This talk was presented in Madison, WI on Feb. 16th., 2015 for the Madison Herbal Institute.
Basic Function of the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is a part of the circulatory system. It is home to our immune system, is an accessory to our waste removal systems and eliminatory organs, and a part of the nutritive process.
The lymphatic system is made up of: Lymphatic vessels, nodes, tissues, and fluid. A few brief lymph jobs and the role that the parts of the system play in our health are as follows:
- The lymph fluid is home to the immune system is a warrior. It is a system with smarts and strategy that learns and grows with each difficultly that it overcomes. When functioning optimally, it is a system that transmutes negative energy for elimination. The lymph fluid holds this energy.
- The spleen, a large lymph node, acts as a blood reservoir, circulates waste down to be removed, and nutrients up into the body to help build and nourish cells. It is also responsible for the destruction of old red blood cells, and assisting their passage to the liver for further conjugation and processing for elimination.
- The lymphatic system is responsible for around 90% of nutrient absorption through the villa in the small intestine. The system also returns fluid, and fats to the liver to be prepared for blood circulation to round out the digestive and nutritive process.
- The nodes support detoxifying and eliminatory organs by filtering toxins from lymph fluid before returning said fluids to interface with the blood.
- The nodes produce some white blood cells.
- Lymphoid tissues have several important organs. One such organ is the thymus gland. It produces T cells. As we reach puberty the thymus grows. At puberty, when sex hormones begin production, it begins to atrophy and is replaced by fat. This atrophic process is called involution.
- The tonsils-which trap and collect bacteria and viruses as we inhale, protecting the rest of our body.
General Symptoms of Lymphatic and Spleen Deficiency
- Symptoms of Lymphatic Deficiency: recuperates slowly when ill, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, asthma or hay fever, digests fat poorly
- Signs of spleen deficiency: edema, anemia, dampness in the stomach and swollen lymph nodes. There is decreased immune function, loss of appetite and decreased digestive function, to name a few.
How To Move the Lymph?
Lymphatic fluid is essential to our health, and the health of our other body fluids, known as humors- the blood, bile (black and yellow), and phlegm. Hippocrates first wrote about the humors as a diagnostic tool around 400 B.C. The lymph was not consciously known of then, and so wasn’t taken into account as a humor, or valued body fluid.
Of course, blood was thought of very differently then. It was believed that blood was made fresh everyday, and was then used up to be reproduced the next. If someone didn’t use up their daily supply, that old blood was deemed “bad” to varying degrees and in multiple ways.
As if turns out, very little of what we have as fluids are replenished or made fresh daily. 95% of bile is recycled, with only 5% being made fresh at a time. Much of the nearly 6000 ml of digestive fluids and enzymes we produce daily are reabsorbed, and blood stays with us, baring injury or menstrual cycles, with elements of it coming to the end of a life cycle and remade.
That brings us back to lymph. The lymphatic system was finally fully illustrated and identified in humans by a Danish physician by the name of Thomas Bartholin in 1652. This discovery came a year after a French scientist named Jean Pecquet found the lymphatic system in animals.
Lymphatic fluid is a part of the circulatory system, and is essentially plasma that has leaked from porous capillaries. Lymph vessels absorb this viscous fluid, circulate it, scan it for pathogens, clean it, and dump it back into blood circulation.
Lymph vessels are lined with smooth muscle that have the capacity to give lymphatic fluid unilateral flow. And while lymph doesn’t have the same pumping mechanism that systemic blood circulation has in the heart, movement of lymph still benefits from the heart, the pressure involved in moving blood, and the pressure exerted by fluid leaking from capillaries. In fact, keeping fluid intake to recommended levels helps lymph circulation, and keeps immune system function high. The old saying push fluids when ill is for a good reason. Fluid intake supports lymphatic function and circulation, thereby supporting the immune system in doing the best job it can.
Of course, there are other ways to benefit lymphatic circulation. Massage and lymphatic massage, which has proven to be beneficial to many. But we also need to move our bodies to keep lymph flowing and healthy. Just as our respiratory system, heart and circulatory system benefit from exercise, so does our lymphatic system. A few minutes a couple times a day of stretching, laying in a bath, swimming, and walking are some on the easiest and least expensive ways to move the fluid. They are also things we should be doing in general to improve our whole body health.
And what about herbs? There are a lot of awesome plants that support lymph health. What follows are some of those great plants, and example strategies for lymphatic swelling, both acute and chronic.
What is an Alterative herb?
Alterative plants do many things. The effects of the plants with this energetic are subtle at first, and can often be nothing notable. Since they are tonics, the more dramatic effects are felt after taking them for longer periods of time.
Alterative herbs have a direct effect on cellular metabolism body wide, improving the metabolic process in cells. Alterative herbs also improve the metabolism of waste for removal, and have profound effects on the organs that clean blood- liver, lymph, and kidney. It is, in part, how they were deemed “blood purifiers”. Organs clean blood, though, not herbs. Herbs support this process by helping an organ remember how to do its job when deficiency or disease has interfered with the organs performance. Therefore, alterative is a better term to use than blood purifier.
When organs improve how they manage waste and cells improve how they metabolize nutrients and make energy, function body wide is improved. Therefore, an alterative might have a specific affinity for certain organs, but the benefits are felt much deeper. This goes without mentioning the positive and balanced effects alterative have on all of our humors.
Lymphatic Materia medica
Due to time, we will focus on what these plants do relative to the conditions mentioned. They do many other things. For more information, read books by Matt Wood, Michael Moore, David Hoffman, Maude Greive, and blogs by Red Root Mountain, and Jim McDonald.
Burdock root (Articum lappa): Taste: salty, oily, and sweet, moistening, warms cellular metabolism and function, cools the liver and kidney Energetics: alterative, diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, stimulates lymphatic circulation, cholagogue Organ System Affinities: lymphatic, kidneys, liver, skin, blood, lungs, immune, digestive system, pancreas Uses: improves kidney filtration, anti-mutagenic, specific for hepatitis, for ovarian cysts and breast fibroids, gout, rheumatism and arthritis, tonic for chronic recurring respiratory infections, alterative for immune dysfunction and poor elimination, used in Japan for recuperation from illness
Calendula officinalis Taste: sweet, bitter, pungent, salty, warm and stimulating Energetics: diaphoretic, hemostatic, antiseptic, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, astringent, lymphatic, anti-oxidant, nervine, emollient and demulcent Organ System Affinity: lymph, liver, nervous system, skin, tissue, immune Uses: dryness with poor immune function, chronic recurrent bacterial and viral infections with swollen lymph nodes (tonsillitis and strep), jaundice with swollen liver, acute bacterial and viral infections, topically for pain with deep or surface wounds
Cleavers (Gallium aparine): Taste: taste salty, sweet, cool and moistening; relaxes the nerves, but stimulates lymphatic circulation Energetics: diuretic, anti-inflammatory in the lymphatic system and urinary tract, alterative, nervine tonic Organ System Affinity: urinary tract, nervous system, immune system, blood, lymphatic system Uses: for urinary tract infections, chronic skin rashes and issues, rashes associated with food allergies, hard lymph node swellings, blood tonic formulas, post cancer treatment to help restore lymphatic balance and function, strep throat and tonsillitis, tissue and lymphatic decongestant that improves how tissue manages inflammation
Collinsonia a.k.a. stone root (Collinsonia canadensis): Taste: astringent, slightly pungent bitter, stimulating, balances water by drying and moving Energetics: anti-inflammatory, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, Organ System Affinity: lymph, liver, heart, blood and circulatory system Uses: for venous and pelvic congestion/hemorrhoids, varicose veins, for high blood pressure with water retention in the midriff and hips, for water retention with liver disease, mitral valve prolapse, urinary calculi/gravel
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Taste: sweet, pungent, aromatic, moistens and relaxes tissue, muscles, nerves and stimulates lymph Energetics: diuretic, mild diaphoretic, carminative, anti-spasmodic, muscle relaxant (in lungs, stomach, bladder, and large intestines), anti-nausea, mild expectorant, emmenagogue, galactagogue Organ System Affinity: urinary tract, eyes, digestive system, liver, respiratory tract, smooth muscles, skin, mammary glands, lymphatic system (including the spleen) Uses: for water retention with UTI or liver disease or dysfunction, helps ease the pain and passage of urinary stones, for gas, bloating and nausea when eaten, to be used with powerful plants for constipation to ease griping, for colic in all (including infants), use for jaundice with yellowdock root (in infants and adults), for digestive diseases especially with poor nutrient absorption and swollen liver, for breast tenderness and swelling with menstruation, poor milk production, coughs, and eye irritation (internal and external)
Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa): Taste: pungent aromatic bitter, warm, slightly astringent Energetics: alterative, lymphatic and liver tonic, anodyne Organ System Affinity: liver, lymph, urinary tract, skin Uses: swollen glands in the upper body and neck, hemorrhoids, skin issues with greasy skin, high blood pressure with varicose veins, swollen nodes in the breast, lymphatic stagnation with swellings in the nodes, liver disease, topically for bruises and swellings (to aid pain, reabsorption of blood and flow of lymph), poor nutrient absorption
Poke root (Phytolaca americana): Taste: acrid bitter (berries cool and dry), relaxing, balancing to moisture content of tissue Energetics: alterative, lymphatic, anti-fungal, anti-rheumatic, anti-catarrhal, purgative, emetic, stimulant Organ system affinity: lymphatic, blood, liver, thyroid Uses: all things sluggish and slow, swelling in organs (heart, liver, lymph nodes, thyroid), eczema with poor immunity, helps promote the removal of waste thereby supporting eliminatory function, improves cellular metabolism/transmutation of nutrients into energy, specific for breast disease and dysfunction, and any glandular swelling with acute infection
Red root (Ceanothus americanus): Taste: astringent, cool stimulating bitter Energetics: astringent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant (n lungs and large intestine) Organ System Affinity: liver, lymph, breasts, pancreas Uses: hemorrhoids, with fringe tree and milk thistle for acute pancreatitis, with fennel for a swollen spleen, tonsillitis, excessive mucous production, Malabsorption in Chron’s and Celiac disease, liver disease, for a swollen liver with poor skin conditions with yellowdock and Oregon grape root, for diarrhea in cancer treatment and digestive diseases, mastitis, anemia with yellowdock root
Violet leaf and flower (Viola oderata): Taste: sweet, moistening, mucilaginous Energetics: alternative, laxative, nutritive, demulcent, emollient, mucilaginous, lymphatic for hard swellings of lymph Organ System Affinity: lymphatic, blood, mild affect on the nervines Uses: lymphatic swelling with poor elimination and constipation, to stimulate immunity, poor nutrition and absorption due to dryness and (if the dryness is extreme) atrophy
Maladies of the Lymphatic System
The following are sample tincture formulas; it’s important to get specific per person. But you can try the sample formula if you like.
Poor/Depressed Immunity- Tincture formula: equal parts of echinacea, ginger, calendula or cleavers, and poke root (small amount of poke root; about 5 ml. in a 1 oz. bottle); echinacea, violet leaf, cleavers, stillingia
Tonsillitis and Strep (also recurrent strep)- Recurrent tonsillitis or strep throat: Tinctures of: equal parts of calendula, echinacea, cleavers and poke root (small amount of poke root; about 5 ml. in a 1 oz. bottle); if needing to add an anti-bacterial with demulcent properties use usnea. If the conditions are very wet with swelling in the lymph being soft, add a bit of red root.
Hemorrhoids – Poor portal circulation due to poor fat metabolism, bleeding, protrusion, pain, hepatic dysfunction; it is due to excess dampness with a breakdown/relaxation in tissue that can no longer support function
- Internal – Energetics to consider: cardio vascular tonics, astringent, bitters, laxative, lymphatic, cholagogue, choleretic, if too much moisture (as noted by water on the tongue, through copious urination of clear fluids, and sweating) use plants to dry up water and bring up oil
- Sample formula: yellowdock root (especially if jaundiced), collinsonia (especially with leg swelling and varicose veins), figwort, yarrow, cleavers (if hard and swollen)
A wonderful desert plant that is used for hemorrhoids is ocotillo. It is specific for poor portal circulation (the vein that runs from the liver to the small intestine). Poor fat digestion with portal valve congestion is often thought to be a large part of the problem in this condition.
- External– astringent, emollient, anti-inflammatory, lymphatic, mucosal tonic
- Sample salve for application: calendula infused oil, St. john infused oil, pure essential oils of: yarrow or chamomile, cypress, frankincense, vetiver (combined total of 15 drops per 2 oz. of salve mix)
If the hemorrhoid is hard, dry and painful, Althea office applied topically works well. Many say to use a poultice or wash, but I make a cream with calendula infused oil, marshmallow root infusion, and geranium pure essential oil. It is cool and soothing-works amazingly well, and more comfortable and easier to apply throughout the day then a poultice.
Breast distension, cysts and swellings: if with menstruation: dandelion root, burdock root, and fennel seed, cleavers (for hard swellings); also do some hormonal balancing (with long cycles of 28 days or more, add Vitex; with short cycles of 27 days or less, use Angelica sinensus). If swellings in the lymph are soft, add red root.
Mastitis: cold fresh cabbage leaves in the bra over affected area; Tincture of: red root (25 ml.) and poke root (5 ml.) (This tincture is safe for nursing moms)
Avoid fennel seed with mastitis. It will stimulate the production of milk in the mammary glands.
Swollen Spleen- Diagnosis: Ultra sound can determine the size of the spleen, while an MRI will determine blood flow through the spleen. Causes: viral infections (mononucleosis and Epstein Barr Virus), pancreatitis, liver disease, and some autoimmune diseases Symptoms: see signs of spleen deficiency on page 1 of this handout Sample Tincture formulas: fennel, red root, yellowdock root (can also use dandelion root, turmeric, milk thistle or another liver herb)
(In Chinese medicine the spleens emotion is worry and over thinking. Energetically, it is another place for stress to impact elimination, assimilation, and immune function.)
Malabsorption Syndrome- Tincture formula of: fennel seed, red root, and a bitter like dandelion root, angelica archangelica (if warming is needed), or yellowdock root. If there is excessive dryness, the mouth will be dry, and tongue will look withered a bit. Avoid red root here, and use tinctures of violet herb, and fennel seed.
Swollen abdomen with high blood pressure (liver/portal valve and lymph issues): Tincture of: yellowdock root, collinsonia root, fennel seed tincture (more on this in the heart class); add nettle leaf tea if cold, and graying skin
While this is not a comprehensive list, and these are not all maladies associated with lymphatic dysfunction, I hope that it helps give you a frame work to add in other plants you may know about. Also not addressed here are some of the fine essential oils that support lymphatic health. That will come as a separate article soon to come.