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What Is the Lymphatic System and How to Get it Moving

With more of an emphasis on health and staying away from infections, many people are fairly familiar with the immune system and how it works. However, the lymphatic system isn’t quite as well known.

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system that plays an important role in your health. We’ll explain what the lymphatic system does, which organs play a role in its function and how to get it moving.

What is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system contains lymph, lymph vessels, lymphocytes and lymph nodes. Lymph is a watery fluid that contains lymphocytes, also known as white blood cells, and other substances (lipids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, waste products and pathogens). Lymph vessels are tubes that carry this fluid throughout the body, and lymph nodes are small organs found mainly in the upper extremities (neck, chest and underarm) that filter lymph fluid.

Each day, your body pumps about 20 liters of plasma throughout the body to deliver nutrients to cells and tissues. About 90 percent of this blood is returned through your veins, while the remaining 10 percent leaks out into your tissues via tiny lymphatic vessels. This is where the lymphatic system comes into play. 

The lymphatic system collects this protein-rich lymph fluid and passes it through lymph nodes to filter out waste products and pathogens. At this point, the lymph nodes will signal to your immune system if it senses any bacteria or viruses to fight against. There are about 600 lymph nodes in your body. 

Once this filtration process is complete, the lymph moves into the lymphatic ducts near the neck before re-entering the bloodstream. While heart contractions control the cardiovascular system to move blood through the body, the lymphatic system relies on stimulation from muscle contractions to operate.

What is the function of the lymphatic system?

Along with the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system plays an important role in balancing fluid levels and moving it throughout the body. 

Made up of a network of tissues, vessels and organs, the lymphatic system helps your body identify abnormal cells and pathogens that can cause illness or cancer. It is also responsible for producing and releasing white blood cells to kill any harmful pathogens that attack host cells in your body.

Any abnormal cells or waste products are transported and removed by the lymphatic system. Lymph fluid also contains intestinal fluid, which is full of lipids and proteins from the foods you eat. The lymphatic system helps ensure these important nutrients are transported, filtered and returned back into the bloodstream to be used as an energy source.

Sometimes, the function of the lymphatic system can be disrupted as a result of illnesses or cancer. For example, infections can cause swollen lymph nodes. Lymphedema, the swelling or accumulation of lymph fluid, can occur in cancer patients who have had radiation or surgery. This occurs due to blockages in the lymphatic system from scar tissue or damage. The tumors from some forms of cancer, such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, can block lymphatic ducts or nodes.

What organs are in the lymphatic system?

Aside from lymph nodes, the main organs in the lymphatic system can be broken down in the following two categories: primary lymphoid organs and secondary lymphoid organs.

Primary lymphoid organs

The main function of these organs is to create lymphocytes the immune system needs to fight against illness and disease. There are two main lymphocytes: B cells and T cells. T cells destroy any cells that have been overtaken by germs, while B cells produce antibodies to fight against future infection.

Bone marrow

Bone marrow is the soft, spongy tissue inside your bones where most immune system cells originate. It is responsible for the production of white blood cells (including both B cells and T cells), red blood cells and platelets. Once created, they migrate to other organs and tissues. Most of this production occurs after birth in red bone marrow. Over time, it turns into fatty tissue. As adults, the remaining blood marrow is limited to your torso (ribs, breastbone and pelvis).


Much like bone marrow, the thymus (located above the heart) is most active during childhood before transitioning to fatty tissue. Although bone marrow produces T cells, they eventually migrate to the thymus to mature.

Secondary lymphoid organs

In addition to lymph nodes, these secondary organs are where the lymphocytes are activated to defend against pathogens.


Known as the largest lymphatic organ, the spleen filters red blood cells and platelets and stores immune system cells. The spleen also produces antibodies to help fight against future infection.

Tonsils and adenoid

These organs are often termed as the first line of defense against harmful bacteria and viruses. They contain white blood cells and can trap germs that enter the nose or mouth. Peyer’s patches

Made up of lymphoid follicles, these small masses of tissue line the walls of the ileum in your small intestine. Not only do lymphoid cells identify and destroy germs and other pathogens, they also play a large role in defending against future infection. In fact, more than 50 percent of the cells responsible for antibody production come from the bowel wall.


The appendix contains lymphoid tissue that kills germs. While often viewed as an unnecessary organ in adults, your appendix plays an important role as a child to help the immune system fight disease.

Chart of the Lymphatic System


How to improve lymphatic system

Many simple changes can help improve your lymphatic system, ranging from diet and exercise to deep breathing.


Your heart serves as a pump to move blood throughout your body. The lymphatic system doesn’t have that luxury, which is why movement and muscle contraction are so important for lymph fluid

Many of the body’s lymph vessels run along your legs and arms, so any type of movement will provide stimulation. This can be as simple as walking during your lunch break or jogging at night. Simple household activities such as gardening or vacuuming can be stimulating, too.


Eating a poor diet full of sugary, processed foods can slow down your lymphatic system and even cause drainage issues. A previous study of mice fed a high-fat diet showed functional impairment of the lymphatic system, more specifically the lymphatic vessels.

So, what should you eat to boost your lymphatic system? Try eating fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, herbs and spices. Fruits, such as berries and oranges, have antioxidant qualities that benefit immune health. Nuts, seeds and seafood contain omega 3 fatty acids that are beneficial to the lymphatic system.

Deep breathing

Slow, controlled breathing can help increase lymph fluid movement in your body. When you take deep breaths, the diaphragm expands and allows the lungs to engage the thoracic duct to stimulate lymph fluid back into the bloodstream.

For patients with lymphoedema, a condition that causes swelling, deep breathing can help lymph fluid flow back into your bloodstream to help reduce swelling. To practice deep breathing, take a slow breath through your nose and exhale out. Try exhaling twice as long as you inhale – this helps increase the oxygen saturation in your blood.


Everyone likes a good massage to relieve aches and pains, but massages actually have a functional purpose to help get the lymphatic system moving again.

Known medically as a lymphatic drainage massage, this manual release helps relieve any blockages in your lymphatic system that cause swelling. In certain medical conditions, such as lymphedema caused by breast cancer, swelling occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the arms and legs. A massage therapist uses certain techniques that help restore fluid movement.


Lymphatic fluid consists mostly of water, so it’s important to stay hydrated. Dehydration can actually slow the lymphatic system down and affect fluid circulation and how waste is removed.

If you begin to feel sluggish or notice swelling that may be due to issues with your lymphatic system, talk to your primary care physician to discuss treatment options. 

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