Lymphedema is a condition that relates to the movement and drainage of lymph fluid through the body. While the symptom of lymphedema, excessive swelling, tends to affect a particular limb, this condition really involves multiple body systems, including the gut. This is because the lymphatic system encompasses the entire body, working with circulation to remove waste and excess fluid from various tissues. Observing these functions, it doesn’t hurt to ask about the relationship between diet and lymphedema symptoms. Could a specific diet help reduce unnecessary swelling? We’ll discuss this here.
Within the small intestine are two networks of lymphatic vessels. One of these networks removes fluid, while the other transforms digested dietary fats into a milky substance called chyle. Chyle travels through the lymphatic system from the small intestine to the central lymphatic vessels and back into the circulatory system via the left subclavian vein. What has been learned through studies is that the efficiency with which chyle is cleared correlates to the health of the lymphatic vessels. Without adequate elimination of chyle, the immune system and the body’s nutrient absorption can suffer. Without sufficient clearing of chyle, a person faces lymphatic overload. For the person with lymphedema, this looks like a double-edged sword. Having lymphedema may make it more difficult to clear chyle fluid from the small intestine, and not clearing this fluid might make it more difficult to manage lymphedema symptoms. Is diet the answer?
The Breakdown of Digestive Fat
When we consume different fats, the body breaks them down into short-, medium-, and long-chain fatty acids. Short and medium-chain fatty acids do not get broken down into chyle, only long-chain fatty acids do. This may be an important detail when choosing which foods to eat. If a person consumes an excessive amount of long-chain fatty acids, the amount of chyle produced in the small intestine may double. This increase can amount to an extra half-gallon of fluid that the lymphatic system must process.
Knowing this difference in the breakdown of short-, medium-, and long-chain fatty acids, a person with lymphedema can develop dietary habits to reduce the stress on their lymphatic system. We cannot say that lymphedema management is as simple as reducing the intake of long-chain fatty acids, but some dietary modifications can’t hurt.
Examples of medium-chain fatty acids include ghee, goat cheese, coconut oil, and sheep milk cheese. MCT oil is a highly concentrated source of medium-chain triglycerides.
Examples of long-chain fatty acids (to avoid) include most animal fats and oils including safflower, macadamia, canola, and olive oil. Stearic acid and palm oil are also examples of long-chain fatty acids. These are often ingredients in processed foods, so check those labels.
Ultimately, studies do not support dietary changes as the primary way to manage lymphedema. In many cases, patients need diet and lifestyle modifications along with decompression therapies. As an alternative, patients may explore medical interventions for lymphedema. Dr. Ketan Patel is a board-certified specialist with a practice focus on complex reconstructive surgery, microsurgery, and peripheral nerve surgery. He performs precise procedures that help lymphedema patients engage in their normal day-to-day activities.
Learn more about lymphedema surgery. Contact our office at Keck Medicine of USC for an appointment in Los Angeles or Glendale. Call 323-442-7920 today.