The Lovely Lymphatics: A Look at an Underestimated Lifeline
This cold and flu season will be an interesting one. Not only are our immune systems dealing with the usual fall (and winter) favorites this year, but we have the continuing COVID pandemic to be mindful of as well. No one is quite sure how the collision of flu season and the pandemic will look, but we can all be sure that increased care and thoughtfulness will be required.
I think a large part of meeting those goals is arming ourselves with the knowledge needed to not just keep ourselves safe but to keep others around us out of harm’s way as well. Knowledge is power. For that reason, I have in past blog posts, notes, podcasts and classes offered insights into the physiology of the immune system, protocols for viral respiratory illness and thoughts on an herbal formulary for COVID-19. All of this comes into stronger relevance now, as we move indoors and social distancing becomes more difficult. So I think its time to add to the intellectual arsenal again, and discuss a common “hole” in the immune conversation this time of year and in our thinking about COVID. The lymphatics.
The lymphatic system just doesn’t get discussed very much. While many herbalists might argue with me on this, the truth remains that most mainstream medical practitioners sort of take the lymphatic system, spleen and thymus for granted until something goes wrong. And when that happens, its usually “to surgery with you”: the organ or lymph node is removed and the problem is considered conquered. The truth remains, however, that the lymphatic system, its cells, tissues, vessels and organs are of great consequence to our immune health, and should be lovingly and intentionally remembered and supported this time of year in particular.
I want to talk about herbal support, but first, like always, foundations and physiology come first (also, this post is a bit of a teaser for our November Study Group class coming soon to a Zoom meeting near you, so to get the full scoop please join us for that!). So let’s talk a bit about the four “levels” of lymphatics, their function, structure and potential pathologies.
Lymphocytes are the basic cellular building block of the lymphatic system. They are highly specialized cells that make up a crucial part of adaptive immunity. Adaptive immunity, as opposed to innate immunity, is capable of differentiating between potential threats and thereby can target specific foes. The cells of the adaptive immune system also have the power to “upregulate” or “downregulate” the immune response, an important factor to consider when we talk about autoimmune disease (which we will do next Spring when we talk about leaky gut syndrome). Lymphocytes are divided into three categories, B cells, T cells, and NK cells. My podcast discussion with herbalist Lisa Fazio concerning the roles of these cells during the COVID pandemic is archived under the “Other Writings” heading, and we will go into the in greater detail during class. In short, these cells attack and destroy bad stuff. From an integrative herbalism perspective, most important things to remember about these cells is that they rely on a healthy spleen, healthy thymus and healthy bone marrow to be produced, and healthy lymphatic vessels to get around.
2. Lymphatic Vessels
When we think of the words “lymphatic system”, many of us think of the vessels in particular, but since the lymphatic system is so much bigger than that, we will refer to the channels that carry lymph around the body as the lymphatic vessels. Like blood vessels, some of them are large, some are small. The small ones, known as capillaries, have a special relationship with the fluid that hangs out around your cells (interstitial fluid) and are capable of taking up gross stuff like viruses, bacteria, toxins, and other antigens and presenting it to the lymphocytes that live inside the vessels so they can be properly destroyed. The most important thing to remember about lymphatic vessels is that they rely highly on physical movement of the body in order to keep lymph flowing normally.
3. Lymphoid Tissue
There has been a lot of buzzy chatter in the holistic medicine world lately about MALT, or mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue. And I suppose that’s a good thing, to be talking about aspects of the lymphatics, especially since 70% of the immune cells in your body live right outside our small intestines in MALT tissue and the gut has been receiving more and more attention lately as an immune organ. The tonsils are part of MALT as well. These areas aren’t exactly organs and not exactly glands, but are huge accumulations of lymphatic cells that are “stationed” in our most vulnerable spots. They are like lymph nodes on steroids, ready and waiting to protect our clean places from our dirty places. What do we take from this as herbalists? MALT is there for a reason, there is a still a great deal we do not know about it, and major immune decisions are made at these look-out points when it comes to what is a “friend” and what is a “foe”.
4. Lymphoid organs
These are the heavy hitters. These are the lymph nodes, thymus and spleen, which make up huge filtration systems on our body that are responsible for so so much of our body’s ability to keep itself clean and safe. The lymph nodes take lymph from the lymphatic vessels and remove the crap that the lymphocytes have worked so hard to destroy, thereby making it safe to return to the veins and regular blood circulation. You want clean blood, believe me. Lymph nodes do swell during times of illness, and that’s ok – but when they become very enlarged or the swelling does not go down, that’s when we are herbalists might become concerned. The thymus makes T-cells and some cool hormones that help our immune system. The spleen, well, what a topic. We’ll talk about the spleen in great depth during class, but for now, know that it filters blood and lymph alike, activates major parts of the immune system, stores stuff, destroys stuff and makes stuff. We want to do what we can to support the diverse functions of this organ, which contains the largest collection of lymphoid tissue in the body.
OK! You’ve had you’re A&P lesson, and now what? Why should we care? And perhaps more importantly, howdo we care? Well, lets answer the first question first.
When you get sick, whether with a cold, the flu, COVID, measles, mumps or what have you, your lymph is there. It’s always there. It floods the area with lymphocytes, kills stuff, surrounds stuff, attacks stuff and remembers stuff. Your lymph is there for you. Without it, all the fancy immune cells we always talk about during classes on Cold & Flu heath wouldn’t be able to get to the spots where they are needed. Your body would not be able get rid of the gross crap that your immune system destroys either. So while we focus a great deal of our conversations about immune health on the circulatory system, the truth is, there’s a whole other system that gets left out of these conversations. And as herbalists, that puts us at risk for missing key pieces of assessment and key opportunities for support.
So let’s talk about support. While support for the lymphatic system goes well beyond herbs (exercise and nutrition play massive roles here), in this post we will limit our conversation to key plant allies and some notes about alteratives.
Alteratives! Oh, what a family of plant action. So hard to explain, so hard to understand, so hard to pin down. And yet, when you approach alteratives energetically, they start to become intuitive. This will be one of our goals in class, to break down this family of allies and start to cultivate real understanding of how they work. We started to do this in our liver class last Spring and we will continue the job this fall. It really is a lifelong process. Furthermore, since hepatic alterative and lymphatic alteratives are a bit different, its important to have the conversation again. And again.
For now, know that alteratives are plants that drain, dry and move. They are the “blood purifiers”, the “detoxifiers”, the “cleansers” and a bunch of other holistic buzzwords. Their real action is so much more nuanced, and is really amazing to behold and be a part of. The hardest part about alteratives is recognizing when to use them and use them properly, which again, is a lifelong practice.
So what are some of our lymphatic alterative allies?
Violet. Cleavers. Calendula. Red clover. Chickweed.
And several others. All of these plants, in their own special ways, are plants that drain, dry and movelymph at various points in the lymphatic chain. Not every sick person needs a lymphatic alterative, and again, knowing when they are appropriate is key. Knowing how to pair them with herbs that move the blood and herbs that offer symptomatic support is an additional layer of skill, one that will have you on your way to a great formula for strep throat, tonsillitis or mono. It’s time to get deeper than basic cold and flu remedies, I know we can do it (join us in November to do it!).
Some closing thoughts before I leave you to ponder loving your lymphatics: we often see Spring as the great “detox” time. In many ways this is true when we think about liver health and our metabolic organs that “wake up” during the wee hours of the active seasons, but not so with our underestimated immune system purifiers. This is the time and now is the hour. A healthy immune system is more important now than ever, and while all our past conversations about what that means are crucial, so is this one. It’s important that we think about strengthening our body’s ability to clean itself now. All the fire cider, rose hips and elderberry syrup in the world will not enhance this arm of immunity. It’s time to “walk the walk” of what it means to be holistic students and practitioners and embrance the forgotten, the earthy and the underestimated. After all, that’s what herbalism is. So let’s learn how to do it.
Thanks for stopping by everyone! Interested in joining class? Study Group classes get posted in the “Classes” tab, if its not there you’re either reading this too early, in which case, check back after 11/1, or you’re reading this too late, in which case class is archived in the “Videos” section and you can buy yourself a copy of the class there! Either way, we hope to see you around and happy cleaning :)