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Managing Lymphedema with Nutrition

Lymphedema is a condition in which protein rich fluid accumulates in the tissues.  It affects approximately 1 in 1000 Americans.  And although there is currently no cure, managing lymphedema with nutrition.

n is an importance piece of your lymphedema management strategy.

What is Lymphedema

Lymphedema happens when the lymphatic system, which normally removes the fluid from the tissues, is not working properly.  Interference with lymph fluid removal occurs when there is damage or scarring from surgeries, cancer treatment, or traumatic injuries. This is called secondary lymphedema.  Or it can be the result of a lymph system that never formed properly – primary lymphedema. Often, people with primary lymphedema have minimal symptoms until hormonal changes like puberty and pregnancy cause the condition to advance.

Foods to Avoid with Lymphedema

Whatever it’s cause, lymphedema is easily affected by what we eat.  Foods to avoid when managing lymphedema with nutrition include refined sugars, refined grains, and excess salt changes the way our body regulates fluids.  Sugar has no nutritional value, can cause weight gain, and increase your risk of developing diabetes. Refined grains have had the fiber and nutrition stripped from them, so they too are of no nutritional value. They can increase your risk of obesity, cause spikes in your blood sugar leading to diabetes, and cause inflammation in your body that may lead to further swelling. Salt is important for our body to function. Normal salt consumption helps replenish the electrolytes lost through sweat, helps with blood pressure regulation, and helps with muscle function. The consumption of excess salt though can have negative effects. It can cause fluid retention which will increase your swelling, lead to kidney diseases and increase swelling, increase inflammation in the body, and lead to heart disease.

Foods to Limit with Lymphedema

Food choices to limit when managing lymphedema with nutrition include trans-fats, saturated fats, and alcohol. Trans-fats and saturated fats can lead to weight gain, obesity, and even an inflammatory response in the body that may cause more swelling. These fats are found in foods such as dairy products, cakes, cookies, microwave popcorn, fast food items, fatty cuts of meat, and poultry skin. Alcohol can be a problem because it is a diuretic which means it will cause you to urinate more frequently. This can then lead to dehydration, which causes your body to hold onto extra fluid causing swelling. Alcohol may also lead to weight gain and obesity. At moderate levels, alcohol may also contribute to widening of the blood vessels causing fluid to enter the tissue and cause an increase in swelling.

Blood Sugar and Lymphedema

Another factor to consider when dealing with lymphedema is maintaining a steady and normal blood sugar. It is important to choose foods with a low glycemic index to maintain stable blood sugar levels.  Stable blood sugar levels are important for the integrity of our lymphatic vessels. When our vessels are weak, they leak more fluid into the tissues.  This not only causes more swelling, but also increases the chances of developing infections and wounds. People with diabetes are at greater risk of developing wounds.  They also have more serious infections and take longer to heal. 

Obesity and Lymphedema

Many who deal with lymphedema, also deal with obesity. Obesity causes increased pressure on the lymphatic system and lymph nodes.  This, in turn, causes a back up of fluid in the system and increased swelling in the tissues. Following a healthy, nutritious diet will assist in weight loss, thereby releasing pressure off the lymphatic system and helping to reduce the swelling in the tissues. It is important to note that the swelling in the tissue is fluid and not adipose tissue. This means that the weight loss will not cure lymphedema, but it will help reduce the symptoms of it.

Managing Lymphedema with Nutrition

Now for the good news.  There are good foods that will help with managing lymphedema.  In particular, a diet with lean proteins, good fats (monosaturated and polysaturated), fruits and vegetables will give your body the nutrition it needs to function at its best.  Lymph is protein rich fluid, but those proteins are different than the lean protein foods that are beneficial in your diet. Lean proteins are the building blocks our bodies need to function and become stronger. Consuming lean proteins may help you reduce and maintain a healthy weight. These proteins are also essential for the healing process, which may be needed if there are wounds associated with your lymphedema.

Monosaturated and polysaturated fats are known as “healthy fats.” These types of foods can help with weight loss, reduction of inflammation, and help the body function normally. You can find these fats in foods such as olive oil, nuts, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon. Whole fruits and vegetables are great to add to your diet. They contain vitamins and minerals that are essential for our body to function, heal and fight infections which are very easy to get when you have lymphedema. Options may include apples, oranges, berries, grapes, carrots, beans, broccoli, peppers, and green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.

The Importance of Hydration

Hydration is also very important when you have lymphedema. It is best to avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks because they cause dehydration, blood sugar changes, and weight gain. Alcohol is not a great option because it has the opposite affect and causes dehydration.  Even diet drinks are not good because of dehydration.  Water is the best source of hydration.  And drinking plenty of it is important to help your lymphatic system function better. Green tea is also a great option due to the antioxidants. The liquid you may get from different foods will also help with hydration. A great rule of thumb is to consume 64 ounces or 8 cups of fluid a day.

Changing for the Better

Even though it may be difficult at first, altering your diet to include whole foods, good fats, and water is important when managing your lymphedema with nutrition. These changes will help your swelling reduce, give you more energy, and allow you to take back what lymphedema had taken from you in the beginning. And once you make good nutrition a habit, you will find it become easy and enjoyable.  But don’t try to make changes all at once. Take one step at a time, and as you begin to feel better the rest will follow

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