It’s easy to write off puffy ankles, swollen fingers, cellulite-dimpled thighs or belly bloat as little inconveniences we see when we look in the mirror. But they are actually signs that a little-known system in our body, called the lymphatic system, isn’t working optimally. That’s a problem for women looking to drop stubborn pounds, as a sluggish lymphatic system makes weight loss much more difficult. The good news: Just by clearing your lymphatic system using food as medicine and a few pampering strategies, you can dramatically improve your body’s ability to clear away the kind of superficial fat that causes jiggles and dimples.
“The lymphatic system is the body’s superhighway disposal system for trash,” explains Loretta T. Friedman, DC, author of The Lymph-Link and a health practitioner at Synergy Health Associates in New York City. “The state of your lymph is your body’s best indication of overall health. It is the answer to all of our systematic inflammatory issues.” Here’s how to heal your lymphatic system and allow your body to flush that jiggly fat.
What is the lymphatic system?
Just like our blood vessels transport blood to every inch of our body, our lymph system has similar vessels running alongside every artery and vein to move fluid between glands called lymph nodes. Bruno Chikly, MD, DO, director of the Lymph Drainage Therapy & Brain Therapy Programs in Scottsdale, Arizona, says, “When the lymphatic system is functioning, lymph fluid flows through the body, detoxifying tissues, filtering out fat and toxins and maintaining a healthy immune system.”
This lymph fluid, which is rich in immune-boosting white blood cells, isn’t something people often think about, but it’s vital to our overall wellness. Lisa Levitt Gainsley, author of The Book of Lymph and a leader in lymphatic therapy, explains, “Lymph constantly replenishes us. Every cell in your body is literally bathed by its fluid; it’s the often-overlooked missing link to vibrant health.”
Yet unlike the heart that reliably pumps our blood for us, there is no internal master pump for our lymph system. Lymph fluid only moves if we move our body and contract our muscles. But that’s only when things are working normally.
Sluggish lymph fluid causes all-body bloat
Many of us have a malfunctioning lymph system. Why? As we age, stress hormones and toxins can accumulate in the body, clogging the lymph system with thick, sludgy fluid, much like how our sinuses can become congested during a cold.
When this happens, lymph fluid no longer flows like a river. It sits like a polluted pond. “When lymph flow becomes stagnant, water waste builds up, and this can lead to bloat and swelling,” asserts women’s health expert Jennifer Weinberg, MD, author of The Whole Cure. In fact, when the lymph system becomes severely blocked and damaged, the result can be a painful swelling condition called lymphedema, which affects 250 million people worldwide.
Sluggish lymph fluid results in subcutaneous fat
Then there’s the weight component. “When your lymph system is congested, it cannot properly transport fat where it needs to go,” explains Dr. Chikly. As a result of this internal back up, we get signs that are visible on the outside of our body: lumpy, bumpy cellulite and jiggly fat that collects around our belly, hips and thighs. This kind of fat is known as subcutaneous fat because it lies just underneath the skin (as opposed to visceral fat, which nestles between your organs and and can give you that hard belly).
Experts estimate that a lymphatic slowdown causes fat storage to double. And slowdowns get worse as we age. According to researchers in Japan, lymph flow decreases by 39 percent between age 20 and 50 and drops another 20 percent between 50 and 70.
Fortunately, it’s easy to get lymph moving and flush fat and toxins fast with pampering strategies like the ones below. Dr. Chikly assures, “Once the lymphatic fluid is moving freely, fat can be transported to be burned for fuel, and toxins can be flushed from the body.” (Click through for more ways to get rid of cellulite.)
Unblocking your lymph system heals your whole body
Weight loss is just one of many health benefits people notice. “Improving the function and flow of your lymphatic system can help clear up your skin, improve your energy and boost your metabolism,” says Dr. Weinberg. Other women credit a healthy lymphatic system with thicker hair, better focus, improved sleep and happier moods, as well as fewer menopause symptoms.
How to improve lymph flow and lose weight
There are several things you can do to improve lymphatic flow in your own body (see more on these below). But before you do, it’s key to prime your body for optimal lymph flow, says doctor of chiropractic Caitlin Czezowski, who teaches lymphatic flushing techniques to thousands on her Instagram, @doc.talks.detox. Each day, practice these two feel-great strategies before moving on to the lifestyle tips below.
1. Try deep breathing
The lymphatic system is connected to every system in the body, including the nervous system, which controls the emotional functioning of the brain. When we feel anxious, stressed or tense, our nervous system goes into “fight or flight” mode. That suppresses the immune system, so it produces fewer white blood cells in lymph fluid, slowing down lymph flow.
So the first thing to do when trying to strengthen and repair your lymphatic system is to pause and practice deep belly breathing. This will send “safety signals” to the nervous system to relax. “Slow, deep breaths activate abdominal muscles to assist lymph flow,” says Dr. Weinberg. To do: Place your hands on your belly. Inhale, expanding your belly as you count to three. Exhale, relaxing your belly as you count to three. Repeat five times, taking deeper breaths each time. This deep breathing shifts our nervous system into the relaxing “rest and digest” state and helps to propel lymph fluid from the lower half of the body up toward the heart.
One of Gainsley’s patients lost 20 pounds and describes her lymphatic reset as being “life changing.” She shares, “The best thing Lisa Levitt Gainsley taught me was how to breathe. I was breathing wrong. Due to my menopausal weight gain and chronic congestion, I’d become thick through the chest. But with Lisa’s help, my whole body changed. Now I feel better and look better. I wish people understood that lymphatic health is vital to overall health. It’s part of the body’s information super highway and you don’t want any road blocks!”
2. Do a 60-second lymph reset
Our body is designed with a series of one-way lymphatic doorways that must be opened in the right order to allow for proper drainage — not stagnation — in the correct direction. Dr. Czezowski advises spending 10 seconds gently pressing and pumping each of the following six regions (or lymph node centers) in this exact order using two fingers.
First, start at the collarbones, then press and pump behind the ears at the base of the skull, followed by the armpits. Next, press and pump the belly, about two inches above the belly button, and then under the hips at the creases of the groin. And lastly, end with the backs of the knees. This 60-second routine primes the body to fully benefit from the healthy habits that will follow. No lymphatic flushing technique will truly work if these lymph channels are not stimulated and opened up first.
Boost your results with these lifestyle tips
Now that your body is relaxed and ready for optimal lymphatic flow, you can pick and choose between the following tips to flush congested lymph fluid out of the system as urine.
Jump up and down
Experts have found that jumping rope or jumping on a small trampoline (or rebounder) for 10 minutes three times a week is a powerful way to improve lymphatic flow. That’s because jumping parallels the way lymph ducts function, opening and closing vertically, pumping lymph fluid through the body. Plus, most people find jumping to be more fun and playful than traditional forms of exercise. In fact, a classic Arizona State study showed that 10 minutes of jumping rope was as effective as 30 minutes of running at improving cardiovascular fitness.
This approach worked for Esta McIntyre, who shares, “Thanks to rebounding, my chronic pain dissipated, my range of motion improved and I even shed 10 pounds.” She was so impressed with her transformation she became a certified trainer and the owner of My Health Studio using JumpSport trampolines.
“Lymph flow increases during lymphatic massage. You’ll instantly feel refreshed,” asserts Gainsley, who says it’s akin to “moving meditation.” And you can do it yourself — no pricey massage therapy needed! To do: Lying down comfortably, massage your abdomen clockwise with the palms of your hands. For detailed self-massage instructions for other various body parts, pick up The Book of Lymph.
Brush your skin
Brushing the skin before taking a shower isn’t only a great way to exfoliate, it’s a surefire way to improve lymph flow. “The natural bristles of a dry brush encourage lymph movement to help move built-up toxins,” says Dr. Weinberg. “I dry-brush my body for 10 minutes each morning.” To do: Using a firm-bristled brush, make long, gentle strokes, starting with the hands and feet, always working your way toward the center of the body. Some women report seeing their chronic belly bloat vanish in just 10 days with this healthy habit.
Take a hot/cold shower
If you alternate between cold and hot water in your shower, a process scientifically known as contrast bath therapy, you can stimulate a sluggish lymph system. Friedman explains, “Lymphatic vessels contract in cold temperatures and dilate in response to heat. So an alternating cold and hot shower is a kind of hydrotherapy that uses water temperature and pressure to move stagnant lymphatic fluid, increase circulation and boost immune function and metabolism.”
Consider compression garments
Wearing compression socks during the day can help prevent lymph fluid from pooling in the feet and ankles. Some experts also believe this practice can lead to a better quality of sleep at night when the socks are off.
Enjoy lymph-supporting foods
“Choosing what to eat is one of the simplest and most effective ways to impact lymphatic health,” asserts Dr. Weinberg. Fewer toxins and more water are the goal here. “Aim to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods, which create congestion and swelling that slow the flow of lymph fluid.”
Eat the rainbow
Enjoy colorful vegetables. “Naturally red foods, for example, contain antioxidants that keep the lymph moving freely,” says Dr. Weinberg. Also smart: Include plenty of raw fruit and vegetables. “They’re rich in enzymes and bioflavonoids that break down toxic buildup and keep the lymphatic system healthy.”
Drink plenty of fluids
“Lymph fluid is about 95 percent water and becomes thicker when you’re dehydrated,” explains Dr. Weinberg. That’s why she recommends sipping water throughout the day and avoiding soft drinks and alcohol, which are dehydrating.
Consider a fruity mocktail
The antioxidant compounds that give pomegranates their red color break down lumpy deposits of lymphatic waste to speed weight loss. One recipe to try: Combine 1 ⁄2 cup of 100 percent pomegranate juice, 1 ⁄2 cup of seltzer and 2 Tbs. of fresh lime juice over ice. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Try this lymph superfood
Friedman says, “Garlic promotes lymph flow. Since most of garlic’s benefits come when it’s in its raw state, the best way to consume it is to chop a clove into quarters and swallow the pieces whole with a glass of water.”
It worked for Marquita Wilson — she lost 111 lbs!
Out of breath, Marquita Wilson, 45, helped her disabled sister change clothes, then lovingly placed her back in her wheelchair. Marquita knew: If I’m going to provide the care my sister deserves, I have to get my health under control.
After Marquita lost her mom to cancer, she became the full-time caregiver for her sister, who needed 24-hour assistance. “I never realized how much strength and dedication it took to care for her. But I knew without me, she’d be institutionalized.”
So this wife and mother of four began making changes. In the kitchen, Marquita adopted a clean-eating approach, reaching for lymph-detoxing foods like cranberries, apple cider vinegar, and red peppers. At the gym, Marquita learned to activate her lymph system by jumping rope and using a foam roller, which looked like a short, chunky pool noodle. She also sat in a sauna to improve circulation and sweat out toxins. “Even weeks I didn’t lose weight, I lost inches.”
Marquita went on to drop 100 pounds, cure her diabetes, and trade her 3Xs for 10s. More wins followed, as the doctor happily reported: “Cholesterol, normal. Heart disease, avoided. Everything, changed!”
For more tips on how to get rid of bloat, jiggly fat and cellulite, check out these stories:
This story originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.