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The Lymphatic System and Your Mental Health

In this post I discuss the importance of our lymphatic system to our mental health (and vice versa) and look at how craniosacral therapy can support the immune response by working at a physical level but also with the underlying emotional patterns and fear response.

When we are persistently stressed there is a corresponding chemical and physiological response in our body - our immune response. The lymphatic system is key to our immunity as it transports T-cells which protect us from invasion. If our lymphatic system is compromised our body is constantly in a state of defensiveness, which has an impact on our mental health. At the same time, if we are constantly imbalanced in our mental and emotional health, there is a corresponding immune response which is reflected in our lymphatic system efficiency.

The lymphatic system as a defence network

The lymphatic system is a major part of our body's defence network. It protects us from disease, drains toxins from our blood and is to key internal fluid pressure and flow. You can see it as our inner plumbing or sewage network, constantly draining and clearing the body. It's effectiveness and vitality directly relates to our immunity and also to our mental health and emotional balance. For centuries in Ayurvedic medicine Rasayana aka the study of Rasa (lymph) has been a key pillar of health. Rasa is interpreted in a number of ways - elixir, circulation, a musical note, serum, highlighting the fact it is not only necessary for our physical well being but also for our emotional flow and vitality.

Striving for balance

Lymph contains white blood cells and flows through an intelligent plumbing and drainage system to defend our organs. Our heart, lungs, intestines, liver, and skin all contain lymphatic tissue. It was only 5 years ago that scientists discovered there were also lymphatic vessels in our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) suggesting that lymph is also key to maintaining our nervous system response. This has now triggered research into the role of lymph in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The idea that the flow of lymph is vital for brain functioning may be new in modern science but has ancient roots in the yogic system of health - surya namaskar, the sun salutation sequence of asanas itself is designed to facilitate flow, consisting of forward folds, neck stretches etc. that target the lymph nodes.

5 years ago scientists discovered there were lymphatic vessels in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) which has triggered research into the role of lymphatic system and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

So how does the lymphatic system affect mental health?

Altered immune functioning can lead to exacerbated symptoms of both physical and psychological illnesses.

Our bodies are striving for balance and optimisation. Nobody thrives on being overly stressed, too sad or constantly angry. We're just not designed to stay in states of sympathetic overstimulation or 'fight and flight.'

Whilst persistent emotional extremities are not healthy neither is persistent suppression of our emotions - this creates stagnation. We can feel it happening when we start to go round and round in our heads about stuff. There isn't a flow, there isn't direction - we feel like we are stuck in something. And actually, we are. When we get stuck our bodies initiate a response to free us. The immune response is designed to free us from threat.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis

Our bodies hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responds to threat / danger / persistent stress by initiating an immune response; when we are experiencing physical or mental imbalance, the amygdala in our brain processes the risk to our survival based on our fear response. If we are terrified, the amygdala acts accordingly - it triggers the hypothalamus which activates the pituitary gland to stimulate the adrenals to release

cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that affects our metabolism and inflammation response.

Whilst much of the existing research suggests that cortisol has an anti-inflammatory response, more recent studies have suggested that it's actually dualistic - it's both pro and anti inflammatory. Some research has found that in children who experienced early life stress, when immune cells were stimulated there was a pro inflammatory response.

If there is continuous stress or early stress in utero / childhood due to family stress, difficult births, medical complications with the mother or child etc, the amygdala is already holding an ingrained fear. It's baseline is almost already programmed in. Incoming stimuli are more likely to be interpreted as high risk / fear. It's like loading up an already loaded camel. If this persists, the HPA Axis is highly activated and the level of cortisol in the system starts to affect the immune response.

Our lymphatic system is key to our inflammatory response. Our lymph nodes and spleen are home to T cells which circulate in our blood stream protecting the body from disease, when there is an over or underproduction or availability of T cells our immunity becomes compromised. Put simply, when we are stressed especially as the brain is developing - we are predisposed to interpret external inputs as stressful and are therefore more likely to experience stress and a corresponding immune response. Studies into the field of what they call affective immunology are increasingly showing that there is a direct connection between our emotional response and our body's immune response. Furthermore immunological responses are biologically and energetically costly, and over time, chronic stress produces negative systemic changes both in immune trafficking and in target tissues.

Research has found that people with immune disorders are more likely to experience mental and emotional health challenges, as well as impaired memory and ability to learn. This makes sense - if the body is trying to keep itself alive right now, it doesn't need to spend energy remembering the past or absorbing new information- it is fighting for survival

The implications for medical treatment are huge

This has huge implications for the way we treat people experiencing neurodegeneration and neurological and vascular diseases. These are medical conditions which in spite of advances in technical / surgical procedures as well as preventative care, are still rising.

We simply cannot treat the immune system with medications alone, without considering the underlying mental and emotional contributing factors, triggers and life experiences. Doing so is not only dangerous and risks perpetuating the imbalance but is a disservice to our health care standards and to the vital integrity of a human being as a functioning, feeling, inherently physical and emotional being.

How Craniosacral therapy helps

There's often times I come across clients whose lymphatic systems are what I would describe as sluggish and fatigued. There has been one case where I actually felt like I was making contact with sewage works. Usually it comes with a whole host of other issues, persistent illness, immunity compromisation and early childhood trauma. In more balanced and healthy clients with vitality, who are emotionally balanced and whose bodies are mobile. the lymphatic system feels nourishing and easy, flows freely and is almost invisible. The more prominent the sensations, usually the more clear it is that there is a lymphatic drainage consideration or impact. When our lymphatic system is not functioning correctly, our immune response is compromised and so is our mental and emotional health. When our mental and emotional health is fragile, our brain centres responsible for regulating our hormonal and nervous system are in overdrive, and that affects fluid flow in our body.

Craniosacral therapy doesn't just work with the physical condition of the body but also addresses the underlying emotional experiences that the person's body is holding.

This can be anything from difficult or shocking birth experiences where there may have been a battle for survival or complicated interventions, to pre conception where a child is born into a family field of dysfunction, stress or ancestral patterns of pain. It is all relevant and contributing to the picture of that person's body. If the heart is holding it, eventually the body will too.

By attuning to the physical patterns, in the case of my client a lymphatic system that felt like an overflowing sewage works, a toxic body due to immobility and poor diet, as well as a chronic inability to let go of old hurt, painful childhood memories and the experience of a persistently absent care giver, the body and the heart of that person gets the opportunity to be witnessed and met.

There is a revealing of the underlying cause, that brings the unconscious processes of the body and mind to the conscious field. It is in making this unconscious more conscious, that we start to become self aware. Self awareness is the precursor for healing at the root cause.

There are other natural and non invasive ways to support your lymphatic system including:

- deep breathing - focusing on the exhale

- pranayama such as Kapalabhati which stimulates splee

- staying hydrated with water

- diet - clean, plant based food

- Tulsi (holy basil) Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) rasayana and adaptogen

- lymphatic massage, self body massage with high grade oils - e.g ginger oil - dry brushing the body - move your body - stretching, yoga or brisk walking

Yoga - easy yoga poses: childs pose, down dog, Jathara Parivartanasana (lying spine twist) - more advanced yoga poses: bridge pose, shoulder stand, plough pose

- Inversions and twisting work on function of spleen and kidneys and rotation of the neck can support the lymph nodes there

- Arm balances are good for compressing into lymph nodes, which help to filter and clean lymph fluid

- Forward bends compress into the groin, aiding the lymph nodes

Active the bandhas!

Mula & Uddiyana bandha moves lymph towards the thoracic duct

Jalandhara bhanda squeezes the lymph nodes around the throat

- meditation!

- journaling - releasing toxic and engrained thought patterns by writing them out

- eliminate as much as possible environmental stress

-practice intermittent fasting

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