June 1, 2017

The Silent but Deadly Impact of Stress on the Lymphatic System.

The lymphatic system is the largest circulatory system in the body and is uniquely susceptible to stress.

In fact, according to the Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiologychronic exposure to large surges of cortisol, the stress hormone, can literally cause the lymphoid tissue to atrophy. (1)

Persistently high levels of cortisol have been linked to suppressed immune system function and reduced circulation of the antibodies that the body desperately needs to fight off foreign invaders.

In the hours following a stressful event, cortisol decreases both eosinophils, white blood cells that we need to fight allergies, and lymphocytes that boost immunity. Overproduction of adrenal cortisol in response to chronic stress is linked to a significant reduction in overall white blood cell count.

In today’s society, it’s uncommon for folks to feel stress-free and most find themselves with a hectic “to do” list that never seems to get shorter. If left unchecked, this stress can have a devastating effect on the adrenals, your digestive microbes, your brain, and, perhaps most critically, potentially damage the lymphatic system, which almost no one is talking about.



The 3 Basic Functions of the Lymphatic System:

1. The lymphatic system is the primary delivery system for energizing every cell of the body after each meal. Triglyceride fats are transported from the lymphatic-collecting ducts in the intestines, providing baseline energy for the body. When the lymphatics become congested, energy levels will drop and these fats can potentially be stored around the belly, increasing the risk of weight gain.

2. The lymphatic system is the main carrier of the immune system. When the lymphatic system is congested as a result of acute stress or poor digestion, its ability to circulate can be adversely affected.

3. The lymphatic system is a major detoxification channel for fats and proteins that have been incompletely digested upstream in the stomach and small intestines. When the upper digestion is weak, hard-to-digest proteins, like gluten, and toxic fats from pesticides and environmental pollutants that are too big to enter the bloodstream end up being collected into the larger lymphatic vessels that line the intestinal tract. As a result, the lymph vessels around the intestines, called the gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT), and mesenteric lymphs that surround the small intestines can become congested, causing weight gain, and reduced energy reserves.

The Adrenal Role in Stress

The adrenal gland is the primary manufacturing site for the stress hormone, cortisol. While small, intermittent dosages of cortisol throughout the day are manageable by the body, long-term excessive exposure has a degenerative effect.

Initially, the primary role of the adrenals is to deal with emergencies. Like a fireman putting out fires, the adrenals secrete cortisol to stop stress-related reduction in the flow of vital nutrients to the affected area. Some of cortisol’s beneficial roles in fighting stress are:

1. It reduces the production of proteolytic enzymes that are secreted by cells in reaction to the stressful event. Initially, production of these enzymes is a protective response to the release of stress-related histamine into the bloodstream, but too much can become a problem, so the body is constantly trying to find this balance when under stress.

2. Adrenal cortisol decreases the ability of the capillaries to push excess fluid into the stressed area.

3. Cortisol temporarily decreases white blood cell flow to the area, preventing the stressed cells from becoming overwhelmed by excess fluid.

4. Cortisol blocks lymphatic drainage of the area. Again, in an attempt to wall the area off to prevent excess fluid circulation.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While adrenals are our first responders to stress, when stress is long-term and excessive, things begin to break down. Not only can excessive stress severely compromise the lymphatic system, the lymphatic system is also directly innervated by the fight-or-flight, sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic stress initially helps the lymph remove toxic particles from the stressed area. But if the stress is excessive, the lymphatic response can be slowed, allowing dangerous toxins to migrate to different areas of the body through the lymphatics.

Bulletproof Stress Response

The key to helping the body maintain a healthy response to stress is to:

1. Support healthy lymphatic circulation

2. Support a healthy stress response

3. Mitigate the impact of stress

According to Ayurveda, there are numerous diet and lifestyle tools to accomplish this, including:

1. Meditation. Learn my One Minute Meditation

2. Strengthen digestion

3. Reset circadian rhythms by:

>> Eating with the seasons. Sign up for my free monthly eating guide: The 3-Season Diet Challenge

>> Living a lifestyle in sync with nature’s rhythms. Learn more here

>> Exercising without stress. Learn about nose breathing exercise here

>> Boosting lymphatic flow. Learn more here

Two Adaptogenic Herbs that Address the Stress-Lymph Connection

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a herb that has been used for thousands of years, and the research continues to be impressive. With over 300 active constituents, turmeric has been found to support the production of new brain cells during stress, naturally lower cortisol levels, increase antioxidant stress-fighting activity, and boost lymphatic circulation. Turmeric is also emerging as an adaptogenic herb for stress-related mood concerns.

The extract of turmeric has been found to reduce the spread of toxins through lymphatic channels in stressful situations. Turmeric seems to help the body fight the toxin build-up locally, while decreasing the likelihood that toxins will be circulated through the lymphatics and carried to other areas of the body.

Turmeric has also been shown to boost the immune system’s natural ability to deliver beneficial antibodies to areas of stress, supporting a healthy lymphatic response to stress.

Tulsi Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) is also one of Ayurveda’s most powerful adaptogenic and brain supportive herbs, which suggests that it protects the body and mind from the woes of stress.

Studies have found Tulsi Holy Basil to be neuro-protective, free radical-scavenging, and balancing for the stress hormone, cortisol. Studies suggest that these free radical-scavenging effects are active throughout the lymphatic system.

Both ancient Ayurvedic wisdom and modern science suggest that Tulsi Holy Basil provides protection for the body against environmental chemical exposure that is processed via the lymphatic system. Tulsi Holy Basil has been found to support mental and cognitive health. It has also been found to be excellent support for mood and emotional concerns as well as healthy sleep cycles, which typically become disturbed while under stress.

While the specific mechanism that may explain Tulsi Holy Basil’s adaptogenic properties is still unclear, one study measured the effect of noise stress and found that the active constituent in Tulsi Holy Basil is linked to cortisol or stress hormone levels.



1. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology. 12th Edition. Saunders Press. Philadelphia PA pg. 931 


Author: Dr. John Douillard
Image: Sodanie Chea/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson


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