Is Your Acne Caused By A Sluggish Lymphatic System? Here's How To Heal

November 21, 2019

In the 10+ years trying to find answers for my acne, I never stopped to consider the role of the lymphatic system. Turns out, I might have saved myself years of acne frustrations. Our lymphatic system and skin are very closely connected. The research behind this link might be particularly compelling for those of us who tend to breakout in the neck/jawline area (ahem…me). Get your pen and paper ready…

So what the heck is the lymphatic system? 

lymph nodes pathway skin staff (2014).

The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid that contains white blood cells. You know, the cells that fight bacteria and viruses. These “wellness warriors” rush to defend us when invaders attack. I like to call lymph the MVP of our immune system, which is why we should invest in caring for it.

lymphatic system acne photo By Petr Adam Dohnálek

Lymph fluid 

Lymph travels through lymphatic vessels in one direction towards the heart, eventually returning to the bloodstream. Lymphatic vessels carry lymph to lymph nodes, where it is cleaned and filtered. Did you know that the body has approximately 500-700 lymph nodes? In fact, 38% of our body’s lymph nodes, are located in the neck (where some of us tend to breakout). The lymph nodes are also where white blood cells are produced. One of the reasons our neck lymph nodes can swell when we have a cold is because our increased white blood cells are busy defending us!

The lymphatic system pathway

  • Tissue fluid → Lymphatic vessels → Lymph fluid → Lymph nodes → Bloodstream
  • To help you visualize, there’s a really awesome image of the lymphatic pathway on slide 4 of this slide deck. (I couldn’t include here for copyright reasons).

Lymph has an unexpected method of pumping through the body. Unlike our blood, which is pumped by our heart, the lymph is pumped by two mechanisms:

  • External forces
    • Massage, joint movements, and gravity (i.e putting your legs above your heart, drains lymph towards your heart)
  • Active transport
    • Contraction of the lymph vessel wall

Lymph’s passage through the lymphatic pathway is important for our health. Ever heard of a “sluggish lymph?” The term has been used to sell questionable detox teas and supplements, which is why it can be discredited by researchers. However, it is clear that lymph stagnation can occur when lymph is not pumped sufficiently through the lymphatic pathway. Dehydration, stress, and digestive issues are just some of the causes of lymph stagnation. 

How is acne involved?

According to Dr. Stacey Shillington, ND stagnation can cause toxin-filled lymph to build up around our lymph nodes. Sitting there under our precious skin, toxins can surround our neck and jawline like a “toxic swamp” leading to breakouts. 

Besides acne, lymph stagnation may present other symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Water retention
  • Stiffness, especially in the morning
  • Brain fog
  • Itchy and dry skin
  • Cellulite
  • Stubborn weight gain
  • Chronic sinusitis, sore throats, colds, and ear issues
  • Breast swelling with the menstrual cycle
  • Swollen glands
  • Cold hands and feet

The good news is, there are simple behavior changes we can make today, to support our lymphatic system.

Solutions for Lymph Stagnation (and clearer skin!)

  • Hydration (2 liters a day) 
    • When we are hydrated, the fluid in our lymph is thin and can move through our lymph vessels easily. A freer flow makes it easy to transport and expel toxins. But when we are dehydrated, our lymph fluid is thicker, making it hard to move toxins through our lymphatic system.
    • Decrease caffeine, alcohol, and sugary-drink intake that can lead to dehydration
    • Read my previous post to find out what happened to my skin after dramatically increasing the amount of water I drank. (Spoiler Alert: there were big improvements).
  • Exercise 
    • Working out has been shown to stimulate lymph flow dramatically. The contraction of our muscles when we exercise pumps lymph movement from the inside out.
      • Choose your favorite exercise! Running, yoga, walking, team sports, etc…
      • Some have praised rebounding (aka jumping on a trampoline) for being particularly lymph-stimulating.
      • Related: see this post about how sweating can help clear our skin.
  • Move your lymph manually
    • Dry brush 
      • Start at your feet and brush towards your heart. Doing so follows the natural flow of the lymphatic system, which remember, is unidirectional towards the heart. 
    • Lymphatic Massage
      • Manual lymphatic drainage
        • Gently massaging the skin in the direction of lymph flow (towards the heart), encourages healthy flow.
    • Gua Sha
      • An ancient Chinese healing technique that utilizes a tool (usually a natural stone) to massage the skin.
    • Face cupping
      • Have you ever spotted those purplish circles on people from cupping? (Perhaps on super-athlete Michael Phelps). Apparently you can even cup your face! Okay, I have to try this one…
  • Contrast hydrotherapy  
    • The practice of alternating between hot and cold water has been known to stimulate the lymphatic system and improve acne.
    • Example routine:
        • Hot water for 3 min
        • Cold water for 1 min 
        • Repeat cycle 3 times 
    • Or if you have access to a sauna. Alternate between the sauna and a cold shower. 
  • Release neck and jaw muscle tension 
    • Stretching your neck and jaw muscles (by leaning your head towards either shoulder), moves the muscles by your neck lymph nodes and stimulates lymph flow.
  • Diet
    • Eat more raw foods and vegetables
      • Ayurveda medicine teaches that “red foods” (literally, the color red) promote lymph health. Examples include beets, cherries, pomegranates, and cranberries.

It seems many of these lymph-focused lifestyle changes can improve many other aspects of our lives. I guess it goes to show how interwoven and holistic the journey to wellness is! Speaking of, It’s important to note that the lymph works in collaboration with other body symptoms. Our kidneys, liver, and circulatory system are also vital parts of the detoxing process and should be carefully nurtured in order to improve our skin.

Which lymph-supporting behavior change are you drawn to?

Also by Lindsay: How To Create New Neurons In The Brain (Neurogenesis) & Get Smarter Than Ever Before

I Quit Drinking 4 Years Ago To Save My Skin Health. Why You Might Want To Consider It

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Photo: Ana-Maria Nichita on Unsplash; staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2)  DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons; Petr Adam Dohnálek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia Commons

Lindsay Brave
Lindsay is a writer, researcher, and self-proclaimed vegan introvert. Lindsay spends her free time reading, making up dance moves (when no one’s watching), and upping her self-care routine. Connect with Lindsay on Instagram @lindsbrave or via email at [email protected].


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