Lymphatic System 101 With Lisa Levitt Gainsley

Lymphatic System 101 With Lisa Levitt Gainsley

But what exactly is the lymphatic system?

Our lymphatic system is overlooked and doesn’t get the reputation it rightly deserves. Why? Because it’s known as the gateway to glowing skin. It also helps reduce inflammation and boost immunity. Because our lymph system doesn’t have a central pump to keep it moving, it sometimes needs a helping hand (literally and figuratively) to release daily toxicity and build up. That’s where the help of lymphatic massage and daily lymph practices come into play.

We enlisted Lisa Levitt Gainsley, a coveted, celebrity-endorsed lymphatic drainage specialist with over 25 years of experience. The author, educator, and speaker has imparted her wisdom to renowned publications like ELLE, GOOP, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Health Magazine, Huffington Post, and more. Lisa has also worked with almost every condition under the sun, some of which include cancer, Lyme disease, lupus, digestion disorders, acne, bloating, weight gain, migraines, anxiety, eczema, lymphedema, and those looking to get glowing skin.

Here, Lisa shares the importance of our lymphatic system and how it is connected to an array of health issues we currently face. She also gives us insight into some of the warning signs we might be missing when struggling with our lymph system and provides a few tips on how we can best support this system on our own.

How did you get started and end up focusing on the lymphatic system?

My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was 11. It was early 1980 in Los Angeles before Erewhon and Whole Foods. Not much was known about integrative health, even in California. But my mom took us all on a healing journey with her. In addition to chemo and surgery, she did a deep dive into macrobiotic cooking and we learned guided visualization and meditation as a family to help support her diagnosis.

My mom died when I was 13. That loss led me to seek ways to live well before illness arises in the body. I attended massage school in the 90s in northern California among the redwood trees, where I took courses in lymphatic drainage. Once I felt the healing powers of the work, understood the science and physiology of our body’s immune system, and how beneficial lymphatic massage is for cancer patients, I KNEW I’d found my life’s work. That was about 29 years ago! I am so deeply grateful for this work I do every single day!

How important is the lymph system to our overall health?

Your lymphatic system is major! It’s the highway of your immune system. It matures and circulates immune cells to protect them from viruses and bacteria. It regulates fluid balance in your body—without it, you’d blow up like a balloon and couldn’t survive for more than two days. If your lymph system is overwhelmed, then it will have a harder time filtering out toxins. That leads to inflammation, which is at the root of chronic illness. Most people only hear of their lymph system when they get sick and their lymph nodes are swollen. But there are ways you can optimize your lymphatic system just like how we optimize our cardiovascular health. I’m on a mission for people to learn simple tips to keep the engine of their lymph running smoothly and clearly, so they are vibrant from the inside out.

What are some of the warning signs that our lymphatic system is overwhelmed?

I wrote an entire chapter on this subject in my book, The Book of Lymph! Lymphatic congestion can contribute to issues such as acne, allergies, bloating, brain fog, constipation, digestive issues, edema, fatigue, headaches, hormonal issues, swelling, tonsillitis, eczema, joint pain, puffiness, scar tissue, sinus congestion, menstrual discomfort, stress, respiratory discomfort, and more! The good news is you can learn simple lymphatic self-care techniques to keep your lymph moving and get relief from some of these symptoms.

What are some not-so-obvious health issues that can arise from a poor working lymphatic system?

Some people don’t know that constipation, bloating, lowered immune response, trouble losing weight, acne, brain fog, fatigue, headaches, eczema, and wounds that are slow to heal can arise from a sluggish lymph system. Many people are surprised to learn that lymphatic massage can help improve their emotional health. I liken it to clearing out your closet. You know how you feel 5 lbs lighter when you clean up your home? Lymphatic drainage can help you also feel lighter and happier!

How does our gut health connect to our lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system in your gut makes up 70% of your immune system. It provides your first line of defense against food-borne illness and increases fat absorption and metabolism. When you massage your stomach, you can increase the movement of your vital organs and improve digestion. A lot of people store stress in their abdomen without realizing it. With a few minutes of lymphatic self-massage around your colon, you can increase your energy. This is why you see flatter stomachs after a lymph massage!

What is the connection between our lymph and the health of our skin and premature aging?

Your skin absorbs approximately 60% of what you put on it, which can overwhelm your lymph system. As your body’s largest organ, your skin is a direct reflection of your internal health. Alcohol, smoking, and stress contributes to premature aging. Acne can occur from bacteria build-up, hormonal issues, and gut microbiome imbalances.

One of your lymph system’s roles is to clear out bacteria and absorb excess hormones too big for the bloodstream to absorb. When you massage your lymph nodes and increase lymph circulation, you can reduce pesky acne breakouts, relax fine lines, and get glowing skin. You can even learn how to give yourself a lymphatic facial at home. I have video tutorials on my Instagram and in my online course, The Lymphatic Masterclass. I also believe that choosing non-toxic skin care products is essential.

How about cellulite? What causes this?

I wrote all about this subject in my book, The Book of Lymph! I have a great self-massage sequence to address stubborn areas. About 80% of women will experience cellulite at some point in their lives. I would love for people not to feel so badly about themselves when it occurs. Saggy skin, dimples, and weight gain can all be signs of stagnant lymph fluid. I teach people how to massage the area to bring back healthy micro-blood circulation, venous circulation, and lymph flow. I also recommend dry-brushing, lymphatic cupping, diet, and targeted exercises to break down fat cells that get trapped by bands of connective tissue.

Is poor lymphatic drainage linked to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s?

It’s only been a little over a decade since we discovered there are lymphatic vessels in the brain! Can you even believe how new this information is? In 2010, neuroscientists found that the lymphatic system and glial cells in your brain work with the cerebral spinal fluid to clear out amyloid plaque when you sleep. It’s now referred to as the glymphatic system. Plaque buildup in the brain has been linked to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and MS. There was a recent study done that showed lymphatic massage in the deep cervical lymph nodes can reduce brain inflammation. My hope is everyone starts to recognize the importance of lymphatic self-care and builds that into their health routine.

How can a healthy lymphatic system equal better emotional health?

There are so many factors that contribute to our emotional and mental health. When our bodies and minds are congested with toxins and stress, it’s easy to feel sluggish and unwell. Your physical health impacts your mental health and vice versa. The skeletal muscle contractions from exercise, movement, and self-massage circulate lymph fluid and increase endorphins that help mitigate stress hormones. Once you move out some of the congestion in your body, you start to feel lighter and brighter. My clients’ moods improve with lymphatic drainage because the emotions they’ve stored in their body (and their gut) get tended to, as well as their nervous system. I know it seems like lymphatic massage can address a lot of issues, but this is what I’ve seen in my practice for nearly three decades! It’s really so cool.

How does our breathing affect our overall health and our ability to have a free-flowing lymph?  

Deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective things you can do to help move the river of lymph from the lower half of your body and legs up the thoracic duct back to your bloodstream. I always recommend deep breathing when you’re doing lymphatic self-massage to increase lymph circulation. I have an easy sequence in The Book of Lymph.

What are some foods that we can incorporate into our diet to help promote lymph flow?

First of all, I recommend cutting back on foods that adversely affect your lymph systems, such as processed foods, gluten, dairy, sugar, and red meat. I also suggest increasing vegetables, purple and red foods, leafy greens, seaweed, mushrooms, foods rich in vitamin B, omega-3s and 6’s, garlic and onions, green tea, and zinc.

Are there any supplements or herbs you recommend to promote lymph flow?  

There are so many! I have a whole list in my book, The Book of Lymph. But here are a few main ones for lymphatic health that offer a variety of properties such as anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antioxidant, immune support, digestive support, respiratory health, skin health, liver and organ cleansing, lymph and blood circulation, detoxification, and cancer fighting properties. These include astragalus, burdock, dandelion, digestive bitters, fennel, ginger, red clover, turmeric, wild indigo, and violet. If you’re interested in any herbal treatments, please do not self-diagnose. Consult your doctor, a certified naturopath, herbalist, or specialist in Chinese medicine before taking any herbs.



What are some easy lymphatic hacks we can incorporate into our daily lives to practice on our own?


Drink more water.

Move your body: walking, swimming, yoga, inversions, biking, rebounding (trampoline), pilates, etc.

Practice deep breathing.

Do lymphatic self-massage

Watch your diet! Eat more whole foods. Reduce the consumption of processed foods, alcohol, salt, red meat, gluten, dairy, and tobacco.

Find ways to mitigate stress!

Reduce the amount of pollutants and chemicals in your home and skincare.

Bring more joy into your life. Surround yourself with loving, supportive relationships.