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What is the Lymphatic System and Why is it Important?



The first thing you should know about the lymphatic system is that it is an extremely important part of our bodies and has multiple functions. The lymphatic system is a part of the circulatory, immune, and metabolic systems, and “it is composed of lymphatic fluid, lymphatic vessels, and lymphatic cells” [1]. The word “lymphatic” is repeated several times in these definitions, but what does it mean? Well, “the lymphatic system is a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together to move a colorless, watery fluid called lymph back into your circulatory system” [2]. Where exactly is this fluid coming from? It is actually “excess fluid that drains from cells and tissue throughout your body” [2]. So, now we know what lymphatic fluid is, let’s talk about lymphatic vessels and lymphatic cells. “The lymphatic vessels reabsorb interstitial fluid from the periphery to return it to the intravascular space, which prevents fluid buildup in peripheral tissues” [1].


So, lymphatic vessels help to keep lymphatic fluid in check to make sure it gets to where it needs to be without building up elsewhere. “Lymphatic cells include macrophages, dendritic cells, lymphocytes, as well as lymphatic organs such as the spleen and thymus” [1]. Now, this is just a whole other bunch of words that might need some explaining, so let’s get into it.


· A macrophage is “a type of white blood cell that surrounds and kills microorganisms, removes dead cells, and stimulates the action of other immune system cells” [3].

· Dendritic cells are also a type of immune cell that is “found in tissues, such as the skin, and boosts immune responses by showing antigens on its surface to other cells of the immune system” [4].

· A lymphocyte is another kind of immune cell and white blood cell “made in the bone marrow” [5]. B lymphocytes make antibodies, and T lymphocytes, which “help kill tumor cells and help control immune responses,” make up the two major types of lymphocytes [5].

· The spleen is known for famously being an organ we can live without, due to the liver being able to do many of the spleen’s functions. Nonetheless, it does function as an important component of the immune system.

· Lastly, the thymus is actually the organ that produces lymphocytes, and we already know what those are.


Now that we have all those terms in order, let’s go over what the actual functions of the lymphatic system include. The primary functions of the lymphatic system include: maintaining fluid levels in the body; absorbing fat from the digestive tract; protecting the body against danger, like bacteria and viruses; and transporting and removing waste and abnormal cells from the lymph [2]. We’ve already been over how the lymphatic system maintains fluid levels by way of lymphatic vessels, but part of the fluid it maintains does include “fluids from your intestines that contain fats and proteins and transports it back to your bloodstream” [2]. The way the lymphatic system protects us from things like bacteria and viruses is through the immune cells we went over (macrophages, dendritic cells, and lymphocytes) being able to attack and get rid of these dangers. Lastly, lymph nodes, “bean-shaped glands [...] scattered throughout your body,” are what keep the lymphatic system clear of waste and abnormal cells.


Since we’ve gone over what the lymphatic system is and why it’s so important for our bodies, we should also go over some issues that can occur within the lymphatic system, and what we can do to help keep the system as healthy as possible. There are a multitude of conditions that can “happen during development before birth or during childhood, [and] others develop as a result of disease or injury” [2]. One common condition is “lymphadenopathy,” also known as enlarged lymph nodes. This is a common condition of the lymphatic system, and it can be caused by infections such as strep throat, mononucleosis, and HIV [2]. Enlarged (or swollen) lymph nodes can also be caused by inflammation and, in rare cases, cancer [2]. Another common disorder is “lymphedema,” or the accumulation of lymphatic fluid. “Lymphedema can result from a blockage in the lymphatic system caused by scar tissue from damaged lymph vessels or nodes. Lymphedema is also often seen when lymph nodes are removed from those who've had surgery or radiation to remove cancer” [2]. This accumulation of fluid mostly happens in the arms and legs and can vary in severity, but it is very important to note that “people with lymphedema are at risk for serious and potentially life-threatening deep skin infections” [2].


Another issue that can take place is lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. This type of cancer occurs in the lymph nodes and is caused by lymphocytes (one of those white blood cell types we talked about earlier) multiplying rapidly [2]. There are many other conditions and disorders that can affect the lymphatic system- we definitely won’t get to all of them in this article- but some of them include tonsillitis, “an inflammation and infection of the tonsils;” Castleman disease, which “involves an overgrowth of cells;” lymphangioleiomyomatosis, which is “a rare lung disease in which abnormal muscle-like cells begin to grow out of control in the lungs, lymph nodes and kidneys;” and lymphangioma, which is a congenital disorder and a “malformation in the lymphatic system” [2].


It is significant to note that some of these issues are treatable but not curable, which means treatment would just include the management of systems in order for individuals living with incurable disorders to live a more comfortable life. However, it does not hurt to be aware of things you can do to help encourage a healthier lymphatic system.


One of the most important things you can do to contribute to a healthy lymphatic system is to stay hydrated. Staying hydrated helps lymphatic fluid “easily move throughout your body” [2]. This is just one reason why it is important to prioritize easy access to drinking water, globally, for the health of all people. Another thing you can do to promote a healthy lymphatic system is to try to “avoid exposure to toxic chemicals like those in pesticides or cleaning products. These chemicals can build up in your system and make it harder for your body to filter waste” [2]. If you work or are exposed to toxic chemicals often, you can wear a mask to help limit what you take into your body. Lastly, similar to a lot of conditions, a healthy diet and consistent exercise/physical activity definitely help keep your lymphatic system strong and healthy [2]. Incorporating all of these practices and habits into your daily routine will definitely contribute to the health of your lymphatic system and, in turn, contribute to the overall health of your entire body.


Of course, if you are concerned that you may be experiencing symptoms caused by any of the issues listed in this article, do not hesitate to consult with your doctor. They will be able to use a CT scan or MRI to determine what may be causing these symptoms, and, from there, they will be able to offer a diagnosis and treatment plan moving forward.




References:

1. Ozdowski, L., & Gupta, V. (2022, May 8). Physiology, Lymphatic System. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557833/

2. Lymphatic System: Parts & Common Problems. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, February 23). Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21199-lymphatic-system

3. NCI Dictionary of Cancer terms. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/macrophage

4. NCI Dictionary of Cancer terms. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/dendritic-cell

5. NCI Dictionary of Cancer terms. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/lymphocyte


 

Contributors:

Author: Lauryn Agron

Editor: Kayjah Taylor

Health scientist: Chantelle Moore


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