Poor lymphatic system. The ignored stepchild of biological systems, it carries out crucial functions that ensure our health but receives none of the attention or glory. But pay it a little more mind, and the system — which serves as the body’s filtration mechanism — will perform even better.
Here’s how it works: As cells rejuvenate, they push waste out into the fluid found in the tissue between cells. The lymphatic system, along with the circulatory system, is responsible for draining this waste by flushing it through a network of lymph vessels to deliver it to lymph nodes — which, believe it or not, are actually organs that we have up to 700 of — where it is filtered.
“Most people have a sense that the lymph nodes help to break down bacteria and get the bad things out of your system,” says Miriam Janove, certified massage therapist and owner of Santa Cruz Bodywork in Santa Cruz, California. “When the fluid gets flushed, it brings along with it all of the toxins and bacteria and other waste products your cells produce. It makes the tissues healthier and works to sterilize all of that stuff and get it out of your system.”
Janove, a certified lymphedema therapist through the Dr. Vodder School in Walchsee, Austria and a practitioner of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), compares the lymphatic system to a more familiar one, but with one important distinction:
“It’s very similar to the circulatory system, but unlike the circulatory system, it doesn’t have a heart to keep it moving,” she says. “It needs to rely on other systems, as well as gravity to keep it moving — which is why it’s really important to spend time lying down to sleep.”
An inefficient or blocked lymphatic system means cells remain surrounded by their waste, resulting in sluggishness and swelling known as edema.
“It’s kind of like the garbage disposal system for our body — if it’s not working, our body is full of garbage,” says Natalia Roberti, who studied at the Center for Lymphatic Health in Santa Barbara and now offers lymphatic massage, along with several other healing modalities, in Santa Cruz County, Calif.
Along with gravity, exercise and deep breathing help the lymphatic fluid flow as it should. But for those with a lethargic system, or for those who simply enjoy its myriad health benefits, there is also MLD, a manual technique that stimulates the lymphatic system.
Often described as a light-touch massage, MLD’s creation is credited largely to Danish doctor Emil Vodder, who developed the technique in the 1930s — a time when the medical world understood very little about the lymphatic system.
Soft, repetitive strokes rouse lymph vessels in the skin layers, speeding up the system’s process.
Although used widely in much of Europe as a post-surgery treatment and general wellness service, MLD is not well known in the United States outside of lymphedema circles.
Realizing there were few resources where she lived, Janove decided to learn MLD in order to help local clients who suffered from lymphedema — swelling that results from lymphatic system blockages that are often caused by cancer surgeries, particularly breast cancer operations. She reports encouraging results from MLD treatments on lymphedema clients, citing clients whose ankles were so swollen that they could not walk without a cane who now walk unassisted.
But some of her best outcomes have been with clients without compromised lymphatic systems, she says. MLD is often used to speed up healing after an operation or injury, to treat allergies and sinus problems, promote detoxification and digestive health, and provide immune support.
Estheticians were some of the first professionals to embrace MLD after its genesis. “Wellness esthetician” and MLD specialist Angela Peck discovered this fact while searching for a way to treat clients with under-eye dark circles and puffiness, and went on to become certified in MLD through the Vodder School. Based on the more than 4,000 MLD treatments she’s given since, Peck says she has seen results that she never achieved in her earlier days as a conventional esthetician (read: extractions, peels, prods and pokes) or, later, as an all-natural practitioner.
“Lymphatic drainage has changed completely how I do skincare,” Peck says. “[Before], I was already including acupressure in my facials because, as in Chinese medicine, I believe the whole foundation of heath is movement and nourishment. Lymphatic drainage is an extension of that — relieving stagnations and getting energy moving.”
With the aid of her go-to, natural product line, Laurel Whole Plant Organics, Peck says MLD has worked wonders for rosacea, eczema, acne, blackheads, puffiness, and dark circles. In general, MLD produces brighter, healthier skin: “Slowing down of our dead skin cells sloughing off is due to lymphatic congestion,” she explains.
“[Those results are] a cosmetic difference, but it’s a reflection of what’s going on inside,” Peck adds. “That’s one reason I love this — it’s not just improving the way you look. I couldn’t work in skincare if it was just all about surface.”
But the most universal appeal of MLD can be enjoyed by anyone, even if they don’t have one of the aforementioned afflictions: deep relaxation.
“I have a lot of clients who make time for an MLD treatment every week, some even twice a week, because they’ve found nothing else that calms their nervous system quite like MLD does,” says Peck.
The technique’s rhythmic motion mimics the system’s natural pattern, stimulating it into motion. This eases the body from its usual flight-or-fight mode, or sympathetic nervous response, to the deep relaxation of a parasympathetic nervous response, when it can set about resting and repairing.
“In our world, we spend so much time in this stress zone, even if we don’t necessarily feel it, because it’s normal to us,” says Janove.
However, while it is heavily sedating, calling MLD a “massage” is somewhat of a misnomer.
“People need to know what they are getting into,” explains Janove. “If someone comes in and wants a massage, and wants to try the lymphatic drainage, I have to explain that it is a very light touch and doesn’t feel like what they might consider a massage to be.”
Janove incorporates as much or as little MLD into her massage sessions as the client wants, and says that sometimes the gentle technique just won’t satisfy someone’s need for deeper bodywork.
“It does have all of these great effects,” she says, “but if they really have a muscle knot they want worked out, we might want to consider doing a deep-tissue massage.”
After a treatment, MLD recipients are urged to drink lots of water (to help flush out the toxins), and avoid foods and beverages that are toxifying or inflammatory. In everyday life, exercise (especially swimming), dry brushing, and resting are all helpful for maintaining a healthy lymphatic system, and there are an increasing number of serums and salves that purport to stimulate the lymphatic system, as well.