By Dr. Mercola
Massage is often considered to be a treat reserved for special occasions, but there’s good reason to make regular massages a part of your health and fitness routine. Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles revealed that massages prompt significant physical changes in your body, including boosting your immune system, your body’s key defense against illness and disease.1
Twenty-nine lucky study participants received 45 minutes of Swedish massage, a relaxing, full-body massage, while another group received 45 minutes of light touching instead. The massage group experienced a number of benefits, including an increase in circulating lymphocytes, a form of immune system white blood cell that’s especially prevalent in your lymphatic system.
Other massage benefits included lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, cortisol (a stress hormone) and vasopressin, a hormone linked to aggressive behavior.2
“Massage therapy is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States with 8.7 percent of adults receiving at least one massage within the last year; yet, little is known about the physiologic effects of a single session of massage in healthy individuals,” the researchers noted. Increasingly, however, it’s becoming clear that massage isn’t only a tool for relaxation; it’s a tool for boosting your overall health and even your resistance to disease by boosting your lymphatic health.
Why a Healthy Lymphatic System Is Key to Overall Health
If you’re interested in maintaining good health by boosting your immune system, consider lymphatic massage, also known as lymphatic drainage. Your lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help transport metabolic waste out of your body. Parts of your lymphatic system include your thymus gland, lymph nodes, spleen, liver and tonsils.
Your lymphatic system also produces, stores and carries white blood cells that your body uses to fight off infections and disease, and lymphatic vessels branch out into all the tissues in your body, similar to blood vessels.3 Having a well-functioning lymphatic system is essential for good health, as lymphatic fluid, or lymph, carries white blood cells throughout your body and also carries bacteria and toxins to your lymph nodes, where your immune system destroys them.
Your spleen is the largest organ in your lymphatic system, and it helps to filter your blood and produce lymphocytes to fight infection.4 There’s even a connection between your lymphatic system and cancer, as it helps filter out cancer cells. Cancer Research UK explains:
“As blood circulates around the body, fluid leaks out from the blood vessels into the body tissues. The fluid then collects waste products, bacteria, and damaged cells. It also collects any cancer cells if these are present. This fluid then drains into the lymph vessels. The lymph then flows through the lymph vessels into the lymph glands, which filter out any bacteria and damaged cells.
From the lymph glands, the lymph moves into larger lymphatic vessels that join up. These eventually reach a very large lymph vessel at the base of the neck called the thoracic duct. The thoracic duct then empties the lymph back into the blood circulation.”
Lymphatic Massage May Benefit Your Immune System
Swedish massage, remember, increased circulating lymphocytes in the body, which suggests it boosts lymphatic health. However, lymphatic drainage massage may be an even more efficient way to keep your lymphatic system healthy. Your lymphatic system is sometimes called your second circulatory system, and when it becomes slow or clogged up, your immune system weakens.
Lymphatic drainage massage involves gentle massage techniques designed to encourage lymph to drain out of a clogged area and increases lymphatic circulation. Lymphatic massage is not at all painful and involves rubbing or pushing the skin in the direction of lymphatic flow, allowing accumulated fluid to clear and flow properly.
A typical session may last up to an hour and you may be advised to receive one four to five times a week if you’re experiencing a blockage. Generally, the massage will address your entire lymphatic system rather than focusing only on the affected area. Originally developed as a treatment for lymphedema, a blockage in the lymphatic system, it can be performed by a professional or you can do a simplified version on yourself, which your therapist can teach you.
Raakhee Patel, a physical therapist who trains people to perform lymphatic massage after surgery, explains in Healthline there are two stages to lymphatic massage: clearing, which creates a flushing effect; and reabsorption.5 Clearing can be done under your collar bone, under your arms and inside your elbows. For example, Patel recommends clearing the lymph area under your collar bone by:
- Lying on a flat surface and crossing your arms on your chest, with your hands resting below your collarbone
- Lifting your elbows slowly, which will help flush lymphatic fluid
You can clear the area under your arms by gently “scooping” your underarm from top to bottom. The reabsorption phase, meanwhile, involves gently sweeping your skin from fingertip to hand, from hand to elbow, and from elbow to shoulder. You may need about 20 minutes daily to perform lymphatic massage effectively.
What Else Is Lymphatic Massage Good For?
In addition to boosting your immune system,6 which is intricately tied to your lymphatic health, lymphatic drainage has proven benefits for a number of conditions. In women with fibromyalgia, manual lymph drainage therapy led to improvements in pain, health status and health-related quality of life. Lymphatic drainage was even more effective than connective tissue massage in terms of relieving morning tiredness and anxiety in this population, so “manual lymph drainage therapy might be preferred,” researchers concluded.7
Manual lymphatic massage has also been found to improve knee range of motion following surgery, for up to six weeks after surgery,8 and may show promise for treating migraines. In one study, there was a significant decrease in the amount of pain relievers taken by migraine sufferers who received lymphatic drainage compared to those who received traditional massage. Lymphatic drainage also led to a reduction in migraine attack frequency.9
Beyond this, research suggests lymphatic massage may be beneficial for treating cellulite,10 varicose veins11 and perhaps even neurological diseases. In fact, in 2015 a direct link between the brain and the immune system, via lymphatic vessels that were not previously known to exist, was found.12
It was long believed that such vessels stopped before reaching the brain, but then researchers detected lymphatic vessels beneath a mouse’s skull, which could open new avenues for understanding autism, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases.
The lymphatic vessels were detected in the meninges, the protective membranes that cover the brain, and closely followed blood vessels. The study’s lead author, Jonathan Kipnis, a professor in the University of Virginia’s (UVA) department of neurosciences and the director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, highlighted the importance of the discovery:13
“We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role. Hard to imagine that these vessels would not be involved in a [neurological] disease with an immune component … In Alzheimer’s [for example], there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain. We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels.”
Dry Brushing May Also Help Your Lymphatic System
Lymphatic massage is an ideal way to boost your lymphatic health, but dry skin brushing can also stimulate this ever-important system. Many are not aware that your lymphatic system may start to get sluggish as you age, compromising your immune system further. In addition to lymphatic drainage massage, dry skin brushing is also effective because many of your lymph vessels run just below your skin’s surface. Remember, only gentle pressure is used during lymphatic massage and this is also the case during dry brushing.
There are brushes for your hands, feet and nails, face (which have softer bristles), hair and body. It’s simple to dry brush right before you hop in the shower. Pick up your brush and get to work, starting with the lower part of your body first with swift, gentle upward strokes toward your heart. Moving upward is important, as this is the direction of the flow of your lymphatic system, except on your abdomen, when movement should be directed toward your groin.14 Here are tips to get started:
- Start working on your feet, using gentle, circular, upward motions toward your heart from the tips of your toes, including the tops of your feet, your soles and moving upward, first one side and then the other.
- Brush slowly and gently; even if you’re ticklish, making it difficult to cover your stomach, sides and chest, it will become less so as your body gets used to the sensation.
- Do your arms, neck and as much of your back as you can get to. Remember to avoid areas where you might have scratches or anything that would make contact with the brush painful.
- Don’t use the regular brush on your face, as your skin is far too delicate. Use a specially designed facial brush, which has softer bristles.
- Once you’re finished, you can shower, which washes away all the dead skin cells you’ve loosened. Water set at warm or hot further increases your circulation.
Try This Aromatherapy Lymph Drainage Massage
Ideally, you’ll want to combine lymphatic drainage conducted by a therapist with other methods of lymphatic support, like dry skin brushing and exercise (particularly rebound exercise, which stimulates lymph circulation). In addition, you can conduct your own lymph drainage massage at home on yourself or a family member to give your immune system a quick boost.
Lymphatic System Massage Oil
- 8 drops lemon essential oil
- 8 drops grapefruit essential oil
- 6 drops rosemary or bay laurel essential oil
- 2 ounces carrier oil, such as coconut oil
Combine the massage oil and use it to massage gently up your arms toward your lymph nodes, from the center of your chest toward your arm pit, then down your neck. When massaging your legs, move upward from your feet to your groin.
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