The lymphatic system (Pt. 1)
Production of energy is an essential aspect of our health that is directly linked to longevity (1). Key nutrients in the energy cycle of our cells are L- Carnitine, D-Ribose, magnesium and CoQ10, as we have seen. The circulatory system carries these nutrients and oxygen to all the cells in the body via the pumping action of the heart. The lymphatic system is an adjacent system that supports the circulatory system by removing toxins, excess proteins and fluid from the cells of every organ. This highly organized system of nutrient/oxygen delivery and toxin removal is what keeps the energy levels in our body working at high demand. However, with stress, chemical toxicity and oxidative damage, energy production starts declining with age.
In today’s blog we will look at another nutrient that is essential for energy production, potassium, and how it works in what is knows as the ‘sodium-potassium pump’. We will also look at the lymphatic system as it relates to the circulatory system.
The lymphatic system: Definition and structure
The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and a vital part of the immune system. It consists of (2):
- Lymphatic tissues and organs: thymus, spleen, tonsils, appendix and some special lymph tissue in the gut (3).
- A conducting network of lymphatic capillaries, vessels, nodes and ducts (3): They carry a clear liquid known as ‘lymph’ towards the heart.
- The circulating lymph: The word ‘lymph’ derives from the Latin ‘lympha’meaning ‘water’. Although it is 95% water, lymph also contains plasma, proteins, hormones, waste products and cellular debris together with bacteria and toxins. It also contains lymphocytes (immune cells), which are concentrated in the lymph nodes.
Because the lymphatic system is our major source of immunity, it also includes all the structures dedicated to the circulation and production of lymphocytes (one of the subtypes of immune cells known as white blood cells, that include ‘natural killer cells’, ‘T cells’ and ‘B cells’ (4). These structures include the bone marrow, and the lymphoid tissue associated with the digestive system.
There are between five and six hundred lymph nodes in the human body. Many of them are grouped in clusters in different regions, like in the underarm (armpits) and abdominal areas (groin), and in the neck, where lymph is collected from regions of the body likely to sustain pathogen contamination from injuries.
The lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system with its final destination being the heart. The lymph, via lymph vessels and nodes, drains fluid from virtually every tissue toward the heart. In between the circulatory system and the lymphatic system, there is a space known as the ‘interstitial space’, where the cells of each organ are located.
Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is not a closed circular system but it branches out like the roots of a tree to reach the cells found in the interstitial space. Out of the 20 liters of blood per day filtered through the circulatory system, 3 liters remain in the interstitial fluid, thanks to the work of the lymph system as an accessory return route to the blood for the surplus blood (5).
As opposed to the circulatory system, which uses the heart as a pump, there is not an associated organ that pumps lymph. Instead, the lymph depends on the ‘squeezing’ motion of our muscles to push this fluid through the lymph vessels, and also the involuntary movement of our smooth muscles when we breath. Both of these mechanisms push lymph back from the peripheries to the center in a way similar to how blood is returned to the heart.
Like veins, lymphatic vessels have regular valves inside their walls to stop the backflow of fluid. In this manner, lymph is drained progressively towards the larger and larger vessels until it reaches two main channels in our trunk, where filtered lymph fluids can be returned to the venous blood. From there, the lymphatic system’s vessels branch through junctions called ‘lymph nodes’. These nodes are often referred to as glands, but they are not true glands as they do not form part of the endocrine (5).
Functions of the Lymphatic system
- Major detoxification system in the body: Lymph vessels and nodes run through every organ and most tissues in the body, collecting excess toxins, bacteria and extra fluid and proteins.
- Fluid homeostasis: Its major role is to maintain fluid balance in the tiny spaces surrounding cells (the interstitial spaces), and then returning this excess lymph together with proteins that are too large to be transported via the blood vessels. This is only 10%, or 2-3 liters, of the total blood arriving at tissues from the arterial blood capillaries. Without the lymphatic system, excess fluid would build up and our tissues would swell greatly, causing lost blood volume and pressure.
- Absorption: The lymphatic system is also one of the major routes for absorption of nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract, especially fats. The lymphatic system has special small vessels called ‘lacteals’ that form part of the protruding structures (the finger-like villi) produced by the tiny folds in the absorptive surface of the gut. These ‘lacteals’ work alongside blood capillaries in the folded surface membrane of the small intestine and are responsible for taking up fats and fat-soluble nutrients, emulsifying them to form a milky white fluid called ‘chyle’. This substance is then delivered into the venous blood circulation.
- Immune system: The lymphatic system forms a major part of our immune response to the continual exposure to micro-organisms. Some such organisms are potentially harmful and even fatal as there are some infections that our immune system is not equipped to deal with. When there is an accumulation of toxins or harmful organisms we have the so called ‘swollen lymph nodes’
Physiology of the lymphatic system
Almost all organs including the heart have lymph channels that drain excess fluid directly from the interstitial spaces. In the case of the lower part of the body, all the lymph flows up the thoracic duct and empties into the venous system.
The work of the lymphatic system as the body’s drainage system is accomplished by little pumps present at each juncture. The rate of lymph flow is determined by interstitial fluid pressure and the activity of the lymphatic pump.
When a lymph vessel becomes stretched with fluid , the smooth muscle in the wall of the vessel automatically contracts. Each segment of the lymph vessel between successive valves functions as a pump. When pumps fill up, the pressure of the fluid makes them contract and the fluid is pumped through the valve into the next lymphatic vessel. This fills the next segment on and on until the fluid is all emptied. Bigger lymph vessels exert greater pressure.
The lymph system also has flaps that allow the fluid to go into the circulation but it will not allow it back in, this makes sure the lymph empties into the blood always and not the other way around.
In addition to pumping caused by the lymph vessel walls, there are external factors that intermittently compress the lymph vessel to cause pumping. In order of importance these are:
- Contraction of the muscles of the body
- Movement of the parts of the body
- Arterial pulsations
- Compression of the tissues by objects outside the body
The lymphatic pump becomes very active during exercise, often increasing lymph flow 10 to 30 fold. During periods of rest lymph can become sluggish (18).
The circulatory and the lymphatic systems
In the human body, the cells of every organ and tissue are surrounded by a total of 6,000 miles of blood vessels and capillaries that run parallel to 24,000 miles of lymph nodes (6). This tight enclosure our cells are placed in is the ‘interstitial space’ (7). It is primarily a liquid known as ‘plasma’ that contains a combination of water, liquid protein, hormones and electrolytes. Electrolytes provide the electrical charge for the exchange of particles across the interstitial space, from the arteries and capillaries to the lymph system. This strategic distribution has a double purpose: On the one hand, it makes sure the circulatory system carries nutrients and oxygen to the cells of every organ and tissue. On the other hand, the lymphatic system removes excess protein, fluid, bacteria and the toxins and acid waste these cells make everyday. This is possible because of branch-like extensions in the lymph vessels that spread out and reach in between the cells to remove this excess.
Dr. C. Samuel West, DN, ND, Chemist and Lymphologist, father of Applied Lymphology and also the father of the ‘Sodium-Potassium Pump’, compared the lymphatic system to a tree inside our body with branches that spread out and whose main job is to “vacuum pack the cells of each vital organ so the blood stream can bathe each and every cell with an abundance of oxygen and nutrients”. This is what Dr. West called the ‘dry state’ (6).
Once the lymph system collects and moves acidic waste, toxins and bacteria out of the tissues, they go back to the blood supply then to the kidneys, lungs (8) and other end organs, such as the liver, colon and skin (9),(10) where they are destroyed by lymphocytes. This is the healthy state of the body and the major detoxification system. In this manner, cells receive nutrients and oxygen via the circulatory system, and their waste is removed via the lymphatic system. Failure to do so would result in death due to toxicity in 24 hours.
Oxygen delivery is necessary for the sodium-potassium pump to work
The discovery of the dry state of the cells, led Dr. Samuel West to the realization that only when the cells of every organ are able to obtain oxygen from the circulatory system can the sodium-potassium pump work to produce energy.
He called the sodium-potassium pump the ‘electric generator’ of the body because it gives all cells the power to work (11).
The importance of the sodium-potassium pump that he discovered is immense when it comes to energy and overall health (12). Each of the 100 trillion cells in the body has between 800,000 and 30 million of these pumps built on their surface. The role of sodium and potassium in these pumps is to allow nutrition (glucose, aminoacids, minerals, etc) inside the cell that is needed for:
ü Muscle health: allowing muscle contraction and relaxation
ü Nerve health: powering nerve impulses
ü Fluid balance
ü Energy production
This means that our cells need certain voltage to work and do all its functions. Because of potassium’s role in muscle and nerve health, a diet low in potassium can cause arrhythmias, heartbeat problems, skipped beats, and atrial fibrillation.
What is more, these pumps require a lot of energy to work and to generate electricity. In fact, 1/3 of the energy we get from food is used up to power these pumps. This is why our diet has to be aimed at ‘feeding’ these pumps. Dr. Eric Berg recommends a minimum of 4,700 mg of potassium balanced with 1,000 of sodium. This is the equivalent to 7-10 cups or more of fresh green leafy vegetables a day (12).