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  • John Hance, Herbalist

Healthy Skin for a Healthy Body

There is a subject that is far too often overlooked, ignored, or possibly just forgotten that is absolutely critical to your overall health. The Integumentary System.

The integumentary system is the largest organ in the human body. It is comprised of your hair, skin, and nails. It helps the body retain necessary moisture and protects the body from damage from contact with this rough world we live in. What most people don't know is that it is also one of the ways the body excretes waste and toxins.

In the layer of skin called the dermis (which is just under the epidermis - the part you can see) are nerves, capillaries, sweat glands and ducts, hair follicles, oil ducts (for the hairs), and tiny lymph vessels (or ducts).

The lymph ducts and sweat glands are the skin's eliminatory organs, though they're not directly linked. The sweat glands excrete toxins derived from the blood via small capillaries. The lymph ducts pick up toxins found in the dermis as well as lymph from the interstitial fluids (fluids found around the cells of the body). Lymph is created in the interstices of all the tissues of the body, so its composition is always different, but essentially it contains concentrated lymphocytes, proteins, fat-soluble vitamins, and toxins like bacteria, etc. These toxins are carried by the lymph ducts to lymphatic organs like the lymph nodes and the spleen (which is the largest lymphatic organ in the body). In the nodes, etc., the toxins are attacked and destroyed by white blood cells (a.k.a lymphocytes) which are concentrated in these organs. There are between 600 and 700 of these nodes throughout the body (see illustration below), and when infected they swell and can become tender (several in the throat, arm pits, and groin can often be felt through the skin during this time). The lymph continues through the ducts upward toward the left and right subclavian veins where it is introduced back into the bloodstream.

Here's an illustration of the distribution of lymph nodes in the body, borrowed from visible body (an excellent online biology resource):

Now, why did I take all that space and time to discuss the lymphatic and integumetary systems? Simple. Elimination of toxins! If you get sick, your body has natural processes of eliminating those toxins and foreign bodies from the system. The symptoms you experience while you're sick are the AFTER EFFECTS of these processes. Treating the symptoms isn't helping cure the illness, though it sometimes makes you FEEL better, and that's fine. But doesn't it make more sense to support the body's natural defenses? Doing this allows us to actually GET better sooner. One of the ways to do this - perhaps the best way in many cases! - is to support the lymphatic system.

The Lymphatic System has long been underestimated for its direct, immediate impact on overall health. Flushing out the toxins that are making you sick will very, very quickly make you ...well, no longer sick! There are several herbs which have an effect on the lymphatic system, but none of them is more highly regarded than Cleavers (Galium aperine, in the Latin). Cleavers has a long-standing use as a blood purifier, going back many centuries...even as far back as Roman times. In fact, the third century Roman physician, Claudius Galen, stated that Cleavers, "makes fat folk lean." This is probably a reference to Cleavers' ability to remove undigested fat from the body and eliminate it via natural processes, though to my knowledge there isn't any significant modern research to support this claim. I might be wrong on that.