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 lymphatic drainage for thyroid (and 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!
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!
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
- Multiple Sclerosis
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)
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.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of practitioners do not test their patients for Hashimoto’s disease. Therefore, you may have an undiagnosed autoimmune disease ongoing for years and years. Read more about how to properly identify if your thyroid illness is actually an undiagnosed autoimmune 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.