Aromatherapy and the Lymphatic System

For descriptive purposes, the circulatory system is divided into the blood circulatory system, comprising of the heart and blood vessels, and the lymphatic system. This article focuses on the lymphatic system, and the role aromatherapy can play in helping support it. 

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that primarily consists of lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph. The tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus also form part of the lymphatic system. 

The lymphatic system has three main functions:

  1. It is part of our immune system, supplying disease-fighting cells called lymphocytes that help protect against disease and infection.
  2. It helps maintain fluid balance by collecting and draining tissue fluid, as well as toxins and cellular debris from all parts of the body.
  3. It plays a role in the absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients. 

What is Lymph?

Lymph is a transparent, odourless watery fluid, made up of tissue fluid, that is transported around the body via lymph vessels. While lymph looks like blood plasma it contains a lower concentration of plasma proteins. Lymph is made up of one type of cell known as a lymphocyte (an infection-fighting white blood cell). Unlike blood, lymphatic fluid is not pumped around the body. It is squeezed through the lymph vessels when we use our muscles and lungs. Movement and exercise are therefore important for maintaining a healthy flow of lymph.

How Lymph is formed?

Blood is circulated to the body tissue and some of the plasma escapes from the blood capillaries, flowing between tissue, bringing nutrients such as oxygen and water to the cells and collecting damaged cells, cancer cells, foreign particles (bacteria / viruses) and cellular waste such as carbon dioxide and urea. Plasma becomes tissue fluid when it is outside the blood capillaries and surrounding the cells.  While most of this tissue fluid returns into the blood capillary walls and back into the blood stream, some is left behind. This is collected by lymph vessels, where it becomes lymph. It is then taken through the circulatory pathway, outlined below, and finally returned to the blood circulatory system.

What is the circulatory pathway of Lymph?

Lymph capillaries 

The circulatory process commences at the point that blood capillaries bring plasma comprising of oxygen and nutrients to tissue cells.  This plasma together with unwanted, waste products are collected from tissue space by tiny blind-end tubes. The walls of the lymph capillaries are a single cell thick which makes it possible for the tissue fluid to enter them and are permeable to substances of larger molecular size than those of blood capillaries.   The fluid is passed from the lymphatic capillaries to the lymphatic vessels.

Lymph vessels 

Lymph vessels are like veins in that they have thin, collapsible walls.  Their role is to transport the lymph through the lymphatic system pathway.  Lymph vessels have a significant number of valves, which keep the lymph flowing in the same direction and stop back flow.

Lymph nodes 

A lymph node is an oval bean shaped structure. There are hundreds of lymph nodes throughout the body, placed purposefully along the course of the lymph vessels. They vary in size and length and are gathered together in groups. The largest groupings are found in the neck, armpits and groin. While some lymph nodes are superficial others are deep rooted and are located near arteries and veins.   

The lymph nodes act as filters, trapping and destroying harmful or unwanted substances in the lymph. They also produce lymphocytes (white blood cells) which fight bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells. Once the lymph fluid is filtered it is passed into the lymphatic ducts and back into the bloodstream.

  • Occipital – drains lymph from back of scalp and upper part of neck
  • Submandibular – drains lymph from chin, lips, nose, cheek and tongue
  • Cervical (superficial) – drains lymph from lower part of ear and cheek region
  • Cervical (deep) – drains lymph from larynx, oesophagus, posterior of scalp and neck, superficial part of chest and arm
  • Axillary – drains lymph from upper limbs and the chest wall
  • Inguinal – drains lymph from the lower limbs and the abdominal walls
  • Abdominal – drains lymph from abdominal organs
  • Popliteal – drains lymph from the lower limbs through deep and superficial nodes

Lymph ducts 

Lymph goes through at least one lymph node before it passes into two main collecting ducts known as the thoracic duct and the right lymphatic duct prior to going back into the blood circulatory system via the subclavian veins. 

The Thoracic duct 

Is the main collecting duct of the lymphatic system and is the largest lymph vessel of the body; it extends from the second lumbar vertebra up through the thorax to the root of the neck. The thoracic duct collects lymph from the left side of the head and neck, the left arm, the lower limbs and abdomen, it drains into the left subclavian vein to return to the blood stream 

The Right Lymphatic duct 

Is very short in length. It lies in the root of the neck and collects from the right side of the head, neck and right arm and drains into the right subclavian vein to be returned to the blood stream 

Specific functions of the Lymphatic system

Lymphatic vessels

  • Return of excess tissue fluid to the blood (approx 3 litres daily)
  • Return of plasma proteins to the blood
  • Transport of waste material to lymph nodes for breakdown
  • Fat absorbed in the small intestine enters lymph capillaries which transport the milky fluid to the thoracic duct 

Lymph nodes 

  • Filtering and phagocytosis – a process by which cells called phagocytes ingest or engulf other cells or particles
  • Proliferation of lymphocytes

The activity of the lymph nodes is heightened when infection is present, and the accumulation of active and dead cells, plus bacteria may cause the nodes to enlarge. This swelling may be felt or seen in the neck, armpits and groin, and is characteristic of some illnesses such as glandular fever.

The spleen is part of the lymphatic system and is the biggest organ within it; it is responsible for phagocytosis, lymphocyte development and the production of red cells.  

The thymus gland is also part of the lymphatic system, and is situated in the chest, behind the breastbone and between the lungs. This gland produces white blood cells called T lymphocytes, which are part of the immune system and assist in fighting infection (Wilson & Waugh, 1996).

Disorders of the lymphatic system include: enlarged lymph nodes caused by infection, glandular fever, lymphedema, Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin's lymphomas.

How can Aromatherapy support the Lymphatic system?

According to Battaglia (2007), aromatherapy can help the lymphatic system in the removal of waste products from the body, thereby, helping to prevent a build-up of excess toxins and fluid, all of which can cause pain, infection and fatigue.  

Essential oils such as Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, Sweet Thyme, Thymus vulgaris ct linalol and Tea tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, are reputed to help the lymphatic system produce white blood cells, which fight infection, whilst essential oils such as German Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla and Roman Chamomile, Anthemis nobilis, are said to aid in the detoxification process alongside Rosemary and Lavender.  Furthermore, essential oils such as Sweet Orange, Citrus sinensis, stimulate lymph fluid circulation.  Practical ways to use essential oils and carrier oils to support the lymphatic system are shown below.

Using essential oils to support the Lymphatic system

A simple way to achieve a synergistic, balanced blend is to select a top, middle and base note in the ratio 4:8:2.  All essential oils should be blended in a base oil or cream at a maximum strength of 2.5% for adults considered to be in generally good health.

Top Note OilsMiddle Note OilsBase Note Oils
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)Chamomile German (Matricaria chamomilla)Neroli (Citrus aurantium amara)
Ravensara (Ravensara aromatica)Chamomile Maroc (Ormensis multicaulis)Rose Otto (Rosa damascena)
Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)Chamomile Roman (Athemis nobilis)Sandalwood (Santalum album)
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Sweet Thyme (Thymus vulgaris ct linalol)Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Suggested recipes for stimulating the lymphatic system

Recipe 1

  • 4 drops of Sweet Thyme
  • 8 drops of Rosemary (Avoid in pregnancy, epilepsy and high blood pressure)
  • 2 drops of Sandalwood
  • 30ml of base cream or carrier oil

Apply once a day after showering.

Recipe 2

  • 4 drops of Bergamot (avoid direct sunlight and sunbeds if using this oil in blends)
  • 8 drops of Lavender
  • 2 drops of Rose Otto
  • 30ml of Sunflower oil

Recipe 3

  • 4 drops of Tea Tree (Possibly sensitising to some individuals)
  • 8 drops of Roman Chamomile (Not to be used if allergies to Roman Chamomile and other compositaes exist)
  • 2 drops of Neroli
  • 30ml of Sweet Almond oil (do not use if there is a nut allergy)

Run a bath of warm water, add 10ml of the blend, agitate the water, relax in the bath for a minimum of 15 minutes.  Avoid splashing in the eyes.

A lymphatic massage treatment by a qualified practitioner may be considered one of the most effective ways for helping stimulate a sluggish lymphatic system.  The practitioner will take a full medical history to ensure it is safe to provide a treatment.  


Christine Fisk
Consultant Aromatherapist

Disclaimer & Safety Advice

References

  1. Battaglia, S. (2007). Battaglia, S. (2007) The The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. (2nd ed.). Australia: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.
  2. Wilson, K. J., & Waugh, A. (1996). Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness. In K. J. Wilson, & A. Waugh, Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (pp. 129-138). New York: Churchhill Livingstone.

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