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"The lymphatic system is as essential to bodily function
as the bloodstream it complements."
Gerald M. Lemole, M.D.
Healthy Lymph System, Healthy Body
Most of us know little about the lymph system. We’re familiar with the lymph nodes located in the armpits and the groin, and have a vague notion that swelling of the nodes is a danger signal, but that’s it. That was about the extent of my knowledge – until I read Dr. Lemole’s book, The Healing Diet (William Morrow, 2001). The title is misleading, because the book is really a fascinating introduction to the lymphatic system; Lemole calls it "our river of life."
Did you know that the lymph system is twice the size of our other circulatory system? It true. Twice as much lymph as blood is present in our bodies, and we have twice as many lymph vessels as blood vessels. The key to health, Dr. Lemole believes, is to keep your lymphatic system open and flowing freely. Says Dr. Lemole, "You can eliminate 70 percent of the chronic illnesses that are in part the result of that system being clogged." The risks that can be reduced by unclogging the system include heart disease, arthritis and cancer.
Dr. Lemole has been chief of cardiovascular surgery at the Christiana Care Health Services of Delaware since 1986. After medical school, he trained in Texas with pioneer heart surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley. Now a professor of surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, he has performed or directed more than 20,000 heart operations.
Like many surgeons, he was skeptical about the power of lifestyle changes, but is now a strong believer. He agrees with his wife, Janie: "Much of being healthy is a choice."
The Lymphatic System
As most readers probably know, much of the body is made up of water. Part of the water is in the bloodstream, but far more resides in the lymphatic system. Our cells are located in a sea of lymph, a pale fluid. Oxygen and sugar are transported from the blood vessels to nourish the cells via the lymphatic fluid. Likewise, wastes from the cells – carbon dioxide, lactic acid and metabolites – are carried back to the bloodstream through the lymph fluid.
Like the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is made up of channels or vessels, valves and filters (nodes). Unlike the bloodstream system, however, there is no pump like the heart. Instead, the lymphatic fluid is forced through the system by the action of the muscles and breathing.
When the lymphatic system is flowing freely everything is fine. When it backs up, however, there’s trouble. The consequences, according to Dr. Lemole, can be serious, even life-threatening.. Not only are the building, repair and waste disposal systems affected by a disruption, the body’s defenses against foreign substances are also impaired. In addition to filtering out toxic materials, the lymph nodes also produce substances which fight off invading viruses and bacteria and destroy abnormal cells that developed within the body, such as cancer cells. In addition to being part of the body’s plumbing and repair system, the lymphatics are an essential part of our immune system.
"The lymphatic system is as essential to bodily function as the bloodstream it complements," writes Dr. Lemole. "To keep it clear," he says, "you need to increase its drainage capacity or reduce its intake of toxins." He suggests doing both – through diet, stress reduction, exercise and deep breathing.
Dr. Lemole believes he was the first to recognize that clearing the lymphatic system can substantially reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, or blockage of the arteries. The idea came to him when a colleague wondered whether the accelerated rate of atherosclerosis seen in heart transplant patients might be related to cutting the lymphatics -- an unavoidable consequence of the transplant operation. Lemole tested the theory by interrupting the lymphatics of the hearts of monkeys and then feeding them a high cholesterol diet for several weeks. "All of them developed severe atherosclerosis," Dr. Lemole writes.
He believes cleansing the lymphatic system allows the body to more efficiently clear excess cholesterol out of the arteries. "If we could keep the lymphatics -- the body’s cleansing system -- clear, the cholesterol would travel easily, and little or no cholesterol would build up in the arteries," Lemole theorized. The excess cholesterol -- some cholesterol is essential -- would be carried through the lymphatics to the veins and then to the liver, where it can be broken down and discarded.
That makes perfect sense, of course. One way to get rid of excess cholesterol is to clean out the disposal pathways. It’s like draining dirty water backed-up in your kitchen sink by unclogging the drain pipe or using a plunger to unstop the toilet.
The other way to reduce the cholesterol in the arteries, of course, is to lower the intake of cholesterol-containing and cholesterol-producing foods in the diet. Dr. Lemole suggests a diet containing 15 to 20 percent fat, most of it good fat such as olive oil, fish oil and flaxseeds, and no more than 1 to 2 percent saturated fat. He reminds us that about 80 percent of the cholesterol in the system is manufactured by the body, and emphasizes that excessive amounts of fat, any kind, will cause cholesterol buildup.
"The purpose of fat is as a fuel reserve," Lemole explains, "and when the body sees it, its first reaction is to store it by making new cell membranes to enlarge the fat cells." Cholesterol is an "essential building block" for the enlarged cells, says Dr. Lemole.
Lemole walks his talk. He used to eat meat, but no more. "My own diet now includes grains, soy, vegetables, fruits, beans, some fish, green tea instead of coffee, a glass of wine with dinner, and vitamins and minerals at each meal," he writes. His wife, Janie, eats basically a vegetarian diet, although she includes fish occasionally. Their six children have been raised on the same diet.
Many more details on his dietary recommendations are in the book, including 40 pages of recipes and his own unique food pyramids: "The Lemole vegetarian diet pyramid" and "The Lemole beverage pyramid." He recommends six to eight glasses of filtered or spring water daily. You’ll also find instructions for making "Dr. Lemole’s Drink" -- touted as a good breakfast for people in a hurry.
Now, let’s move on to exercise, the element of Dr. Lemole’s program which I find most interesting. That’s not to downplay diet and stress reduction, because they’re important. It’s just that I’m fascinated by the many benefits of exercise, and this one is little understood.
Read Dr. Lemole’s book to learn about all aspects of his program, including Yoga, massage and spirituality. He favors a balanced approach.
Exercise and Deep Breathing
Chalk another one up for walking. "It should be your first option," says Lemole. "Anything that keeps you moving" will do, however, he adds. Dr. Lemole walks at a brisk pace for a mile or two each day, outside or on a treadmill. He also plays golf, and occasionally basketball. "I don’t feel the need for more strenuous exercise," he says. "For the purposes of keeping the heart and the lymphatic system healthy, such exercise is not necessary, though it does benefit muscle tone and aids in weight loss."
I’ve always claimed that my daily walks help me recover from intense workouts. "The icing on the cake is that walking actually aids recovery," I wrote in Challenge Yourself. "It stimulates circulation, bringing the building blocks of recovery to the muscles and carrying away the waste products generated by high-intensity exercise." I was talking about blood circulation, of course, because I was not fully aware of the lymph system. Dr. Lemole fills out the picture by explaining that both nutrients and waste products travel between the bloodstream and the cells in the lymph fluid.
"Exercise is a powerful conditioner of the lymphatic system," says Dr. Lemole. The lymphatic fluid, which we’ve learned is twice the volume of the blood, normally circulates throughout the body once a day. "Exercise can increase lymphatic flow threefold (or more with extreme exercise)," writes Dr. Lemole.
Imagine that. It means that walking or other exercise that gets you moving can speed recovery tremendously. Importantly, Dr. Lemole says it also means that excess cholesterol and other harmful elements are expelled from the body faster with exercise. What’s more, it strengthens the immune system. Exercise makes the whole lymphatic system work better.
Exercise, of course, makes us breathe faster and more deeply. Deep breathing, according to Dr. Lemole, is an important element in circulation of lymph fluid. In fact, Lemole says, "The major exercise that I do is breathe." He’s not talking about the unconscious breathing we do constantly. He’s referring to "deep, conscious breathing," which, he says, speeds the flow of lymphatic fluid around the heart and "through your chest on its way to the liver."
"Proper breathing is the most important thing you can do for maintaining health," says Dr. Lemole. There’s a wrong way and a right way to breathe. Children, says Lemole, breathe deeply, from their diaphragm. As we age, however, our breathing shifts to the chest and becomes more rapid and more shallow. Deep breathing is best, says Lemole. He recommends taking a few minutes each day to practice breathing deeply. You’ll find exercises in his book to help you learn to breathe more deeply throughout the day.
Deep breathing is important, because it makes your lymphatic system work better. The lymph collected throughout the body drains into the blood through two ducts situated at the base of the neck, the main one being the thoracic duct. Breathing drives this action. "If you take a deep breath and exhale deeply, you’re massaging the thoracic duct upward into the neck so that the fluid flows generously," Lemole explains. "This duct empties the lymph into the veins, where it becomes part of the blood plasma. From there the lymph returns to the liver for metabolization, and finally to the kidneys for filtering."
Remember, the lymph system doesn’t have a heart to keep it flowing. It’s dependent on contraction of the muscles and breathing. So, breathe deeply and exercise. "No matter what exercise you choose, the important thing is to do it regularly and habitually," counsels Dr. Lemole. "No matter what exercise you prefer, the key is consistency."
See, Mom, I had it right. Exercise is good for just about everything that ails you. Do it for the health of your lymphatic system.
You can probably find The Healing Diet at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com. If not, check the public library.
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