How Your Lymphatic System Works

Similar to the way your blood circulatory system delivers nutrients and oxygen to all cells of the body, the lymphatic system is a complex network of vessels that branch through all parts of the body to circulate important bodily fluid and defend against infection. When functioning well, the lymphatic system helps keep the body's needs in balance, but when things go wrong, disorders and cancer can result. Take a closer look at the important role your lymphatic system plays in keeping your body balanced and healthy. Then, incorporate our healthy lifestyle tips to encourage proper function for many years to come!

Parts of the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs made up of lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph that drain lymph fluid (a fluid containing white blood cells, water, proteins, salts and lipids) from all over the body.

  • There are lymph nodes in your body that you can likely feel under your arm (in your armpit), in each groin (at the top of your legs) and in your neck.
  • There are also lymph nodes you may not be able to feel, such as those found in your abdomen, pelvis and chest.
  • Other lymphatic body organs include your spleen, thymus gland, tonsils and adenoids.

How the Lymphatic System Works

You can think of the lymphatic system as the body’s drainage system, working around-the-clock to clean up and properly dispose of waste left behind by other body systems. A healthy lymphatic system also contributes to many other major bodily functions, including:

Drains fluid back into the bloodstream.

One of the lymphatic system’s primary jobs is to collect excess fluid (particularly lymph fluid) surrounding the body’s tissues and organs and return it to the bloodstream. If the lymphatic system didn’t drain excess fluid from the tissues, the lymph fluid would build up in the body and cause swelling.

Filters lymph.

As lymph passes through the lymph nodes, the white blood cells attack any bacteria or viruses found in the lymph. If cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can attach to the nearby lymph nodes. This is the reason doctors will check the lymph nodes first when determining how far cancer has spread.

Filters the blood.

The spleen filters blood, removing old red blood cells and replacing them with new red blood cells that are made in the bone marrow.

Removes impurities from the body.

The lymphatic system also helps to remove toxins and other impurities from the body, such as carbon dioxide, sodium and other byproducts of cellular feeding on oxygen, minerals and nutrients. The system helps to remove these impurities and dispose of them through perspiration, bowel movements, urine and your breath.

Fights infection.

The lymphatic system helps defend the body against illness-causing germs, bacteria, viruses and fungi. The system builds immunity by making special white blood cells (called lymphocytes) that produce antibodies which are responsible for immune responses that defend the body against disease.

Things That Can Go Wrong

When the lymphatic system is not functioning properly, it can put your body at risk for certain diseases that affect the lymph nodes, spleen or other parts of the lymphoid tissue, such as:

  • Lymphedema is a chronic swelling in one arm or leg caused by too much lymph fluid. Many people develop this disorder following cancer therapy.
  • Lymphadenopathy is a condition where the lymph nodes become swollen or enlarged.
  • Lymphoma is cancer that starts in the lymph nodes when lymphocytes change and multiply at an out-of-control rate.
  • Splenomegaly is a disease (usually caused by a viral infection) that causes the spleen to swell several times its normal size.

Keep Your Lymphatic System Healthy

Maintaining a healthy lymphatic system is important to prevent illness and keep other important body systems functioning. Encourage proper function of your lymphatic system by incorporating these healthy lifestyle tips:

  1. Drink plenty of water. 
  2. Eat a healthy diet rich in alkaline foods and vegetables that provide a full range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
  3. Include healthy fats in your diet.
  4. Exercise daily, including both aerobic and anaerobic physical activity.
  5. Avoid pollutants, toxic substances and unhealthy environments.
  6. Learn to manage stress through techniques such as yoga, meditation and exercise to promote wellness.

Your lymphatic system is constantly working to keep your body balanced. Maintaining its health is important not only for its own role but the role it plays in many other body systems.