In case you need a refresh, your lymphatic system is a network of “garbage collectors” that work 24/7 to suck up and remove waste products from every organ. For years, scientists were puzzled because the central nervous system (CNS) didn’t have a lymphatic structure. Which makes zero sense, because it is one of the most metabolically active organs and produces a LOT of waste!  

Cue the discovery of the glymphatic system — basically a dedicated lymphatic system for your brain and the central nervous system.

Every night, when you’re in deep sleep, your glial cells move in and wash the brain with cerebrospinal fluid, clearing it of any excess fluids, solutes, and metabolites.

But how does this all work? And how can you give your glymphatic system the BEST possible support so it can do its job?

Melatonin: the first way your brain detoxifies itself

Melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” is the key to your glymphatic system work properly. That’s because your glial cells (the cleanup crew) have a VERY specific shift — during the “N3” or deep sleep stage. 

This is a 20-40-minute period when your body basically shuts down (including your muscles) so it’s hard for you to wake up and disrupt the process. It’s like when your phone is going through a software update and you can’t use it for anything else.

It’s critical that you have enough melatonin to initiate this deep sleep cycle. Because it’s only during this stage that your body can facilitate the exchange of cerebrospinal fluid from the brain parenchyma (tissue that’s made up of neurons and glial cells). 

If this doesn’t happen, “gunk” will build up in your parenchyma and damage it…which can impair your cognition and accelerate neurodegenerative diseases. (Part of the gunk your brain needs to clear out is amyloid-β, a protein that can cause Alzheimer’s if too much builds up between your neurons.)

So should I take a melatonin supplement?

The short answer? No.

As an herbalist, I don’t believe in taking melatonin exogenously (i.e., as a supplement). Supplementing melatonin is a short-term “band-aid” approach that doesn’t tackle the root cause of why you may be lacking melatonin and having a hard time sleeping. 

That’s not to say that melatonin doesn’t work — it does!! — but you’re basically training your body to make less of its own and become dependent on a supplement. Which isn’t ideal. Like, at all.

The only time I’d suggest taking melatonin is if you’re doing an integrative cancer protocol to support P53, your innate tumor suppressor gene. Melatonin actually turns on this gene and makes apoptosis possible (i.e., your body’s ability to kill off cancer cells).

So how do I restore my body’s production of melatonin?

Melatonin is only released in the ABSENCE of blue and green light. It has a seesaw response to morning sunlight’s production of serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin. 

In other words:

  • Steer clear of blue light sources (screens) before bed, because this totally confuses your body.
  • Get morning sunlight after waking up so your body produces serotonin! This sets you up for melatonin abundance at night.

You can also try the following:

  • Take a multi-B/B6/folate supplement in the morning (to boost serotonin)
  • Take zinc and magnesium to increase the formation of melatonin from serotonin
  • Drink tart cherry juice before bed
  • Eat enough carbs before bed (but not right before bed)
  • Deep belly breathing exercises before bed (which are also excellent for your cerebrospinal fluid and general lymph health)

Jaw movements: the second way your brain detoxifies itself

Melatonin is key, but moving your jaw actually helps your brain detoxify itself as well.

You do plenty of this throughout the day while you eat and talk. The movement puts muscular pressure on your skull, gently squeezing it in a pumping action that helps wiggle and move the waste that builds up in your brain so it can be carried out.

This is also one surprising reason you might be grinding your teeth. Not kidding. 

When you’re not getting enough sleep or getting bad sleep as a result of melatonin deficiency, waste starts to build up in your brain and your body does a manual override and triggers teeth grinding (i.e., jaw movements) to activate glymphatic detoxification and squeeze out all the waste and toxic byproducts!

So if you’re a grinder or clencher, it’s even more important to try one of the tips above to reset your body’s production and get that melatonin flowing.

Bring on the herbs!

Even though your glymphatic system is a separate thing from your lymphatic system, they still connect to each other, the way a river might connect to the broader ocean.

Basically, it’s a relay race where your glymphatic system passes on waste to the lymphatic system to clear out as part of its routine expulsion. What this means is that keeping your lymphatic system healthy is just as important as keeping your glymphatic system healthy.

Yes, you can absolutely do this with acupuncture, gua sha, and dry brushing. But herbs are also a powerful way to keep things moving.

The best herbs for lymphatic health (ranked in order of gentleness)

  1. Cleavers (gentle). This plant grows in spring for a reason — it was one of the first tonic herbs to pop up so we could give our bodies a little push to clear waste after a long winter. Cleavers can be used in their fresh or dried form, using hot or cold water. I like to steep a handful of chopped fresh cleavers overnight and then sip it throughout the next day. You can also blend cleavers with water and berries to make a refreshing drink (if that’s your jam).
  2. Burdock (gentle). Burdock has gentle diuretic properties, which can help promote the flow of lymphatic fluid through the body. (So don’t take it if you’re really dehydrated!) In addition to anti-inflammatory properties, it also contains inulin, flavonoids, and polyphenols, which can give your immune system a leg up and help you fight off infections.
  3. Red clover (gentle). Like burdock, red clover is a gentle and beautiful lymphatic cleanser. It’s rich in isoflavones and flavonoids that are anti-inflammatory and can decongest your lymphs, and help cleanse the liver (your body’s main detoxifying organ).
  4. Calendula (gentle). As lymphatic tonics go, calendula is a gentle mover that helps to promote the healthy circulation of your body’s innate immune cells. While you’re feeling under the weather, it’s important to keep your immune cells — such as your body’s “natural killer” cells — moving all throughout the body so they can protect you from pathogens. The herb is also super easy to use and does such an incredible job doing that final spot-checking of your lymphatic system — i.e., when you’re in that final “recovery” stage. So try throwing a handful of dried flowers into your chicken soup towards the end of a seasonal bug and let them infuse for 20-30 minutes before straining and removing. 
  5. Prickly ash (medium-strong). Prickly ash is an incredible herb for circulation. It ignites your digestive fire so you can absorb nutrients better, then gets your blood out of “stuckness” and improves blood flow by warming you up from the inside — allowing your blood to deliver these nutrients to your tissues/skin/etc. Definitely take this if your hands and feet are always freezing.
  6. Red root (medium-strong). This powerful anti-inflammatory root stimulates lymph and interstitial fluid circulation. It prevents blood that is high in fat from clumping and makes sure your stomach and intestines are working smoothly. Like prickly ash, it also improves your body’s absorption of nutrients. It also counters “dampness” — i.e., congestion, mono, mucus formation, strep infections, and anything related to these. I love combining red root with other lymphatics, as well as herbs specific to whatever illness you’re trying to heal.
  7. Figwort (strong). This herbaceous plant is a little gentler and easier to work with than poke, but it’s still POTENT. It has a salty, bitter, and sweet flavor, but has the potential (as an anti-inflammatory) to dissolve growths in your lymphatic system that might be causing blockages. It can also get your lymphatic system flowing and help with drainage. Use pretty much a drop at a time and as part of a toolkit that involves gentler herbs.
  8. Poke (emergency strong). Poke should only be used occasionally, and as a last resort for some MAJOR lymphatic cleansing. Don’t take more than a drop or two — but when you do, you’ll feel a refreshing release of muck and build-up in your lymphatic system.
  9. Dandelion oils (bonus). Using dandelion flower oil regularly can do WONDERS for relaxing the tissues in your breast and promoting healthy lymph flow in the area. It’s a miracle worker at boosting your immune system + your sense of self-worth. The process of massaging it in is also soothing and therapeutic, and combined with the oil can break up cysts and blockage.

If you want to go even deeper on the life changing lymphatic system my podcast episode HERE covers all this and more. 

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *