Manual Lymphatic Drainage for Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto's is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune disorder, which means it occurs when immune cells attack healthy tissue instead of protecting it. In Hashimoto's thyroiditis, immune cells mistakenly attack the healthy thyroid tissue, causing inflammation of the thyroid. Ahead, Lymphatic Therapist and Nutrition Coach, Amanda Holden, shares how bodywork may help to reduce inflammation and improve symptoms of Hashimoto's.

Inflammation is the body's response to something irritating—like a cut, exposure to toxins, or a pathogen. When your immune system senses that something is wrong, it sends white blood cells to the damaged area to begin fighting any germs and healing tissues. The damaged area becomes swollen with increased blood flow, which carries inflammatory mediators that allow white blood cells to pass through your vessels more easily. 

Typically, inflammation protects our tissues from injury and infection. However, our immune system can also go into overdrive and cause chronic health conditions. 

Chronic inflammation of the thyroid can have damaging consequences over the long term. In the case of Hashimoto's thyroiditis, it can lead to hypothyroidism if your thyroid gland becomes so damaged it cannot produce enough thyroid hormones for your body to function correctly. The good news? You can manage inflammation with an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle.

What is bodywork?

Bodywork is any therapeutic technique that involves working with the human body. It encompasses many modalities—from Reiki to acupuncture, massage therapy, and even meditation.

Manual lymphatic drainage 

One such bodywork modality is manual lymphatic drainage. Manual lymphatic drainage is the act of gently moving lymph through the body. This movement helps release biochemical waste from body tissues and decreases your sympathetic nervous system's “fight or flight” response.

The lymphatic system

The heart pumps blood out through the arteries into the body's tissues and organs. Most blood gets sent back to the heart through our veins, containing carbon dioxide, unused proteins, and other waste products. A small percentage of blood is lymph—a fluid component containing substances too big to get back into the veins—that leaks into the body's tissues through our capillaries. 

Here is where the lymphatic system comes into play. The lymph passes through tiny holes in the walls of lymphatic capillaries. The lymphatic system does not have its own pump system, so naturally, the lymph gets pushed toward the heart as we breathe and move our muscles. 

The lymph moves from the lymphatic capillaries into larger collector vessels with one-way valves to keep the lymph moving in the right direction. As the lymph moves back toward the heart, it passes through lymph nodes to filter out bacteria and waste. Finally, when the toxins are filtered, the lymph travels to one of two large lymphatic ducts just below the neck to transfer into a large vein and back into the bloodstream.

We can also support this process by manually moving the lymph. For manual lymphatic drainage, a massage therapist moves their hands very lightly across the entire body in the direction of the heart so that the heart can pump fluid through.     

The lymphatic system plays a crucial role in regulating the inflammatory response. When the body experiences inflammation, the lymphatic system ensures the balance of the fluid in our tissues. When fluid builds up, it expands lymphatic vessels that let inflammatory cells into the lymphatic system, thereby removing them from the inflamed tissue. So, influencing drainage of the lymphatic system helps to reduce inflammation.

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How manual lymphatic drainage works

While considered a massage technique, lymphatic drainage is quite different from traditional bodywork. In a traditional massage, the objective is to work along muscle tissue to reduce physical strain and tension.  

Manual lymphatic drainage works specifically on the lymphatic system. It may help manage symptoms of Hashimoto's like joint pain, headaches, fatigue, skin problems, and digestive issues—to name a few. By reducing inflammation, we can reduce symptoms. It can be a gentle way to reduce inflammation and help minimize symptoms associated with an autoimmune disease.

If you consider integrating lymphatic drainage into your holistic approach to healing, consider these factors: 

  • Find a licensed practitioner. Manual lymphatic drainage takes additional education and is not part of basic massage training.
  • Lymphatic drainage is most effective in a series of sessions. How much inflammation a client has will determine how many sessions are appropriate.
  • Drink a lot of water after a session to remove held toxins. Also, sweating through a hot shower or bath will be beneficial. Even after drinking water and sweating out your toxins, you can sometimes experience cold-like symptoms for the next day or so. This experience is typical and is a good indication that your body needed to detox. 

Lymphatic drainage and autoimmune disease

While more research still needs to be done, existing evidence suggests that, at least, there is a dysfunction of lymphatic flow in autoimmune diseases—especially rheumatoid arthritis. Manual lymphatic drainage may improve lymphatic function to reduce tissue inflammation in autoimmune diseases. It may also regulate your immune system to reduce the severity of autoimmune responses. 

Manual therapies to improve lymphatic flow may be an excellent addition to your whole-body treatment plan to improve overall health and well-being.

Related articles:

  • Benefits Of Dry Brushing For Thyroid Symptoms
  • Acupressure Mat Benefits For Hashimoto's Disease
  • How To Reduce Inflammation With Hashimoto's Disease‍

— Update: 16-02-2023 — found an additional article Why You May Want To Avoid Lymphatic Drainage If You Have Thyroid Illness from the website for the keyword lymphatic system and hypothyroidism.

It’s quite common to have swollen lymph nodes in thyroid conditions.

But before you head out for a lymphatic drainage massage, read this article!

That’s because thyroid lymphatic drainage (along many other conditions) could actually make your symptoms worse.

You know the feeling – that tenderness and swelling you get in your neck when you’re fighting a cold or flu?

That is more than likely due to swollen lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are kidney-shaped glands found all over your body (including in your neck). Within these nodes are special immune system cells. These cells have the potential to make your condition much, much worse.

In today’s article, I’ll tackle why getting a lymphatic massage isn’t always the best course of action. Especially if you’re dealing with a thyroid condition like Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease. But first, let’s introduce you to a part of your body you may not know anything about!

An incredibly important but rarely understood part of your body

Welcome to the world of lymph. In your body, it is the lymphatic system that carries lymph. Even if you’ve heard the term lymph or lymphatic before, you probably don’t understand just how important it is to your health!

What’s lymph?

In Latin, the word lympha translates to water. Lymph is a clear fluid that flows through a massive network of lymph super-highways known as your lymphatic system. Just like blood flows through your veins and arteries, lymph flows through lymph vessels.

You know how important blood is to your survival – but you probably don’t know that lymph is just as important. Without lymph, the next bacterial or viral infection you catch would kill you!

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Why is lymph important? 

One of the main functions of your lymphatic system is immune defense. When you’re exposed to an invading virus, your lymphatic system carries the invader to your immune system. Your immune system creates antibodies to fight off the intruder and as a result you recover – often without even knowing a thing.

But without lymph, you’d struggle to overcome any infection.

What’s really going on inside your lymph

Nearly every tissue in your body is able to drain into a lymph node. This means that cellular debris and information moves easily from the tissue into a lymph node. It’s really an amazing thing. Nearly every area of your body can bring contaminants to lymph nodes, which also contain invader-fighting cells (T cells & B cells).

If a particular area of your body gets infected or injured, those infected or injured cells drain into a nearby lymph node which then brings the infection/damage to your immune system. Your immune system creates the invader-fighting cells and sends them back to the damaged or infected tissue. Just like that, your body starts healing. (1)

This system is entirely dependent on the flow of lymph fluid from your tissues and into the nearby lymph nodes. And in a healthy body, a lymphatic massage can expedite the process, helping your lymph nodes move lymph even more efficiently.

Are you starting to see why your lymphatic system is so important?

What happens when your immune system loses control?  

Now, this whole process of carrying infected or damaged cells from tissue to your lymph nodes is affected by inflammation. The more inflammation, the slower your lymph flows. (2) This isn’t an ideal situation for a healthy body as you don’t want your lymph flow slowed if you’re dealing with a viral infection.

It means fewer infected cells make it to your immune system and your immune response is diminished. Which means you stay sick for longer. (3)

But in the case of autoimmune disease, which occurs when your immune system attacks your own cells, this is incredibly beneficial. A decreased lymph flow means your immune system is exposed to fewer of your own cells. If too many of your own cells are carried to your immune system through lymphatic massage, you risk triggering an autoimmune reaction…

You may be more familiar with autoimmunity through the lens of the many different autoimmune conditions. Some of the more common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Celiac disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s & colitis)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Psoriasis
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Lupus

Under normal conditions, your immune system does an incredible job of distinguishing which cells are you and which cells are invading microbes. Consider that every day you will be exposed to an astronomical number of viruses and bacteria. Yet you don’t get sick every day. This is evidence of your immune system functioning as it should.

But this sort of functioning isn’t always perfect. Sometimes your immune system goes awry. Sometimes your immune system mistakes its own cells for invading viruses or bacteria.

When your immune system attacks in error

When your adaptive immune system encounters an invading microbe, it makes an antigen to kill that specific microbe. Sometimes antigens are created for your own tissue. These are called self-antigens.

Even though we all create self-antigens, we don’t all get autoimmune diseases. For the most part, your immune system knows when it creates self-antigens. These cells are usually killed and removed from your immune system before they can create any damage to tissues.

In autoimmunity, the cells with self-antigens replicate and replicate and replicate. They mistakenly send the message that a particular tissue in your body is evil and needs to be destroyed. This is where autoimmunity begins – your immune system begins attacking tissue in your otherwise healthy body. You can have an autoimmune response to just about any tissue in your body. (4)

Read more  Why You May Want To Avoid Lymphatic Drainage If You Have Thyroid Illness

Autoimmunity is what happens when your immune system loses the ability to distinguish its own cells from invading cells. Lymphatic massage can increase your risk for autoimmunity. In fact, stimulating your lymphatics can even make your autoimmune disease worse!

How your lymph affects your thyroid 

If you’re dealing with hypothyroidism, you’re probably dealing with an autoimmune disease. The overwhelming majority of hypothyroidism in developed countries is caused by an autoimmune disease known as Hashimoto’s Disease. (5, 6) Depending on the study you read, up to 97% of hypothyroid cases are actually due to Hashimoto’s disease.

What’s the hallmark sign of an autoimmune disease?

Inflammation. If you’re dealing with autoimmunity, you’re dealing with inflammation. Likely, a lot of it. Remember, this is a protective effect by your body – especially in the context of your lymph. Inflammation slows the flow of lymph. The slower the lymph, the fewer cells move to your immune system which reduces the autoimmune response.

In autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, you want to decrease the rate of lymph flow.

That swelling you feel in your lymph nodes – so common in thyroid illness – that is a protective mechanism. You don’t want to reduce the swelling in your lymph nodes. You don’t want to get lymphatic drainage when you’re dealing with autoimmune conditions.

Things to avoid if you have swollen lymph nodes and thyroid illness

I’m going to play the odds that if you have hypothyroidism, you have Hashimoto’s disease. (But I encourage you to get the necessary testing to identify whether or not your low thyroid function is caused by Hashimoto’s disease.)

Once you’ve confirmed that you’re dealing with an autoimmune form of thyroid illness, it’s time to learn exactly what you need to avoid.

Below, I give you a list of common strategies used to improve the flow of your lymph. Normally, these strategies are beneficial and really quite helpful. But when you’re dealing with an autoimmune disease, you need to avoid the following:

Dry skin brushing

Dry skin brushing is the act of taking a stiff-bristle brush and brushing dry skin. In addition to exfoliating the skin, dry skin brushing is thought to stimulate lymph flow.

In healthy adults, the practice of dry skin brushing can be beneficial. But if you’re dealing with an autoimmune condition – thyroid or otherwise – you’re going to want to push pause on the dry skin brushing.

Remember, in autoimmune conditions your goal is to slow the flow of lymph. If you speed up lymph flow with dry skin brushing, you risk exposing more of your own cells to your immune system. This could worsen your autoimmune condition.

Lymphatic drainage massage

Before booking yourself a lymphatic drainage massage, make sure you know whether or not you’re dealing with an autoimmune disease. If you haven’t been formally diagnosed, check in with your first-degree family members (mom, dad, siblings) to see if they have an autoimmune diagnosis.

Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, if a member of your family has hold off on the lymphatic drainage. Remember, autoimmunity occurs by exposing your immune system to a lot of your own cells.

Lymphatic drainage will expose more of your own cells to your immune system. This could worsen an already present autoimmune condition or even be a potential trigger for developing autoimmunity.

The next time that thyroid of yours is aggravating your lymph nodes, hold off on the therapies that trigger lymph. Find out if your thyroid illness is an autoimmune form.

Same goes for any other autoimmune disease – if you’ve got one or have a family member that has one, proceed cautiously on the lymph treatments!

Ok, now you know how your lymph can impact your thyroid!

It’s time to hear from you!

When do you use lymphatic drainage treatments?

Leave your answers in the comments section below.


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About the Author: Tung Chi