How Cold Water Immersion Impacts Lymphatic Circulation
Dec 6, 2021 By Lael Miller
The lymphatic system is a lesser-known part of the body’s circulatory system, but it’s very important to your overall health and wellbeing. This article will explain what your lymphatic system is, what it does, and why you might want to boost your lymphatic circulation with ice baths.
Disclaimer: If you have known or suspected cancer, get your doctor’s permission before starting cold therapy.
What Is Your Lymphatic System and What Does It Do?
Your lymphatic system is a circulatory system that carries an important fluid — lymph — around your body. It’s very complex and essential to your overall health. Some of the system’s many roles include maintaining your body’s fluid levels, removing waste products, and supporting your body’s immune response.
Some key parts of your lymphatic system include:
- Lymphatic fluid. Also called lymph, this clear to milky fluid contains lymphocytes and other white blood cells that help your body fight bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Cold water has a proven impact on improving the flow of this fluid, according to a study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.
- Lymph vessels. A network of vein-like vessels that transport lymph, immune cells, and cellular waste products throughout the body. These vessels have muscular walls that help lymph circulate, explains a review published in International Immunology.
- Lymph nodes. These bean-sized glands store white blood cells and other immune system cells, and filter lymph fluid. You have about 600 of these glands in your body, Mayo Clinic notes.
- Spleen. As the largest organ in the lymphatic system, the spleen makes white blood cells.
- Bone marrow. Located inside some of your bones, this spongy tissue produces white blood cells that help your body fight off infections.
- Thymus. This little-known organ is essential for a functioning immune system, explains a review published in Advances in Clinical and Experimental Medicine. It’s where T-lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) mature.
What Is Lymphatic Circulation?
Lymph circulation refers to the flow of lymph through your lymph vessels. This flow gets its start in your bloodstream. Every day, about 20 liters (just over five gallons) of plasma flows through your arteries and capillaries, the Cleveland Clinic notes. This plasma brings nutrients to your body’s cells, and about 17 liters of plasma flows back through your veins.
What about the other three liters? This fluid moves through your body’s tissues, picking up wastes until it’s captured by your lymphatic system. Lymph flows through your lymphatic vessels and gets filtered as it passes through your lymph nodes.
Lymph only flows in one direction — toward your heart. When it gets there, it empties into a vein in your upper chest, known as the subclavian vein. Once the lymph returns to your bloodstream, the fluid recirculates through your body, and the process repeats.
What Is Lymphatic Drainage?
Normally, lymph fluid is drained from your body’s tissues through the lymph vessels. This fluid flows toward your heart and rejoins your bloodstream at the subclavian vein. Sometimes, lymph vessels aren’t able to drain lymph fluid properly. This fluid may build up in your tissues, resulting in swelling known as lymphedema. Lymphatic drainage problems are commonly caused by cancer or cancer treatments, but they could occur for other reasons, such as carrying excess weight or having certain inherited conditions.
If you have lymphedema, there are many ways to encourage lymphatic drainage:
- Exercise. Gentle exercise can help drain lymph fluid out of a swollen limb. A systematic review published in Supportive Care in Cancer concluded that resistance exercise had a significant positive effect on breast cancer–related lymphedema.
- Manual lymph drainage. This gentle massage may help push trapped fluid toward the lymph vessels. It should be avoided if you have active cancer in the swollen limb, Mayo Clinic warns.
- Compression. Compression can encourage trapped lymph fluid to drain out of a swollen limb. Your doctor could prescribe compression garments or recommend wrapping your swollen limb with compression bandages.
- Skin cooling. Cooling is a well-known therapy for post-injury swelling, and it might help with lymphedema, too. That’s because cold causes vasoconstriction. A small study published in the journal Lymphology reported that cooling the skin with a washcloth made swollen tissue as much as 28% softer. The Ice Barrel makes it easy to add skin cooling to your routine.
What Are the Benefits of Stimulating Lymphatic Circulation?
Even if you don’t have lymphedema or other lymphatic system problems, you may be interested in stimulating your lymphatic circulation. If you have known or suspected cancer, get your doctor’s OK before trying to stimulate lymphatic circulation. The proper circulation and drainage of lymph fluid offers many benefits for your body. Good lymph circulation may help you:
- Maintain your body’s fluid levels, including reducing edema/swelling.
- Maintain a healthy blood pressure.
- Fight off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
- Absorb fats and proteins from your intestines.
How Does Cold Water Immersion Stimulate Lymphatic Circulation?
A landmark study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine established the effect of cold water on lymphatic circulation. In the study, bags of water of different temperatures were applied to volunteers’ ankles. Water that was 1 °C (34 °F) was shown to significantly increase the flow of lymph. The researchers found that applying pressure in addition to cold had an even greater effect on lymph flow. Why does this happen? Simply, the cold water makes your lymph vessels contract, forcing lymph fluid throughout your lymphatic system. Cold water has a similar effect on your blood vessels, which is why it’s so useful for reducing swelling.
If you’re interested in cold water immersion as a way to manage breast cancer–related lymphedema, get your doctor’s permission first. The American Cancer Society warns against cold therapy during radiation therapy and for six months afterward. If you’re getting chemotherapy, ask your doctor if it’s ok to use cold therapy.
Boost Lymphatic Circulation With an Ice Bath
Cold water immersion could help you enjoy the benefits of cold water and mild compression at the same time. Stimulate your lymphatic circulation with a refreshing dip in the Ice Barrel — a purpose-built, science-backed cold water immersion method.
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