By Glenn Ellis
An important part of maintaining a healthy immune system is an effective “lymphatic system”, yet almost nowhere is anyone paying specific attention to it.
The lymphatic system is the “other” circulatory system that is vital to our health. The lymphatic system consists of lymph vessels, ducts, nodes, and other tissues. The lymph vessels form a network of branches that reach most of the body’s tissues. They work in a similar way to the blood vessels. The lymph vessels work with the veins to return fluid from the tissues.
Around 68 ounces of fluid leak from the cardiovascular system into body tissues every day. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels that collect these fluids, or lymph.
Unlike blood, the lymphatic fluid is not pumped but squeezed through the vessels when we use our muscles.
The lymphatic system has three main functions: it maintains the balance of fluid between the blood and tissues; it forms part of the body’s immune system and helps defend against bacteria and other intruders; and it facilitates absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients in the digestive system.
Lymph is drained progressively towards larger vessels called “lymph nodes.” They’re about size and shape of a pea, and hundreds of them are scattered all throughout the body. In the lymph nodes, immune cells assess for foreign material, such as bacteria, viruses, or fungus.
Lymph nodes are not the only lymphatic tissues in the body. The tonsils, spleen, and thymus gland are also lymphatic tissues.
In the back of the mouth, there are tonsils. These produce lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, and antibodies. The tonsils protect against inhaled and swallowed foreign bodies.
The spleen is not connected to the lymphatic system in the same way as lymph nodes, but it is lymphoid tissue. This means it plays a role in the production of white blood cells that form part of the immune system. Its other major role is to filter the blood to remove microbes and old and damaged red blood cells.
The thymus gland is a lymphatic organ and an endocrine gland that is found just behind the breastbone. It secretes hormones and is crucial in the production of immune T cells.
Around 90 percent of the plasma that reaches tissues from the main blood capillaries is returned by the capillaries and back along veins. The remaining 10 percent is drained back by the lymphatics. Each day, around two-three liters are returned. Loss of the lymphatic system would be fatal within a day.
Our bodies are constantly exposed to potentially hazardous micro-organisms, such as infections. If the immune system is not able to fight off these micro-organisms, they can be harmful and even fatal.
The lymphatic system produces white blood cells, known as lymphocytes that travel through the lymphatic system. As they reach the lymph nodes, they are filtered and become activated by contact with viruses, bacteria, foreign particles, and so on in the lymph fluid. From this stage, the pathogens, or invaders, are known as antigens.
The lymph nodes are concentrated in the neck, armpits, and groin. We become aware of these on one or both sides of the neck when we develop so-called “swollen glands” in response to an illness. It is in the lymph nodes that the lymphocytes first encounter the pathogens, communicate with each other, and set off their defensive response. The lymphatic system can stop working properly if nodes, ducts, vessels, or lymph tissues become blocked, infected, inflamed, or cancerous.
Cancer that starts in the lymphatic system is known as “lymphoma.” It is the most serious lymphatic disease. “Hodgkin lymphoma” affects a specific type of white blood cell. “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma” refers to types that do not involve these cells. Cancer that affects the lymphatic system is usually a secondary cancer. This means it has spread from a primary tumor, such as the breast, to nearby or regional lymph nodes.
If the lymphatic system does not work properly, for example, if there is an obstruction, fluid may not drain effectively. As the fluid builds up, this can lead to swelling, for example in an arm or leg. This is “lymphedema.”
Lymphedema is a chronic lymphatic disease that results in disfiguring swelling in one or more parts of the body. The skin may feel tight and hard, and skin problems may occur. A specially trained professional can do light massage to help move fluid from areas of swelling to other areas where working lymph vessels may carry it away.
The lymphatic system clears away infection and keeps your body fluids in balance. If it’s not working properly, fluid builds in your tissues and causes swelling, called lymphedema. Other lymphatic system problems can include infections, blockage, and cancer.
Treatment of lymphatic diseases depends on treating the underlying cause. Lymphedema can be treated by elevation, compression and physical therapy. Cancers of the lymphatic system are treated by chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or a combination of them all.
This “tree of life” we call the lymph system is necessary to maintain health throughout your entire body and makes life and healing possible. Small efforts such as eating whole organic food and drinking pure water can greatly affect the efficiency of your lymph system, and in turn will protect and defend your entire body.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.
Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.