When thinking of the circulatory system, what comes to mind? Likely the heart. But did you know that our bodies have another circulatory system that runs in conjunction with the cardiovascular system?
While it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is just as important. The lymphatic system, or lymph for short, is a neighboring circuit that supports the circulatory system by destroying pathogens and removing waste in the body. Working in tandem, the two systems ensure that cells are supplied with nutrients and that fluid stays in the vascular system, where it belongs.
The lymphatic and cardiovascular systems are co-dependent. One could not survive without the other. In fact, the human heart is drained by a small network of lymph nodes and vessels, ensuring that the heart stays strong and healthy.
What does the lymph system do?
The lymphatic system is a complex network of delicate tubes and glands throughout the body. From the Latin word lympha, meaning clear water, lymph is the colorless, watery fluid that flows through this intricate system.
The primary role of the lymph system is to cleanse the body of infectious microorganisms and abnormal cells. Simply put, the lymphatic system is the body’s sewage system, removing waste and excess fluids that leak out of the blood vessels. The lymphatic system is essential for the optimal functioning of our immune system.
This organized system is what keeps energy levels in the body high. By helping to remove toxins and deliver nutrients, the lymphatic system ensures that all cells have what they need for energy production.
The four primary functions of the lymph system are:
- Produces and transports white blood cells when needed for immune function, protecting the body from illness-causing invaders.
- Collects and removes interstitial fluid from tissues and returns it to blood, helping to maintain proper fluid levels.
- Absorbs fatty acids from the digestive tract and transports them back to the bloodstream.
- Transports and removes cellular waste from the lymph, filtering out toxins from the body.
What does the lymphatic system consist of?
Similar to the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is a network of vessels and tissues. The lymph system also consists of many other parts, including:
- Lymphatic fluid – A collection of fluid and other material, such as proteins, minerals, nutrients, fats, and damaged cells.
- Lymph nodes – Approximately 500-600 lymph nodes are distributed throughout the body. These bean-shaped glands filter out unwanted viruses, bacteria, and fungi. They also produce and store white blood cells.
- Lymphatic vessels – These thin-walled tubes carry lymph away from tissues, returning it to the venous system through two collecting ducts.
- Organs – Several organs are involved in the lymphatic system, including:
- Tonsils and adenoids
- Peyer’s patches
- Bone marrow – Located in the center of larger bones, the bone marrow produces white blood cells.
Cardiovascular system vs. lymphatic system
The cardiovascular and lymphatic systems are integral parts of the circulatory system, working closely together to deliver nutrients and oxygen through the body while removing waste. Although the two systems complement one another, there are some distinct differences between the two.
The cardiovascular system uses the heart to pump blood through a closed network of vessels. On the other hand, the lymphatic system is an open system in which lymph passively flows from tissues into the lymphatic vessels.
Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have a pump to help move fluid around. Instead, the pressure gradient to move lymph comes from movements, such as through our skeletal muscles and breathing. The contraction of muscles becomes the pump that moves lymph through the body, which is why activity is essential for healthy lymphatic flow.
Finally, while blood circulates through the body in all directions, lymph only moves in one direction- towards the heart.
Is the heart connected to the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is connected to the cardiovascular system through the lymphatic vessels. In a healthy person, lymph gets returned to the bloodstream, thus avoiding swelling in the body.
When lymph fluid moves normally, lymphatic vessels drain into two collecting ducts under the collarbone, the right lymphatic duct, and the left lymphatic duct, also known as the thoracic duct. These ducts then dump the lymph into the subclavian veins, where the pressure is low, allowing lymph to flow into the blood efficiently. The subclavian veins then join to form the superior vena cava, the large vein that returns blood to the heart. The lymph then makes its way to the heart.
The heart has its own lymphatic vessels, mainly located in the epicardium and endocardium. Like other organs, the heart relies on the lymphatic system to drain fluid away from the heart. Studies have found that lymph vessels have different functions in different parts of the body, including the heart.
Importance of a healthy lymph system for the heart
A healthy heart requires a healthy environment. The lymphatic system’s job is to remove toxic waste from the body, thus ensuring that toxic build-up doesn’t impact the heart.
Moreover, the lymphatic system ensures a healthy fluid balance in the body. If the lymphatic system is not working correctly, the heart must work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
Without a healthy functioning lymphatic system, the heart is under more stress, which could lead to cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, arrhythmias, and heart disease.
Three ways to keep the lymphatic system healthy
Unlike the other systems in the body, the lymphatic system does not get nearly enough attention. However, a healthy cardiovascular system is dependent on a healthy lymph system.
The top three ways to keep lymph flowing freely through the body include:
Move your body
Since the lymphatic system does not have a pump, it relies on the movement of the musculoskeletal system to activate the lymphatic vessels. Lymph vessels exist throughout the body, most running up the legs, arms, and torso. Studies show that exercise helps to keep lymph flowing, thus reducing the risk of disease.
Aim to move your body daily through walking, dancing, climbing stairs, hiking, and resistance training. Even while sitting down, easy-to-do calf raises can help keep lymph pumping. Another excellent exercise to improve lymphatic flow is rebounding. Simply jumping on a trampoline can increase lymph flow dramatically.
While physical movement is an excellent way to keep lymph moving, breathing is another. Deep breathing exercises cause the diaphragm to move up and down, creating a pump for lymph to flow. Studies show that diaphragmatic breathing facilitates the movement of lymph through the bloodstream, thus increasing the elimination of toxins.
Performing diaphragmatic breathing is easy:
- Sit comfortably, placing one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach push your hand away from your body.
- Exhale through your lips, feeling your hand move back in with your stomach.
- Throughout this exercise, your chest should remain as still as possible.
Aside from leaving you with glowing skin, dry brushing helps to release toxins and promote the movement of lymph throughout the body. The swift movement of a dry brush stimulates the lymphatic system.
Using a high-quality dry brush, simply start at your feet and brush up toward the heart.
Unfortunately, we live in a very toxic world. Daily, we are exposed to chemicals in our homes, workplaces, and even the air we breathe. Thankfully, our lymphatic system is hard at work, eliminating these unhealthy toxins from our bodies. Keeping this system healthy is a key component of overall health.
If you are concerned that your lymphatic system is not functioning optimally, consider a free 20-minute health coaching strategy call with a Natural Heart Doctor health coach. Together, you can discuss strategies to keep your lymph flowing freely and your heart pumping well.
Eat well, Live well, Think well
Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 2022