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Learn the impact of Lyme on the lymphatic system and ways to promote drainage for clearer thinking and overall wellness.

Recently I was telling a friend about my integrative manual therapy appointment, which involves cranial sacral therapy, lymphatic drainage, and neurofascial processing. Unfamiliar with those terms, my friend looked at me with confusion. Trying to put the process into layman’s language, I said, “It’s like having my brain drained.” I tilted my head. “I think of it as opening a ‘spigot’ on the back of my head to let all the pressure and waste out.”

My friend nodded in understanding. We both felt clarity; my friend in comprehending my treatment, and me in my actual head. Lymphatic draining is a way to combat one of the most frustrating symptoms of Lyme disease: brain fog. In my post “Living with Lyme Brain,” I liken brain fog to a thick molasses filling your brain until it feels so full that you think it might explode. When I experience brain fog, the base of my skull literally swells. Internally, brain fog manifests as mental fatigue, confusion, word loss, delayed response time, sensory overload, and other neurological symptoms. My brain fog gets especially bad when my nervous system is overstimulated or when I’m sleep-deprived. Once I get a “brain drain,” my head feels lighter, and my thinking is clearer. I sleep better.

Why do our lymphatic systems get clogged, and what can be done about it?

What is the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is one of two circulatory systems in our bodies (the other being the cardiovascular system). According to the Cleveland Clinic, the lymphatic system is “a group of organs, vessels, and tissues that protect you from infection and keep a healthy balance of fluids throughout your body. Lymphatic system organs include your bone marrow, thymus, and lymph nodes.”[i] The lymphatic system helps detoxify your body by moving lymph fluid to the lymph nodes, where it removes waste like excess fluids, toxins and infection. When you have swollen lymph nodes—usually noticeable in your neck, armpits, and groin, among other areas—that’s a sign that your body is fighting infection.[ii]

How Does Lyme Impact the Lymphatic System?

When the body is fighting a serious infection like Lyme disease, it’s dealing with more waste than usual. Think about a Herxheimer reaction, when the Lyme bacteria dies off faster than you can eliminate them, leaving you with toxins that make you feel worse before better. It’s a similar problem in the lymphatic system. While working so hard to fight Lyme (and co-infections, if you have those, too), the lymphatic system can get backed up.

Another reason the lymphatic system can get clogged is that physical activity keeps lymph moving, but exercise can be difficult if not impossible when you’re battling tick-borne illness. At my worst, I was too sick to walk to the mailbox. I had that thick molasses feeling all over my body. Indeed, as noted in the article “Lymph Detox for Lyme Disease: How to Cleanse Your Lymphatic Drainage System,” congestion in the lymphatic system can cause body aches, joint pains and stiffness, fatigue and lethargy, puffiness or bloating, and, of course, Lyme brain.

In the brain, waste from infection or inflammation can cause the molasses feeling. The glymphatic system is made up of lymphatic vessels that eliminate toxins from the brain via cerebrospinal fluid.[iii] That system, too, can get backed up.

Though unlikely to happen as a result of Lyme disease, extreme buildup of lymph fluid can cause swelling known as lymphedema, usually in an arm or a leg. If that occurs, contact your doctor immediately.ii

How To Promote Lymphatic Drainage

There are many ways to support lymphatic drainage even when—or especially when—you’re very sick. The simplest is to move your body. Even if you’re bedridden, you can still do simple range of motion exercises like raising your arms or lifting your legs. My physical therapist used to have me circle my wrists and ankles and draw a yin yang sign with my big toe. As you start to feel better, you can work with a physical therapist (preferably a Lyme literate one) who can help you rebuild muscles and cardiovascular strength without pushing yourself to post-exertional malaise.

I was very lucky because the physical therapist I worked with did integrative manual therapy, so she employed gentle hands-on techniques to promote lymphatic drainage. At my sickest, I saw her twice a week. I now see an integrative manual therapist every other week, or more frequently if I’m feeling in desperate need of a “brain drain.” (For more on integrative manual therapy, see my post “Adjunct Therapies That Have Helped with my Tick-Borne Illnesses.”)

Be aware that lymphatic drainage done by a physical therapist may be covered by insurance, but hands-on therapies done by private practitioners usually is not. My practitioner has taught me hands-on techniques that I can do myself; talk to your doctor or practitioner about self-massage. You can find a Lymphology Certified Specialist through Lymphology Association of North America (LANA).

Many Lyme patients, myself included, feel a lower “molasses” load when they follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Drinking lots of water is important for detox; I also supplement with electrolyte-enhanced water. Certain supplements like turmeric may help with detox. Some patients find that saunas help (though I personally feel worse in extreme heat), and others say that dry brushing or foot soaks are useful. Because no two cases of Lyme disease are alike and there is no set protocol, only your Lyme Literate Medical Doctor (LLMD) can make recommendations on the best vitamins, herbs, or therapies to support your own lymphatic drainage.

When your lymphatic system is backed up, you feel awful. In remission for over a decade, I still get nervous when it happens to me now (because who can think clearly with a clogged brain?!). But after a “brain drain” and other support like proper hydration and rest, I always find myself flowing once again.

[i] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21199-lymphatic-system

[ii] https://rawlsmd.com/health-articles/lymph-detox-for-lyme-disease-how-to-cleanse-your-lymphatic-system

[iii] https://www.lymedisease.org/how-to-lift-brain-fog-and-boost-your-immune-system/


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The above material is provided for information purposes only. The material (a) is not nor should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor (b) does it necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of Global Lyme Alliance, Inc. or any of its directors, officers, advisors or volunteers. Advice on the testing, treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history. 

Jennifer Crystal


Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her work has appeared in local and national publications including Harvard Health Publishing and The Boston Globe. As a GLA columnist for over six years, her work on GLA.org has received mention in publications such as The New Yorker, weatherchannel.com, CQ Researcher, and ProHealth.com. Jennifer is a patient advocate who has dealt with chronic illness, including Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Her memoir, One Tick Stopped the Clock, is forthcoming from Legacy Book Press in September 2024. Ten percent of proceeds from the book will go to Global Lyme Alliance. Contact her via email below.

Email: lymewarriorjennifercrystal@gmail.com