You had a sleepless night, an extra-salty meal, a stressful week at work, and perhaps even a few days of PMS. Now it’s all on display for everyone to see— cue the puffy face, dark circles and lackluster skin. Our bodies are constantly detoxifying, but even the strongest constitutions get overburdened at times—and the results aren’t pretty. The secret to keeping your body’s natural detox processes humming along (and ensuring that your body and skin look their absolute best) means boosting the lymph flow. Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), is a lymph-stimulating treatment known for its gentle massage strokes—and dramatic results. Try it and get ready to love the fresh face that greets you in the morning.
Lymph is somewhat of a mystery for most of us; this fluidlike substance is made up of water, protein and white blood cells and flows just below the skin, collecting toxins that get eliminated when we sweat or urinate. When lymph flow becomes sluggish (the result of stress, inflammation, poor diet, lack of exercise or surgery), toxins hang around in the body longer. You may see puffiness, dull skin, dark circles, or water retention, or feel tenderness and swelling around your lymph nodes. Restore healthy lymph flow and you’ll rev up your internal detox.
While only a few scientific studies analyze MLD as a beautifying technique, the results of the treatment often speak for themselves: improved tone, reduced puffiness and a boost in circulation that brings a glow to the skin. “You feel like the skin is breathing better and all the inflammation is gone,” says Andrea DeSimone, a Manhattan-based esthetician known for her lymphatic drainage facials. “I don’t know anyone who couldn't benefit from this type of massage.”
Manual lymphatic drainage is a technique frequently used by celebrities before red carpet events as it delivers toned, radiant skin, without the risk of redness and breakouts that often accompany a facial. “Most people say that their skin looks its best the day after a lymphatic drainage facial,” says DeSimone. And there appear to be head to toe benefits: A recent study published in Dermatology Research and Practice, found lymphatic system stimulation helped reduce the appearance of cellulite after a series of treatments.
MLD is also beneficial for stress reduction, thanks to its soft, rhythmic strokes. Falling asleep during a treatment is not uncommon. “Lymphatic massage is extremely gentle and light. The lymphatic vessels are just below the skin, not deep within the muscle, so the work is very superficial,” says Stephanie Dessi Kiley, a Manhattan-based occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist. Stimulating lymph flow also eases the parasympathetic nervous system, helping the body handle stress.
So would a run-of-the-mill deep tissue massage produce the same results? Not really. MLD works smarter, not harder. It’s not the intensity of the massage strokes that boost lymph flow, it's the positioning over the body’s key lymph nodes. Estheticians who use lymphatic drainage massage for facial treatments focus on the lymph nodes behind the ears, the sides of the neck and just above the collarbone.
DeSimone starts her MLD facial treatment by gently pumping on the nodes located above the collarbone, which are lymph drainage points. From there, she focuses on moving the lymph flow around the face, and outward along the jawbone to the nodes behind the ears, and down the sides of the neck to the collarbone. “I try to move lymph toward the clavicle area so that it’s eliminated from the face, neck and shoulders,” says DeSimone. “The movements should feel as light as butterfly wings, or waves.” Massage therapist Alexandra Efaciou of Green Star Wellness in New York City uses a combination of dry brushing, manual massage and a vibrational energy machine called the Lymphstar Pro during her MLD treatments, which she says results in an overall feeling of relaxation and improved energy. Other therapists may use the Dr. Hauschka method, which involves the use of soft mink brushes, or the Vodder method, which employs light touch carried out in a particular sequence.
Because the benefits of MLD are cumulative, Efaciou recommends splurging on a series of treatments every one to two months to see the best results. It’s also important to follow up at home by drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise (rebounding on a mini trampoline is a popular lymph stimulating exercise) and eating unprocessed foods. Alcohol, dairy and caffeine, says Efaciou, are lymph-slowing offenders.
Or consider practicing an at-home version of MLD when you cleanse or moisturize. Lightly sweep your hands along the jawline, behind the ear and down the sides of the neck, toward the collarbone, and gently massage the lymph nodes under the armpits and above the collarbone. “You should always be pushing the [lymph] fluid toward the heart and the center of the body,” says Kiley.
Not surprisingly, the benefits to healthy lymph flow extend well beyond the aesthetic. Adherents notice a decrease in allergies, asthma, arthritis and other chronic pain conditions, as well as improved digestion, sleep and immunity. MLD has been used with great effectiveness on those with compromised lymphatic systems, including cancer patients, and to treat lymphedema and swelling in the body. Whether in a skin-brightening facial or a deeply therapeutic massage, MLD is a testament to the very real power of touch.
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