The lymphatic system is an important component of the mammalian body’s circulatory system. It is often referred to as the second circulatory system, as it functions alongside the cardiovascular system.1 The main function of the lymphatic system is to circulate the lymph fluid throughout the body through vessels, nodes, and organs. This lymph fluid is composed of blood plasma, proteins and waste products from cells.1
Lymph nodes have a role in the immune system as they contain immune cells that help to combat infections and diseases.4
As it plays a role in maintaining a functioning immune system, the lymphatic system is crucial in the human body’s response to disease and infection. The lymphatic system also prevents fluid retention, reducing the risk of oedema and thus promoting healthy tissue. It also plays a role in detoxification, absorption of essential nutrients and fatty acids, and tissue repair. Thus, it is important to maintain proper lymphatic circulation for overall well-being.2
Factors affecting lymphatic health
It is well-regarded that healthy dietary choices and an active lifestyle contribute to a healthy and functioning lymphatic system. These choices support lymphatic fluid circulation and proper immune responses.3 A diet consisting of highly processed foods, a high sugar intake and inflammatory foods can lead to fluid retention, inflammation and an impaired immune response.3
As aforementioned, an active lifestyle contributes to the overall functioning of the lymphatic system. Prolonged periods of inactivity can lead to reduced lymphatic flow. Moving helps to circulate the lymph fluid; without it, lymphatic congestion may occur. This then impairs the body’s ability to remove waste products, toxins and pathogens effectively. Inactivity can also lead to an increased risk of oedema, leading to fluid build-up in the limps.
Dehydration is also a lifestyle factor that can impair the lymphatic system. Lack of bodily fluids can eventually cause thickened lymphatic fluid, thereby limiting circulation of the lymphatic fluid. Hydration is required to flush out metabolic waste products and toxins from the body. Without adequate hydration, it can lead to the accumulation of these harmful substances, increasing bodily inflammation.
Best foods for lymphatic health
As discussed earlier, it is vital to keep the body well-hydrated as this supports proper circulation of the lymph fluid. Drinking herbal teas can contribute to hydration and provide additional health benefits. Coconut water is also an extra source of hydration as it consists of many electrolytes, thus contributing to overall lymphatic health.4
Antioxidants are essential in reducing inflammation in the body and can be found in many fruits and vegetables. They are also contributors to supporting lymphatic health. Fruits such as berries, citrus fruits and cherries are high in antioxidants, and vitamin C. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and carrots are other food examples that are rich in antioxidants and should be incorporated into a healthy diet that supports lymphatic and thereby immune health.4
Omega-3 fatty acids are also a great source for incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into the diet. Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in plant-based sources such as flaxseeds and chia seeds. These may be incorporated into the diet in different ways, such as adding them to yoghurt and smoothies as a topping. Omega-3 fatty acids are also widely available in oral dosage forms such as tablets or capsules.5
Vitamin C is a natural source of antioxidants, found naturally in most citrus fruits, and can also be taken orally to support a healthy diet and lifestyle.
It is vital to incorporate fibre-rich foods in the diet to support overall health. In terms of lymphatic health, it aids the lymphatic system in eliminating toxins from the body. Whole grains such as oats, brown rice and quinoa are examples of fibre-rich foods that promote healthy digestion and, eventually, toxin elimination. Fibre can also be found in beans and lentils.5
There are also a few other food sources that may support lymphatic health. Garlic and onions help to detoxify the body and support immune function. Probiotic foods such as yoghurt and kefir are fermented foods that support digestion. Turmeric has great anti-inflammatory properties and can be incorporated as a spice in foods or as an herbal tea. Almonds and walnuts are rich in healthy fats. Lean poultry and beef are protein-rich sources that support the lymphatic system in tissue repair and immune function. Tofu also works as a plant-based alternative.5
Lifestyle practices to support lymphatic health
In addition to maintaining a healthy diet and incorporating food groups that help to support lymphatic function, lifestyle practices can also help. Regular physical exercise is an effective way of supporting the lymphatic system. It helps support the circulation of lymphatic fluid through the body. Health guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise to support the body’s overall health.2
Lymphatic massages can help stimulate and promote circulation. These can either be done professionally with a therapist or by yourself by massaging certain points on the body. Dry brushing the skin also stimulates lymphatic circulation. Special brushes for this purpose are widely available. Taking hot and cold showers can also stimulate the lymphatic fluid. General lifestyle tips such as practising sleep hygiene, managing stress, avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol are some examples that can contribute to overall health, including lymphatic health.2
Overall, managing a healthy diet and incorporating physical activity into your daily life are the main contributors to supporting lymphatic health. If there are more severe concerns about the lymphatic system, such as oedema and constant inflammation, it is best to seek out medical help from your doctor rather than manage it yourself.
- Ozdowski L, Gupta V. Physiology, lymphatic system. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 26]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557833/
- Swartz MA. The physiology of the lymphatic system. Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2001 Aug 23;50(1–2):3–20.
- Hu D, Li L, Li S, Wu M, Ge N, Cui Y, et al. Lymphatic system identification, pathophysiology and therapy in the cardiovascular diseases. J Mol Cell Cardiol. 2019 Aug;133:99–111.
- Bittar S, Simman R, Lurie F. Lymphedema: a practical approach and clinical update. Wounds. 2020 Mar;32(3):86–92.
- Cueni LN, Detmar M. The lymphatic system in health and disease. Lymphat Res Biol. 2008;6(3–4):109–22.