The lymph is one of our most vital yet underrated systems. Here’s why lymphatic drainage massage - and those strange inflatable boots - are having a moment
What if we told you that there’s a health and beauty-boosting system lurking right under your skin that’s activated with little more than gentle stimulation and lots of drinking water? Well, there is, and it’s called the lymphatic system. Unfortunately, we ignore at our peril. “If the lymphatic system doesn’t work properly, it will soon result in illness,” says aesthetic physician Dr Natalie Geary, a fan of lymphatic drainage massage to help with body contouring and healthy fat loss. She is just one of the many UK cosmetic doctors and beauty therapists who have embraced lymphatic health (long recognised in Europe and Asia) over the past few years.
Now in salons and aesthetics clinics, you're more and more likely to be offered lymphatic drainage 'boots' as an add-on to your facial or fat loss procedure. At Body Ballancer (those pressotherapy 'trousers' that look a bit like ski pants, which count Lady Gaga, Chrissy Teigen and Hailey Bieber as fans) they're seeing more demand. "A key driver for this trend has undeniably been our health and wellness coming acutely into focus because of Covid," says founder Jules Willcocks. "The appetite for holistic treatments that go beyond cosmetic improvements has skyrocketed, with experts as well as consumers increasingly grasping the benefits of ‘whole being’-treatments like lymphatic drainage. That much we know from the huge uptick of interest in our systems."
Lymphatic drainage, which you can also do easily at home, is the perfect treatment for summer, according to Chinese medicine practitioner and healer Katie Brindle founder of the Hayou Method. "I am not one for the beach body myth, but there is no denying that we all want to feel like the best version of ourselves when the sun is shining, " she says. "The solution is often presented as an extreme diet or workout plan. Well, drum roll please, that's wrong! The answer lies within our lymphatic system."
She hails the lymph the "unsung hero of the body" and she's not alone.
In essence, lymphatic drainage is a gentle 'detox' treatment that, unlike so many others, really does help your body get rid of toxins, lymphatic drainage also supports your immune system (a major boon post-Covid), prevents and combats injuries as well as sluggishness, which many people reported with the increase in working from home and decrease in movement. It may even have a role in preventing Alzheimer's.
A healthy lymph can make you look better, too, helping improve congested, puffy or inflamed skin, bloating, and cellulite. It's no wonder Dr Geary has made it part of her arsenal of procedures for achieving what she calls "ageing with energy." High time, we think, to brush up on how we can make the most of our body’s crucial watering and waste drainage network.
What is the lymphatic system?
Also known as the lymph, the lymphatic system is part of our immune system and helps protect us from disease and injury. Sometimes described as a ‘detox plant’ or ‘centre for disease control’, it’s a vast network of channels, ducts and nodes whose job it is to bathe cells in liquid that help deliver nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream.
The lymph is also in charge of transporting pollutants, metabolic waste and toxins away from the cells and to the liver and kidneys, the body’s toxin-processing stations. The lymph and circulatory systems work together, but one major difference between them is that the blood has a pump (your heart) that moves it around the body, while the lymph fluid doesn't. It relies entirely on movement, muscle contractions, gravity and the breath to keep flowing.
“Think of it as a stream,” says Geary. “If we are dehydrated, the stream dries up, leaving a slow-running sludge.” Yuck. If that mental image isn’t enough, consider, says Willcocks, that lymph that isn't flowing as it should is involved in 70 per cent of all chronic disease. It is vital for our immune function. "Lymph fluid carries immune cells to our lymph glands, where all acquired immunity against infections and viruses occurs,” explains lympho-vascular medicine specialist Professor Peter Mortimer. “Without it, we would not succeed in overcoming them.” To find out exactly why and how lymphatic drainage massage and other lymph-limbering techniques can tackle a whole host of niggles, issues and even diseases, read on.
Adds Katie Brindle: "Chinese medicine understands how lymphatic function supports every other system in the body, including the immune, digestive, detoxification and nervous systems. It’s not only key to our health, but will have an adverse effect if it’s not running efficiently. Cellulite, heavy legs, bingo wings – these are all exterior manifestations of a sluggish lymphatic system."
How a healthy lymph can help when….
You’ve been ill or are recovering from surgery or injury or have had a tweakment
When the lymph is working properly, the body is not bogged down by toxic waste material while nutrients and oxygen flow freely to every cell. This means recovery from illness happens faster while wounds and injuries heal more efficiently. Plastic surgeons often recommend it post-surgery, says lymphatic drainage specialist Flavia Morellato , to help bring down swelling and bruising and speed up recovery.
If you've had a tweakment designed to create trauma in order to promote collagen regeneration (think radiofrequency microneedling such as Morpheus 8 ) and that can lead to inflammation and redness lymphatic massage will speed up the healing process considerably, says Willcocks. "It minimises the side-effects whilst improving the overall outcome."
You’ve been exercising hard
Lymphatic drainage massage is used by professional athletes to help speed up muscle recovery. Studies show it significantly increases regeneration of muscles post-exercise. It also helps drain lactic acid from the system and so reduces pain and the risk of injuries.
You suffer from water retention (in pregnancy or otherwise)
Bloating, heavy legs, oedema – any type of swelling and water retention can be relieved with lymphatic drainage techniques. This is good news if you’re pregnant, as you can do light lymphatic drainage in pregnancy, says Dr Geary. Dr Anita Sturnham , who’s a fan of the Lymphastim lymphatic drainage device, says “after having my baby, I got a lot of water retention and it helps eliminate that. I also used to get a lot of pains and cramps in my legs from standing all day at work and that’s gone now.”
You’re in the (peri)menopause
“Most perimenopausal and menopausal women will be familiar with bloating, leg swelling, insomnia and anxiety," says Geary. “These can all be side effects of fluctuating hormones. Studies have shown that lymphatic drainage can decrease cortisol (our stress hormone) which is often linked to stress and insomnia.”
You’ve partied too hard
Don’t use this as an excuse to swig more vino, but the toxin-flushing powers of lymphatic drainage could make the morning after the night before feel less awful, plus, it can help get rid of those puffy eyes you’re bound to wake up with.
You have stubborn weight or are having fat loss treatments
Dr Geary specialises in 360-degree weight loss programmes and explains that the reason she uses lymphatic drainage on her Go Figure weight loss programme is that sluggish lymph can often be a key part of the puzzle for people who have stubborn weight that just won't shift. "This who struggle to lose weight do so because their lymphatic system is sluggish and won’t effectively deal with the fat that is being released.”
lymphatic drainage is certainly no weight loss method, she says, but it works in synergy with weight loss and improves results. “It helps people feel better and more energised, which means they’re more likely to continue to be active and maintain healthier habits,” she says. It can also improve results of fat loss treatments such as the Emerald Laser, (a painless device that liquefies fat which then leaks out of the fat cells to be swept away by the lymph - read our Emerald Laser review ) "The combination with lymphatic drainage greatly improves results, " she says. " It’s the lymph system that needs to break down this fat and ferry it out of the body, so stimulating it super-charges the fat loss process.”
You have cellulite or fluid retention
"The dreaded cellulite," says Brindle, "we all have it! This is partially the result of impaired lymph flow to certain areas, causing immobilised pockets of fat and trapping toxins. A healthy circulation of lymph means that the toxins are flushed out efficiently and the fluid retention decreases."
Cellulite is not just caused by stagnant fluids and toxins, but by hardening of the connective tissues under the skin and loss of elasticity and collagen. It can be improved by draining the ‘pond water’ gathered in the lymph ducts in the area, while improved nutrient flow will help break down any damaged tissues and help increase the production of collagen and elastin. In other words, lymphatic drainage massage has a beneficial effect on almost all the causes of cellulite.
You’re trying to minimise your chances of long-term disease such as Alzheimer’s
Who knew that the brain has its own lymphatic system? “We know that the pathology of Alzheimer’s is the accumulation of protein plaques in the brain,” says Dr Geary. “We have also discovered that the brain has its own lymphatic system. There have only been studies on mice so far but they seem to suggest that a decreased lymph system could affect brain health in mice.”
So while there is no definitive proof, you could infer, she says, that having a healthy waste disposal system (which is essentially what the lymphatic drainage system is) may help in our fight against Alzheimer’s.
You suffer from acne or rosacea
“Lymphatic drainage helps draw impurities up and out of the skin, so I use it to relieve hormonal and cystic breakouts,” says holistic skincare expert Gemma Clare . It’s also, she says, great for the relief of rosacea as the condition has “an immune-related aspect, and lymphatic drainage boosts immune function.” Many skin specialists rely on Hydrafacials , which cleanse, infuse skincare actives, and boost the lymph with gentle serum jets, for the purpose.
You have puffy facial skin
The reason Gua Sha stones and face rollers have become so popular is that, wielded properly, they provide an easy lymphatic drainage massage for the face, minimising puffiness and so providing a subtle ‘toning’ or ‘sculpting’ effect. Facial massage specialists routinely incorporate elements of manual lymphatic drainage for this reason and claim it also promotes collagen production and minimises dark circles.
What are the best ways to boost your lymph?
Keeping your lymph flowing is easier and can be cheaper than you think, with ways to treat yourself to a lymphatic drainage massage varying in cost from £0 to several £1000s.
Manual lymphatic drainage massage
Manual lymphatic drainage massage is a specialised technique; all methods are derived from the ‘Vodder’ method, a gentle, repetitive technique using circular movements aimed at ‘pumping’ the fluid towards the lymph nodes. It’s best left to a pro, but at home, body brushing is a simple and effective way to keep up the good work. It takes a minute or two to do your entire body before showering and is a brilliant habit to develop.
Body brushes can be found for under a tenner, but it’s best to choose one with firm, natural bristles: we like the Legology Lymph Lite Boom Brush for Body, £16.
Using long, light strokes (too much pressure means you won't affect the lymph which sits very near the surface), work your way up your legs towards the groin. Then brush from the lower trunk, back and hands towards your collarbones, and from the neck down to the collarbones: you have lymph nodes (drainage portals) in your inner elbows and knees, in your armpits and groin and behind your ears, but the largest are just under the collar bone. The whole thing should feel tingly, not scratchy, and should leave you feeling pleasantly invigorated.
If you don't like the scratchy feeling of a body brush, swap it for a Jade Body Comb, £43, which works using the same light strokes but feels smoother and has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It has the added bonus of being an oooh-making scalp (and pet!) massager too, helping stimulate healthy hair growth.
Hot and cold bathing
Inspired by the ancient bathhouses of China, this circulation-boosting ritual alternates between hot and cold water baths or c old water showers , which you can do in the shower or at the gym, or at one of the many banyas springing up around the country. We love The Banya London .
"Aim for between two and three alternations," says Katie Brindle. "It's a perfect treatment before bed which offers benefits including boosting metabolism, increasing anti depressant hormones and toxin elimination."
Best lymphatic drainage massage devices to try
The Body Ballancer, Lymphastim and other 'pressotherapy' machines are all versions of the same technology that mimics a manual lymphatic drainage massage via a space suit-type pair of trousers that comes up to just below your chest and is attached to a console. You simply lie down in it while its multiple air chambers consecutively inflate and deflate in a mechanical imitation of the ‘Vodder’ technique. It feels hypnotic and utterly relaxing, and the body emerges visibly ‘drained’ and feeling light.
Images: Instagram @bodyballancer & currentbody.com
These devices are increasingly offered in salons and clinics as an ‘add-on’ to face or body treatments (see below), but if you have a few thousand to spare (don’t we all?) you could snap up your own Body Ballancer 505 pressotherapy suit , £7,800. Or you could plump for ‘wireless’ Therabody Recovery Air Jet Boots , £800 - these only go up to the lymph nodes behind your knees but are very effective for puffy ankles and crampy calves.
Image: Instagram @endospheresofficial
Another lymphatic drainage-based professional treatment is Endospheres . It involves a machine with a handheld ‘roller’ comprising silicone spheres that exert ‘compressive micro-vibration, a sort of pounding massage action that works on the lymph, circulatory system and muscles all at once. First developed to treat lymphoedema in hospitals, it’s hardly gentle or comfortable, but a series of treatments (12 are advised, with body sessions costing between £90 and £120 depending on your location) will make heavy legs feel much lighter and shows visible results terms of excess fluid drainage, cellulite reduction and more sculpted limbs and tummies.
Keep on moving
“Anything done on a daily basis that elevates your heart rate or directs your lymph fluid towards its nodes and the heart, where it will go back inside the bloodstream before getting filtered and urinated out, is good for your lymph,” says Willcocks. “Think jumping up and down, bouncing while standing, stretching, slow, deep breathing and or doing inversions - lying on your back with your legs up against a wall is just a good as a handstand.”
Mini trampoline workouts are good should you have one to hand, at it's a powerful lymph drainer as well. And Dr Geary loves “a good old fashioned dog walk – it’s invigorating for the lymph, body and mind.”
Water works - drink around two litres per day
Water makes up 96 per cent of lymph fluid and needs constant replenishing to keep it clear and flowing readily. Morellato says the right amount of water to drink is 35ml for every kilo of body weight, which roughly comes down to a minimum of two litres a day.
Using a Gua Sha stone for a de-puffing facial lymphatic drainage massage is effective, but you need to get it right or you’ll do more harm than good. “Hold your stone almost flat as you glide it along the skin after applying plenty of oil (or a gentle cleansing milk if you have oily skin). Pulling the skin or making it go red is counter-productive,” says facialist and massage therapist Guendalina Gennari .
“Move the stone always from the centre of the face to behind the ears, then down to the collarbone, where the lymph nodes are.” Alternatively, she recommends this DIY manual massage: “starting from the collar bone, work towards the backs of the ears making little strokes with a flat hand (use your right hand to do the left side of the neck and vice versa),” she says. “Do the same from the centre of your chin, and from the nasolabial folds outwards. Then work from the inner eye corner out to the temples and from the centre of the forehead to the hairline. Repeat each movement five times.”
Where can you combine lymphatic drainage massage with other treatments?
A bit of dreamy lymphatic drainage is the hottest way to 'supersize' your salon or clinic treatment because it can be quite easily combined with almost anything. Here are some of the combos available for killing multiple birds with one stone.
For supercharged fat loss: lymphatic drainage + Emerald laser
Image: Aether Clinic
Emerald Laser is an entirely painless form of cold laser light that has been clinically proven (and FDA-approved) to emulsify fat in localised fat deposits as well as the so-called ‘visceral’ fat accumulating around the internal organs. After this fat leaks out of its cells, the lymph system has to transport it out of the body, which is why at Weybridge’s Light Touch Clinic , Emerald is combined with the Body Ballancer over a course of 10 sessions, costing a total of £3600.
For all-over detoxing and de-puffing: lymphatic drainage + Hydrafacial
The one-hour HydraPresso treatment at London’s Waterhouse Young Clinic , £350, involves a Hydrafacial, which decongests, exfoliates and plumps facial tissues, while you relax in a pressotherapy suit to drain the body of both excess fluids and stress.
For plumper, more radiant skin all over: lymphatic drainage + Byonik cold laser
The Byonik cold laser painlessly revs up skin cell metabolism and makes skin more receptive to active skincare ingredients, with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, collagen-boosting and hydrating results. At D.Thomas Clinic , you can combine a 45mn Byonik Complete face treatment, £195, with a £70 add-on of the Slimyonik Air Bodystyler pressotherapy pants to boost body skin as well. And if you prefer to team your Slimyonik session with a different laser treatment, that can be arranged as well.
For top-to-toe healing and wellness: lymphatic drainage + LED facial therapy
The Light Salon at London’s Selfridges and Hersheson’s Berners Street locations offers a 50-minute dose of its signature near-infrared calming, rejuvenating LED light for the face while simultaneously letting you enjoy the gentle squeezes of your Body Ballancer suit. Blissful and restorative, at £85.