Did you spend your summer “being good” without losing a single pound? Are your rings tight, your joints sore, and your body tired? Does your skin overreact to every mosquito bite, getting itchy, hot, and swollen? These signs all point to a congested lymphatic system — a complex network of capillaries and vessels that help rid the body of toxins, excess fluids, and fat. When this system gets sludgy and slow — like it does for an estimated 80 percent of women over 40 — it’s not just a problem for health and vitality. It can also sabotage your weight-loss efforts.
“When lymph flow is slow and congested, it leads to an accumulation of body fat,” asserts Bruno Chikly, MD, DO, director of the Lymph Drainage Therapy & Brain Therapy Programs in Scottsdale, Arizona. To understand why, think of your lymphatic system as a highway: When it is packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, other cars can’t squeeze on.
A similar thing happens with fat molecules: “A slow lymphatic system can no longer properly transport fat where it needs to go,” Dr. Chikly explains. This extra fat winds up being deposited around your belly, hips, and thighs. It’s no wonder Stanford University researchers discovered that a lymphatic slowdown causes fat storage to double!
“Carrying around these extra pounds triggers inflammation—a problem for both your immune system and your waistline,” says lymph expert Jenna Macciochi, PhD. “As part of its role as a superhighway, the lymphatic system carries immune cells through your body to infection-fighting lymph nodes. But inflammation thwarts this process by reducing lymph flow.” Researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital report that this inflammation triggers the creation of more fat cells to store the toxins present in stagnant lymph fluid— and that makes losing weight on any diet virtually impossible.
Why do so many of us have backed up lymphatic systems? One common culprit is toxins, which collect in lymph fluid before they’re flushed from the body. Another offender? Stress. “Stress hormones cause lymph tissue to deteriorate, so lymphatic vessels can’t drain as they should,” says Macciochi.
The loss of muscle strength as we age also plays a role: The lymphatic system relies on muscle contractions from surrounding tissues. But according to a study in the journal Aging Cell, the strength of the muscles that move lymph fluid decreases by 20 percent and their contractions are up to 70 percent less frequent as we get into our 50s.
Luckily, a detoxifying diet combined with self-care thins out a clogged lymph to power off pounds. Eating more whole foods reduces toxin buildup, and targeted self-care practices allow more fluid to be pumped through the body — often in as little as seven days, says Dr. Chikly. What’s more, he assures, “Once lymphatic fluid is moving freely, fat can be transported to be burned for fuel and excess toxins can be flushed from the body.”
Effortless weight loss is just the beginning. “Greater lymph flow may reduce your risk of plaque buildup in arteries, high cholesterol, and inflammatory bowel disease,” says Dr. Chikly. You’ll also enjoy improved immunity, more energy, and less pain. Here's how to do it.
Fill up on lymph-healing foods.
“Consuming certain foods and beverages impacts how easily lymph fluid can flow through the lymphatic tubes,” says Dr. Douillard. Here, delicious success strategies:
Eat brightly colored veggies. “Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and arugula as well as deep red veggies like beets improve lymph flow,” says lymph expert Jenna Macciochi, PhD. Natural nitrates in these picks have been shown to contain enzymes that help to break down toxic buildup to thin lymph fluid. To get the benefits, enjoy at least 2 cups of vibrant green or red veggies each day.
Avoid lymph-clogging dairy. Milk and most other dairy products contain casein — a large protein that’s difficult to digest. “It doesn’t break down small enough to get absorbed into the bloodstream, so it ends up clogging your lymphatic system,” says Dr. Douillard. To improve lymph flow, he suggests cutting out dairy for seven days — this helps thin the lymph immediately, plus gives the body time to eliminate built-up casein that is congesting the system. Tasty alternatives include almond milk creamer, coconut milk yogurt, or oat milk lattes.
Choose lymph-friendly foods. “Unhealthy fats and preservatives in processed foods can overwhelm the lymphatic system,” asserts Dr. Douillard. Instead, load up on fresh, whole foods. And opt for organic, especially when buying the produce that the Environmental Working Group has found contain the highest concentration of pesticides: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
Keep your glass full. “When you’re dehydrated, circulation is less abundant,” asserts Jamé Heskett, M.D., author of The Well Path ($18.95, Amazon). “Picture a trickle through a drainpipe versus an overflowing gutter.” Indeed, lymph fluid is about 95 percent water, so without enough H2O, the fluid gets sludgy. Dr. Douillard suggests aiming to drink half your ideal body weight in ounces of water each day. As an easy rule of thumb, if you’re 5'5" or shorter, that’s about 9 cups per day; if you’re 5'6" or taller, that’s about 10 cups per day.
Other Ways to Flush Toxins
The lymphatic system relies on muscle contractions to push lymph fluid along, says Dr. Douillard. “This makes deep breathing, exercise, and certain body postures the lymphatic system’s best medicine.” At-home lymphatic massage (see page 24 for more) is a good place to start, but consider adding these easy strategies for speedy results:
Breathe with your belly. “Your breath acts as one of the largest pumps in the body, pulling lymph fluid from the lower parts upward and supporting healthy lymphatic flow,” says Macciochi. For best results, try breathing from the diaphragm: Inhale and exhale through your nostrils rather than your mouth while taking deep breaths that make your belly rise and fall. UCLA scientists report that taking deep, calming breaths throughout the day helps women torch 27 percent. more fat.
Jump up and down. Any exercise that gets you moving helps circulate lymphatic fluid. In fact, researchers from Finland found that moderate-intensity activity increases lymph flow by 400 percent. One of the best and easiest exercises to adopt: Use a small at-home trampoline (called a rebounder) to gently bounce for 10 minutes three times a week. “Rebounding is the single best way to flush toxins and excess fluids from the lymphatic system,” says Dr. Heskett. And, according to a NASA study, it’s 68 percent more effective at burning calories than jogging.
Sleep this way. Research from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that the lymphatic vessels in the brain flush away toxins 200 percent faster when you’re asleep. And recent research from Harvard Medical School suggests that this waste-clearing system works even more effectively when you sleep on your side. To get the benefits, try getting comfortable on your side, then tucking a pillow behind your back to maintain the sleeping position throughout the night.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.