The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system and circulatory health in that it promotes healthy blood flow by moving “lymph fluid,” (aka a watery fluid) to prevent build-up in a concentrated area, such as in the legs or feet.
“It works in a number of ways and offers benefits, including help with digestion (especially the absorption of fats), removal of waste from the body, and maintenance of both fluid levels in the body and a strong immune system,” says Seattle- based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSOowner of ChampagneNutrition® and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.
Unfortunately, sometimes lymph fluid pools and gets stuck, and drainage isn’t as effective. “Lymphatic drainage is when fluid that drains from cells and tissues in the body is transported to ‘lymph nodes’ for filtration and cleaning, where it then moves into lymphatic vessels through collection ducts, and then into the bloodstream,” says Hultin.
In simple terms, lymphatic drainage is how the body processes lymph fluid and eliminates waste to keep the body balanced with healthy circulation. “Lymphatic circulation helps avoid the accumulation of fluid and swelling, which can happen if the lymph system isn’t functioning properly,” says Hultin.
You’ll often notice blockages and poor lymphatic drainage due to weather (on days with high humidity and cloud cover) or sitting for extended periods of time; However, you might also experience issues due to diet, too. Some foods are more likely to cause swelling, such as salty foods with high sodium and foods that lack water content—plus, if you’re forgetting to hydrate with water, that’ll do it, too.
There are also foods that directly support the lymphatic system and improve drainage to promote healthy blood flow. In general, foods high in potassium can be helpful, suggests Hultin, for stimulating lymph nodes and circulation of fluids, and offers the following six foods as dietary staples.
Read on to learn more about these lymphatic-supporting foods, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss The #1 Best Juice to Drink Every Day, Says Science.
Tofu and edamame are made from soybeans, and ½ cup of boiled soybeans offers 9% of your daily value (DV) of potassium, which Hultin recommends as an essential nutrient for lymphatic drainage support. Eating tofu provides a rich dose of plant-based protein, and you can also snack on edamame (soybeans) and use soymilk for cereal, tea, and smoothies, instead of cow’s milk.
What’s more, “research indicates that high blood sugar levels can get in the way of proper lymphatic drainage too, so focusing on plant-based protein-rich food like tofu, tempeh, and edamame is important,” says Hultin.
Pop tofu in your air fryer for a crispy texture or throw it in your wok to use as a protein for vegetable stir-fry.
Hydration improves blood flow and circulation to benefit the bloodstream and lymphatic system. “Dehydration can impede lymphatic drainage, so be sure to hydrate with plenty of plain water and herbal teas to meet your needs, which can keep lymph fluid circulating at an optimal pace,” says Hultin.
Swap your afternoon cup of coffee for tea, instead, and enjoy herbal tea before bed to not only boost lymphatic drainage but also drowsiness for better sleep. You can also cook with tea—use herbal tea, and perhaps a spicy ginger-turmeric blend, for baking purposes or as a tea-infused side of grains or vegetables. Cook with mushrooms, spinach, and brown rice, and try red root, echinacea or chamomile, as three great herbal options for the lymphatic system.
“This common spice has been shown in some studies to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which could help people with lymphatic drainage problems, as the active compound, curcumin, may actually support a healthy lymphatic system,” says Hultin.
The caveat is that according to research, turmeric needs a source of fat with consumption for proper absorption, so add turmeric to olive oils, marinades, salad dressings, and sauces and use it in curry recipes and smoothies containing a bit of fat, like ghee or nut butter.
Dried apricots are not only heart-healthy in that they may help reduce blood pressure and protect your heart, but also they’re one of the top sources of potassium—½ cup of dried apricots provides 23% DV. “Just one ½ cup of dried apricots meets a quarter of your potassium needs for the entire day,” Hultin says.
Dried apricots taste great in oatmeal and yogurt, trail mixes, marinades for chicken and fish, as well as in salads, on top of leafy greens, or as part of a creamy chicken or tofu curry spread for. Prunes are also good for the lymphatic system and have a high potassium count.
“Extra virgin olive oil is known for supporting a healthy cardiovascular system and what’s good for blood circulation is good for the lymphatic system, too,” says Hultin. “Olives and olive oil contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats and antioxidants, known as ‘polyphenols,’ and may reduce inflammation to support healthy lymphatic drainage,” says Hultin.
Enjoy a handful of olives as a snack or ingredient for dips and spreads or meat, like chicken. Drizzle olive oil or an olive oil-based dressing on greens and veggies, suggests Hultin, such as potato, spinach, and kale, with immunity-boosting citruses, like lemon zest, and garlic, to stimulate and support lymph nodes.
“Little powerhouses of fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, chia seeds benefit and improve the lymphatic system and keep the gut healthy,” says Hultin. “Omega-3 fats help lower inflammation, while the rich fiber content supports gut health and the immune system,” she adds. Together they promote optimal lymphatic drainage and strong immunity, so find ways to include them in your diet.
Hultin recommends eating chia seed pudding and sprinkling seeds on yogurt or oatmeal or blending in a smoothie with other lymph-supporting foods.
Think: a smoothie made with leafy greens, soymilk, chia seeds, and potassium-rich banana. Or a protein-packed “power bowl” for lunch with leafy greens, omega-3 dense salmon and walnuts, soybeans, cruciferous veggies, like broccoli, and a little olive oil that’s infused with lemon zest—you’ll get extra immunity-boosting power with vitamin C and can further enhance lymphatic drainage and circulation.