in a mostly vertical direction, so up-and-down movement (bouncing or jumping) promotes the flow of lymph more effectively than horizontal exercises such as running or biking. Bouncing on a mini-trampoline is the most fun (plus, it’s great for stronger bones), but any kind of vertical, up-and-down movement works. Try running in place, doing jumping jacks, or skipping rope. Start with 5–10 minutes a day, and work your way up to 20 minutes or more.
6. Eat clean, stay lean
Diet is one of the key components of any lymph-support regimen. What your lymphatic system definitely doesn’t need is additional toxins to filter out, or foods like sugars and refined carbs that trigger inflammation. Keep your diet squeaky-clean by focusing on anti-inflammatory vegetables and fruits (think spinach, kale, blueberries, broccoli) and healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, salmon, sardines). Eat plenty of fiber-rich foods, especially legumes, to promote regular bowel movements and support the removal of intestinal toxins.
7. Supplement your system
Daily habits like hydrating, exercising, and deep breathing are the best way to support your lymphatic system. But if your system’s sluggish—especially after periods of stress, inactivity, or poor food choices—lymph-supportive supplements can help restore the flow. Burdock root, long used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve stagnation and encourage circulation, can boost the movement of lymph fluids. Look for it in teas, capsules, or tinctures. Other lymph-supporting herbs include red clover, slippery elm, graviola, nettles, goldenseal, and astragalus—all thought to enhance drainage, ease congestion, and promote flow. Or look for a combo lymph detox formula.