Your lymphatic system is a network of vessels, glands and lymph fluid and is a critical part of immunity, the transport of hormones and other bioactive molecules, and detox (think “vacuum cleaner”). Herbalists have traditionally turned to “lymphatic herbs” to assist the body during cold and flu, skin issues, hormonal imbalances, and other issues.
Here, we turn our gaze toward essential oils used by aromatherapists for lymph support. These are oils that, when diluted and used topically, may be helpful for encouraging lymphatic system function, especially in conjunction with physical therapies such as massage and dry brushing.
The following are a handful of lovely-smelling essential oils that aromatherapists often turn to when working on the lymph system.
Grapefruit is an uplifting oil that is frequently used together with physical therapies to help with the appearance of cellulite. Cellulite is thought to result from protrusions of fat through weakened connective tissue, resulting in the characteristic bumpy or dimpled appearance of the overlaying skin. Fluid accumulation from diminished capillary health may be one of the many contributing factors. There hasn’t been much progress in actually getting rid of cellulite, but supporting circulation of excess fluids out of the area may temporarily help with appearance. This is what aromatherapists think that grapefruit is facilitating; and, traditionally-speaking, grapefruit and other citrus oils are used to overcome stagnation in various parts of the body by promoting circulation. Note that citrus oils that are oxidized (either old or improperly stored) may irritate the skin and some have the potential to cause burning or skin discoloration if the skin is exposed to UV light after oil application.
Juniper & Patchouli
Juniper and Patchouli are traditionally used for “congested” conditions. They’re commonly used by aromatherapists for fluid retention and support with cellulite. Be sure not to confuse juniper essential oil (typically Juniperus communis) with Virginia Cedar oil (Juniperus virginiana). Though in the same genus, Juniperus, Virginia cedar oil has different chemistry than juniper oil. And they smell good mixed with grapefruit! Go easy on the patchouli…it’s very strong smelling and can easily overwhelm the other oils.
Rosemary, Cypress & Bay Laurel
Rosemary and Cypress are common ingredients in “cellulite creams.” Along with Bay Laurel, they’re well known “moving” oils used for supporting circulation. All, either individually or together, may provide some relief with swollen glands (lymph nodes). Lymph nodes may become swollen when the immune system is fighting a viral or bacterial infection.
The use of aromatherapy for lymphatic system support is largely based on tradition and practitioner experience. I’ve not seen much research science on how essential oils act on the lymph system, mechanistically-speaking. But research has shown that various oils may, for instance, reduce inflammation. Rosemary is an example. This may be relevant to the effects on swollen glands that practitioners have observed. And, multiple studies have looked at how essential oils and their components influence the health and function of endothelial cells, which line our blood and lymph vessels as well as that of the smooth muscle surrounding blood and lymph vessels. This may be in line with the use of certain oils to promote lymph gland drainage and lymph flow.
Keville, K & M Green (2009) Aromatherapy - A compete guide to the healing art, 2nd Ed. Crossing Press, Berkeley, CA.
Worwook, VA (1991) The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy. New World Library, San Rafael, CA.
Schnaubelt, K (1998) Advanced Aromatherapy - The science of essential oil therapy. Healing with essential oils. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT.