“I’ve struggled with breakouts in this area since I moved to New York a year ago,” I told Liat Forti, indicating the lower half of my face. Forti is a certified lymphatic drainage therapist and a holistic health coach at The Medical Massage Group on the Upper East Side. My interest in lymphatic massage was piqued when I read that jawline acne could be a result of poor fluid drainage around our necks and throats, where lymph nodes are concentrated. What I didn’t realize was acne merely scratched the surface of what poor lymphatic drainage could implicate.
Liat, as she prefers to be called, had a warm and welcoming energy about her, like a feel-good therapist. So when she asked if anything else was bothering me, a litany of health concerns tumbled out: I’ve been really tired, I’m constantly getting sick, I have back pain, my migraines have returned, I’ve been inexplicably congested. I sounded like a train wreck (and often feel like one).
To my relief and surprise, she seemed unfazed. “Imagine holding up a green leaf to the light — you know all the veins you see running through it? The thin delicate structures? That’s exactly like the lymphatic system in the human body,” Liat told me. “It’s like a web underneath the skin that is in charge of moving all your fluids around your body.”
She went on to explain that most of my qualms might be improved by better fluid drainage. Sluggishness, congestion, acne, stiffness and headaches are counted among the symptoms of a clogged lymphatic system, along with puffiness, constipation, wrinkles, cellulite and more.
Liat explained that the average human has around 700 lymph nodes, which are situated around most of our joints and organs. Connecting these nodes is a shallow, expansive network of pathways just underneath our skin. “You know when you pop a zit and clear fluid comes out along with puss and blood? That’s lymph fluid — that’s how close it is to the surface.”
Lymph’s main job is drainage, a key part of our immune system. “Lymph nodes filter the fluid, trapping bacteria, viruses and foreign substances,” explains Well + Good. “Stagnation or blockages in these nodes can mitigate the filtration process, increasing the amount of toxins in the blood and lymph.” Liat describes the system as a garbage collector. When our bodies are under a particularly stressful attack — by a virus, for instance — our lymph nodes swell because they’re busy processing a ton of information and taking care of us. (You can get into the nitty gritty here, it’s all fascinating.)
Although we have about double the amount of lymph in our bodies as we do blood, the lymphatic system is still less understood in Western medicine than the blood vascular system. “The lymphatic system has been neglected by both scientific and medical communities because of its vagueness in structure and function,” reports one NCBI study. “However, a series of landmark discoveries in lymphatic research has significantly advanced our understanding of [it]…as the other, not the secondary, vascular system. …[L]ymphatic research is truly a gold mine that invites ambitious young scientists and clinicians.” (You can review the latest research here.)
Our current understanding of the lymphatic system hints that our modern lives are working against us where drainage is concerned. Because of this, it’s become a popular topic among the holistic health community. Liat and many others cite a lack of sleep, stress, a sedentary lifestyle, dirty city air and poor nutrition as major challenges to healthy lymph function.
Which brings me to the good part: the solutions. Liat talked me through a handful of ways we can stimulate lymph movement and avoid what she calls “a swamp of fluids — like still water” in our bodies.
1. Lymphatic massage
Since lymph is so close to the surface of the skin, it’s possible to physically move it with your fingers. This is particular crucial for sufferers of lymphedema — a condition characterized by a lack of functioning nodes — but it can be beneficial for everyone. There are plenty of lymphatic massage specialists, like Liat, but you can also do it yourself with some practice. Check out this helpful visual guide on Healthline to learn how.
2. Hydrate and eat well
This one is pretty straightforward. Hydration keeps your fluid moving, while dehydration can clog the flow of lymph. “Staying hydrated ensures your lymphatic system has the fluids it needs to flush toxins into your kidneys and liver so that they can be expelled from the body,” claims nutritionist and natural health guru Dr. Jockers.
A diet that supposedly “boosts” the lymph system is one rich in the stuff we hear about all the time: leafy greens and nuts and seeds. But certain herbs like turmeric, garlic, citrus and ginger are said to aid in fluid movement and detoxification, too. See a full list here.
3. Exercise and don’t slump
Liat stressed the need for proper posture since so many of us are sitting all day, telling me slumping can cause fluid backup. And physical exercise is a two-for. It both physically circulates your fluid and aids in detoxification through perspiration. Any form of exercise will do, but one popular move is called rebounding, or jumping on a mini trampoline.
“As the body moves against gravity, the lymphatic system is stimulated to pull lymph fluid carrying toxins through the vessels and circulate,” says Dr. Jockers.
4. Dry brush
Dry brushing stimulates fluid drainage. “[The process] involves using a coarse brush to gently be moved along the skin in the direction of the heart. This technique boosts lymph flow by stimulating sweat glands and supporting circulation below the skin,” says TTAC. You can buy one on Amazon here and watch how to do it here.
My conversation with Liat ended in a lymphatic massage of my own. It was unlike a normal muscular massage in that she never exerted more than extremely light pressure. Her hands moved in a delicate downward motion on my face and neck towards my heart. It was extremely relaxing (I struggled to stay awake). It’s hard to discern larger benefits from just a single session, but right afterwards I saw a difference in my skin. It looked firmer and a small wrinkle between my eyebrows — which she noted prior “wasn’t a real wrinkle, just puffiness” — had nearly disappeared (and it has yet to return to its previous depth).
In the weeks since, I’ve heeded her guidance as far as exercise, diet, posture and hydration are concerned. I’ve also tried cutting dairy, as I’ve suspected I have a mild allergy and Liat explained that it can clog drainage. My acne has visibly improved — in fact, I haven’t had a new breakout since, a first in about a year. My energy has been up; my headaches and back pain gone; and I didn’t catch my roommate’s cold (a first!). The only thing that hasn’t improved is some light congestion.
Obviously, all the changes I made are just healthy in general and, as with many holistic approaches, it’s tough to discern the exact cause of the improvements I’ve experienced. It’s tricky with the lymphatic system specifically; it’s so expansive and complex that its behavior varies person-to-person, just as our immune systems do. For me, it helped to learn the actual science behind such an important part of my body and how my day-to-day choices might be impacting it. Making decisions as informed by that — rather than following arbitrary rules — has made being healthy a much more empowering versus limiting experience.
Images and GIFs by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.