Belly bloat, cellulite, tiredness, brain fog — for too many women, these symptoms are frustratingly familiar. But while many of us write them all off as normal signs of aging in today’s fast-paced world, breaking science reveals this “new normal” isn’t normal at all — it’s actually a sign that the lymphatic system isn’t functioning properly.
“The lymph system is responsible for picking up and taking out the ‘garbage’ for the entire body,” says weight-loss expert Jamé Heskett, MD. When the system is working optimally, a network of thin tubes called lymphatic vessels transport watery lymph fluid in and out of cells to clear out toxins, excess fluids, and other waste from the body.
For three out of four women, though, the lymphatic vessels have become blocked and the body’s waste is trapped, sitting stagnant. As it sits, it triggers inflammation, water retention, and all those bothersome symptoms that leave us looking and feeling older. Even worse: Stanford University scientists report that sluggish lymph flow doubles fat storage. That’s because lymph vessels are also responsible for transporting fatty acids to muscles so they can be burned for fuel. When lymph isn’t moving, fatty acids can’t be burned and ultimately end up getting sucked right back into fat cells.
The cause of health-sapping lymph blockages: undigested dairy proteins. Researchers have discovered that large protein molecules (particularly casein) in milk, cheese, and other dairy products can’t be fully broken down in the GI tract. Undigested, these dairy proteins are considered “waste,” so they move into the lymphatic system for removal.
But because dairy protein molecules are nearly as thick as the lymph vessels themselves, the proteins get stuck in the thin tubes. Any undigested proteins can clog the lymph system, but dairy proteins are especially likely to slow the flow of lymph fluid because they are so large,” explains nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD.
In fact, in an animal study at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Washington, DC, lymph flow slowed by 50 percent after rats were fed casein just one time. And according to Gittleman, a lifetime of consuming dairy can cause the lymph system to become so clogged, women who now indulge only occasionally can still feel the effects. Complicating matters: Even women who avoid dairy are impacted since casein is now in many processed foods, including packaged cereals, deli meats, and meat substitutes.
The risk of lymph blockages increases after age 40. The reason is that the body’s production of casein-digesting enzymes slows with age, making us less able to process dairy proteins.
The good news is that it’s possible to quickly eliminate dairy-induced lymph blockages. Gittleman has developed a detox designed to thin out clogged lymph fluid and stimulate lymph flow so toxins and excess water can be flushed and fatty acids can be whisked away and burned for fuel. “Giving up dairy even for just a few days clears out dairy protein particles and gets lymph fluid moving,” she says. And pairing the detox with targeted wellness strategies gets lymph flowing even faster, so make sure you're engaging in regular self-care and working to reduce stress. “You’ll lose inches, you’ll lose that cottage cheese-like texture on the skin, and your belly will be flatter,” says Gittleman, who notes that it’s possible to drop two jeans sizes in six days.
Even better: On day seven, dairy can go back on the menu. With lymph flow restored, the body can move undigested dairy proteins through the lymph tubes more easily, so you can enjoy the occasional indulgence without fear of plateaus or rebound pounds. Read on for the plan that will have you feeling revitalized this week!
Eliminating dairy for six days helps the lymph system clear out blockages -and speeds weight loss. And while this dietary strategy alone delivers the benefits, Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., author of Before the Change (HarperOne, 2017; Paperback $16, Kindle $8, Nook $8), says you can feel a major health transformation in six short days if you also include these four superhero foods in your daily diet:
1. Fat-flushing flax. These high-fiber seeds help flush undigested dairy proteins and trapped fat from the body, plus they’re loaded with omega-3 fats that speed metabolism. In one study, subjects who added 3 Tbs. to their daily diet dropped 37 percent more weight than those who didn’t.
For best results, get 3 Tbs. daily. Blend the ground seeds into a smoothie or sprinkle onto salads. (Note: Flax contains high levels of plant estrogens, so Gittleman advises those with breast cancer, extreme PMS or chronic breast tenderness to switch to chia seeds, which confer many of the same benefits without the estrogen.)
2. Healing greens. The chlorophyll in leafy greens helps break down acidic waste in lymph vessels to speed the flow of lymph fluid. Enjoy at least 2 cups throughout the day.
3. Skinny carbs. Each day, load your plate with 1/4 cup of whole grains like oats, quinoa and wild rice. These foods are rich in fiber, which binds to toxins and ferries them out of the body before they can clog lymph fluid.
4. Healthy fats. Ditch lymph-clogging industrial seed oils (like corn, soybean, and peanut oils) and switch to fats that lubricate lymph fluid to keep it flowing. Top picks: 2 Tbs. of coconut oil, half an avocado, 1 Tbs. of hemp seeds.
To make the dairy detox feel effortless, add self-care practices. “These can seem like a waste of time,” says Gittleman. “But you actually need pampering — it's healing for the lymphatic system.” The following strategies will help you see positive changes in just 48 hours.
Brush your skin. Weight-loss expert Jamé Heskett, MD, recommends starting the day by dry brushing your body. “Lymph doesn’t move well during the night, so we want to get it going. It only takes five minutes and it feels so good.” It can help you look good too: Stanford doctors report that brushing skin daily reduces puffiness in 10 days. To do: Using a firm-bristled brush (like the Cactus Long Handle Body Brush, $15, TheBodyShop.com), start at your feet and firmly brush up to your groin, then brush upward over your stomach to your breasts and over your butt to your waist, then brush up your arms and down toward your heart.
Jump around. Rebounding on a mini trampoline for 10 minutes three times a week boosts the flow of lymph fluid to remove undigested dairy proteins. “Your entire body gets a workout, including the lymph system,” says Gittleman. And according to a NASA study, bouncing is 68 percent more effective at burning calories than jogging.
Day 7 and Beyond
You can now add dairy back into your meal plan, but do so in a staggered way to flag any issues. “It takes four days for dairy to move through the system, so add one food, then wait four days until you add another,” says Gittleman. She advises starting with fermented products like yogurt and kefir because fermentation predigests some of the problematic proteins. For best results, pick full-fat, grass-fed dairy, which is richer in a metabolism-revving fatty acid that’s been shown to help women shed 20 percent of their body fat in 90 days.
To promote further weight loss, Gittleman suggests eating dairy no more than twice a day. Note: Some women are dairy-intolerant and may not be able to consume it without bloat and discomfort. In that case, Gittleman suggests coconut milk-based alternatives.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.