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!
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. Cells that 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 know nothing 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 throughout your being. While you’ve probably 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 all 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 be the death of 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, it is your lymphatic system that presents the invader to your immune system. This begins the antibody cascade that results in you overcoming the virus.
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. Meaning that cellular debris and information moves easily from the tissue into a lymph node. It’s really a stellar design. This allows nearly any area of your body the ability to expose contaminants to lymph nodes. This is ideal as your lymph nodes contain a lot of your immune system cells (T cells & B cells).
If a particular area of your body gets infected or injured, those infected or injured cells make their way into a nearby lymph node which then presents the infection/damage to your immune system cells. Your immune system creates many copies of T or B cells and sends them back to the damaged or infected tissue. Just like that, you start healing from an infection or repairing the damaged tissue. (1)
This system is entirely dependent on the flow of lymph fluid from your tissues and into the nearby lymph nodes.
Are you starting to see why your lymphatic system is so important?
Now, this whole process of presenting infected or damaged cells from tissue to your lymph nodes get greatly affected by inflammation. The more inflammation, the slower your lymph flows. (2) While this sounds negative, this can actually be protective!
If you’re dealing with a viral infection, then this whole slowing of lymph flow via inflammation is not ideal. Less infected cells make it to your immune system. Thus, your immune response is diminished. Which means you stay sick for longer. (3)
But in the case of autoimmune disease, this is an incredibly beneficial effect. A decreased lymph flow means your immune system is exposed to fewer of your own self-cells. If too many self-cells get presented to your immune system cells, you can trigger an autoimmune reaction…
What happens when your immune system loses control?
Ok, now that you know a little more about your lymphatic system, let’s discuss situations where stimulating lymph can be dangerous. The most important condition being autoimmune conditions.
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 self-cells for invading viruses or bacteria.
When your adaptive immune system encounters an invading microbe, it makes an antigen. Think of antigens like cookbooks that contain the recipe for how to kill a specific microbe. Sometimes antigens can get 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, these 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 a self-tissue. 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 self from not-self. As you’ll soon learn, 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. Check out this post for how to properly identify if your thyroid illness is actually an undiagnosed 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.
In autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, you want to decrease the rate of lymph flow.
That swelling you feel in your lymph nodes – that’s so common in thyroid illness – that is a protective mechanism. You don’t want to employ strategies 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 not to guess on this one. 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 indeed be beneficial. But if you’re dealing with an autoimmune thyroid condition – or, any other autoimmune condition – 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 via dry skin brushing, you risk exposing more self-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, brother, sister) to see if they have an autoimmune diagnosis.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease but a member of your family has, I’d recommend holding off on the lymphatic drainage. Remember, autoimmunity occurs by exposing your immune system to a lot of self-cells.
Lymphatic drainage will expose more self-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 causing aggravation to 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.