Your "Other Bloodstream"
The Borneo Post - Sunday, 28 April 2002

Most people are now cocky about their cardiac-care regimen. Low-fat diet?  Aerobic exercise? Supplements? Wine with dinner? Weight lifting? Stress reduction? Regular medical check-ups? And we have all means getting every conceivable preventive edge, right?

Wrong! Or so says Dr Gerald Lemole, one of the most distinguished heart surgeons in the US. Dr Lemole, a professor of surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Medical School, says that a lot of people overlook an additional line of defence against heart disease. However, there would be far less heart disease and tar fewer heart attacks it people take care of their lymphatic systems.

What is lymphatic system? The only time most people hear the word "lymph" is in bad cancer news, as in "It's spread to the lymph nodes". And there's been little research on the link between the lymphatic system and a healthy heart. Yet, Dr Lemole believes that by not optimising lymphatic function, we are missing out on a great way to take care of our tickers. The lymph system is the "river of life" and a "river" that nobody knows.

All of us have two circulatory systems. The famous one - starring our heart, lungs and blood vessels - and our lymphatic system, which desperately needs a publicist. Our body have more lymphatic fluid than blood and more lymph ducts than blood vessels.

The lymphatic system - sometime described as the circulatory system of our immune function - is a network of fluid, vessels and nodes that sweeps toxins from around our cells, filters out infectious organisms and ensures that harmful substances get to the liver for extraction and the kidney for extraction.

The elaborate system of lymph vessels snakes through our bodies, intertwined with our blood vessels. It's punctuated by a series of lymph nodes - mesh-like tissues loaded with killer cells that catch and destroy invading germs. The most famous ones are the two we can feel at the base of our jawbones (called cervical nodes), that swell when we have an infection. But there are hundreds of such defenders, concentrated in the armpits, groin and neck.

At the countless points in our bodies where blood flows from bigger arteries into smaller capillaries, hydrostatic pressure forces fluid, containing oxygen and glucose, through the blood-vessel walls and into the lymph. The oxygen and glucose float across a sea of lymph to nourish our cells. Cell waste (lactic acid and metabolites) make the return trip across the lymph fluid and back into the bloodstream. But the exchange isn't perfectly efficient and harmful substances are left behind in the lymph.

If our lymphatic flow is strong, this isn't a problem because the toxins get swept away in the lymph, carried through every bigger channels to the thoracic duct in the chest. From there, they re-enter the bloodstream and are just a blood-vessel ride away from the purifying liver and eliminating kidneys. But if our lymphatic flow is weak, the toxins hang around and get mischievous. The longer the toxins and metabolites linger in the lymph fluid, the more potential there is for inflammation and the greater our risk of atherosclerosis (a form of arteriosclerosis).

Dr Lemole believes that strong lymphatic flow also plays a pivotal role in cholesterol clearance.  We know the good HDL cholesterol that sweeps the bad LDL out of the blood vessel. Well, unless the lymph that surrounds and infuses the outer layer of the blood vessels flows freely, there can be cholesterol-disposal back-up. Cholesterol that stays inside the vessel walls contributes to plague formation, which is often a prelude to a heart attack or stroke.

The thoracic duct, which traverses our entire chest, is the largest lymphatic duct in the system (between a pencil and a pinky finger in diameter). All the other lymph vessels drain into the thoracic duct. Good thoracic flow is vital both because the duct is big and because it's near the heart. To get good flow, it's important to keep in mind the key distinction between the circulatory and lymphatic systems.

The lymphatic system has no heart, so it has no pump to force the fluid along. And even though the minor muscle activity that comes with merely moving around and breathing moves lymph fluid, the secret to really great lymphatic health is finding the way to urge the fluid onward and keep the ducts, especially the important thoracic ducts, wide open. It is primarily a drainage system. Keeping it flowing fast and clear and we'll maximise our cardiovascular health. The study of optimal lymphatic function is a work in progress.

The following high-flow strategies will help our "river of life" to flow freely. Deep breathing. Yoga. Massage. And we know some people hate to do those calming stuff.

Breathe Deeply
The lungs are a bellows mechanism, massaging the thoracic duct and urging the fluid up towards the neck. But deep breathing multiplies the effect greatly. If you inhale slowly - filling your lungs as much as possible - and then exhale as completely as you can, the dramatic pressure variance within the chest cavity really gets those lymph juices flowing. As little as 10 minutes a day of deep breathing helps protect your blood vessels from toxins. Exercise is good for lymphatic health because the contraction of muscles moves lymph along.

Cue the Trumpets
Some experts attribute the longevity of orchestra conductors to their enjoyable work. Lemole reveals that the conductor's health advantage stems from the unique raised-arm position that is required for the gig. Holding your arms up and waving them around in the air as though you're the maestro opens up the chest and allows the lungs to expand, perhaps even widening the thoracic duct itself. If you're too cool to actually "conduct" a CD of Beethoven for 10 minutes, rowing also opens up your chest, as do long swimming strokes, shoulder presses and pull-ups. Experts also suggest adding some arm-ups exercises to your work-out routine.

Defy Gravity
Jumping may help fluid flow through your thoracic duct. The upward momentum helps move the lymph fluid from your legs and arms to the area of the heart. The gravitational changes in your body enhance blood flow as well. Dr Lemole says that playing basketball gives your lymphatic function a considerable boost.

Stand Tall
When your mum nagged you about your posture, she probably didn't know that a semi-military, shoulders-back and head-high stance opens up the chest and neck area. It is safe bet that ballet dancers, with their erect postures, have much better lymphatic flow and toxin clearance than hunched-over nine­to-fivers toiling away in high-rise building.

Hit the Sack, Stay Young
Exercise is important, but our lymphatic system also needs some down time. Gravity is, after all, a challenge when it comes to moving lymph fluid from our feet up to our thoracic duct. During sleep, the lymphatic system doesn't have to fight gravity. Being sleep-deprived may compromise your immune system because your lymphatic system isn't getting a horizontal hiatus. Need another reason to relax? The stress response is as bad for your lymphatic system as it is for your vascular health. Stress hormones like epinephrine cause the ducts to narrow.

The many forms of massage and touch therapy - reflexology (foot massage) and shiatsu - will improve lymphatic flow dramatically. The secret is to increase

pressure as you push towards the heart and reduce it as you glide away. Give you partner a back massage, then ask them to give you one. Of all touch therapy methods, neck rubs are especially effective because 30 percent of the body's lymph nodes are located there.

Laugh as Often as You Can
A better lymphatic flow is one of the many health benefits of cracking up with laughter. If you chuckle deeply, can you almost picture the massaging of the thoracic duct. Even a shallow, staccato giggle can create upward movement - it may be just the medicine you need.