On Beauty with Lisa Levitt Gainsley
Welcome to ON BEAUTY, a monthly feature highlighting creative, like-minded people who inspire us.
Meet Lisa Levitt Gainsley, an LA-based, celebrity-endorsed, Certified Lymphedema Therapist and Manual Lymphatic Drainage practitioner (she’s also an author, educator, and speaker.) One moment in Lisa’s presence and you know you’re in good hands. She exudes a nurturing warmth and a deep sense of calm that instantly takes the edge off. Having devoted the last 25 years to this specific form of healing, Lisa’s knowledge of the lymphatic system is vast. Her first book, The Book of Lymph—AKA The Book of Julie Elliott's Dreams—democratizes this understudied, wildly effective mode of self-healing, care, and preservation by offering a deep dive into the science of lymph, supported by a range of targeted therapies that you can easily perform on yourself.
We’ve always believed that this remarkable system holds so much healing power, which is why we often formulate with ingredients known to enhance lymph flow. (Firmante is one of Lisa’s go-to products when performing a leg sequence.) From maintaining a healthy immune system to relieving sinus pressure, bloating, PMS symptoms, a hangover, poor digestion, or even addressing mental and emotional wellness, The Book of Lymph has tools to support you. We couldn’t be more delighted to delve into Lisa’s masterful wealth of knowledge and share her expertise with you.
I'm on a mission to get doctors, when they talk about the immune system, to use the word lymph. It's not a bad word!
Will you please start a quick overview of the lymphatic system?
Your lymphatic system is part of your immune system. It's often referred to as the highway of your immune system or the great recycling system of your body. Your immune cells are born in your lymphoid organs, such as the bone marrow, and they migrate to other lymphoid organs, such as the thymus and the spleen, which is where your B cells and your T cells are matured. Your tonsils, your Peyer’s patch, the mucous lining, the respiratory lining, your gut, the GALT (gut-associated lymphoid tissue), they are all lymphoid organs, which is where a lot of bacteria reside, and the job of your lymph system and your immune system is to defend against disease and pathogens.
And how does your lymph system perform that big job?
Your blood vessels bring nutrients to your cells—some of the dead runoff that the bloodstream can't pick up again hangs out in the interstitial fluid space in between your cells. That's where the lymph system comes in, and it absorbs that waste which also contains bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, immune cells…it kind of hitches a ride in the lymph system. It transports it to areas in your body where you have lymph nodes, the majority of which are in the neck, the armpit, the abdomen, top of the thigh, behind the elbow, and knees. That's where your immune cells do their work of purifying the bacteria, viruses, toxins, and pathogens. It leaves the lymph nodes, goes through a whole network of nodes and ducts, and then it goes back to your bloodstream when it's clean for recirculation.
So it regulates your fluid balance of your body, and we know that the fluid balance, chronic inflammation, is at the root of most chronic diseases. It absorbs excess fat in the gut and brings it back to the heart for fuel. And it's your first line of defense against food-borne illness in your gut. So it's really important. It's part of your immune system—it takes care of you every day. I say this in every interview: I'm on a mission to get doctors, when they talk about the immune system, to use the word lymph. It's not a bad word!
Why do you think they won’t use the word?
It's funny, I've talked to so many doctors and oncologists and surgeons and they say a few things. One, traditionally in medical school, it's only got 15 pages in their textbook. I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that it was so hard to see. One of my friends who's a surgeon was saying that when they used to dissect cadavers—you don't see it. Now we have the tools to see it. I think that, typically, science and medicine want to use terms that have been proven and it took a while to show the power of the lymph. It was 2012 when researchers and scientists discovered that we have lymph vessels in the brain. The lymph vessels in the brain work with a combination of endothelial cells and the cerebral spinal fluid to remove the amyloid plaque that is known to be part of the neurodegenerative disease path of MS, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.
I was at a conference in 2019 and the directors of the National Institute of Health said, we will unlock the cure to these neurodegenerative diseases probably from studying lymph system. It's under-researched.
Why is it that we have to physically move our lymph?
Essentially, your lymph system runs like rivers through every system of your body: the reproductive system, the respiratory system, the brain system, the gut. It doesn't have a central pump to move it the way your heart pumps your blood. And it’s slow—I like to call it seaweed, the way it undulates in the ocean. So it's easy to have a lot of toxins get overloaded and congested in the body hanging out in the tissue space.
It depends on external musculoskeletal movement, breathwork, and lymph massage to increase the movement of the lymph propulsion—clear it out. Yes, it works on its own, but you can really increase your lymph circulation through exercise and movement and deep breathing and lymphatic massage.
We want to think that our emotions are over here and our work is over there, but that’s just not who we are as human beings. We have an emotional body and a physical body and a spiritual body—it's all connected.
How did you come to specialize in the lymphatic system?
My journey began when I was 11 years old. My mom was diagnosed with cancer, and in the late '70s, even though we have this vision of things being hippie-dippie, health and diet weren’t really talked about. My mom heard about a hitchhiker who cured herself of cancer and wrote a book and talked about macrobiotic cooking, so she developed a macrobiotic diet. And we had a family friend who taught us meditation and guided imagery for healing.
She did chemo and radiation and surgery—we flew to Texas and went to MD Anderson—did the whole western thing but we also adopted these other complementary practices. I would lie with her and put my hands on her body and meditate and visualize the cancer cells leaving. My dad was a lawyer; he would put his hands on her forehead to cure a headache. We were not hippies at all. She did die when I was 13, but I think that experience made me look at life, understanding at such a young age how finite life is.
And I wanted to avoid her path. I'm not trying to tell you that I live a perfect healthy life. It was like how can I enjoy my life and integrate other modalities of healing? I read about Buddhism, Hinduism, reincarnation, and after college I went to massage school in Marin County. In my courses to become a massage therapist, one of the prerequisites was lymphatic massage. I was lucky and my teacher was brilliant and had studied with all the great teachers. It helped my bloating and my digestive issues, and it helped my acne. I loved it more than I loved the deep tissue and the neuro-muscular that everyone else loved. This was like a moving meditation, and I just felt so good in my body. And doing it is like a meditation. She was telling us all the benefits and one day she said, "This work is really beneficial for cancer patients." I guess, that's what I'm going to do with my life! So I went on and got certified and worked at UCLA Medical Center. For twenty years I've worked primarily with cancer patients.
I see lymphatic massage offered fairly often. How do you know if it’s legit?
It's hard to find a qualified lymphatic therapist. They're not everywhere and they're not always well trained, especially nowadays. It's either in a clinical hospital setting and somebody has had cancer and it's covered by insurance, or now it's doing it for an Instagram before and after photo. I don't do that. It's just not my jam. My love is the immune-boosting benefit.
I usually say if you have a real health issue, find a certified lymphedema therapist. If you've gone through cancer, if you have autoimmune issues, if you have any health issues, find a specialist because I really want somebody to take a look at what's going on. I talked a lot in the book about what you can do at home if you have sinus pressure, headaches, earaches, hangovers, PMS…there are sequences for all kinds of things, but if you're experiencing a more serious health condition, find somebody to work with. (In the book I have a resource on how to do that.)
I've been doing self-massage because I don't have somebody that I love to go see, and it's expensive. I'm all about equality. It should be for everybody. You can have the tools to access your own health. I work on myself all the time, so that was the impetus of the book—to give people tools to work on themselves.
Obviously, the last year has been crazy sedentary, but in general our lifestyle can be physically stagnant. How does that affect lymph health?
I think chronic illness is so much more problematic—I mean there's obviously a great deal of the population who are in the labor force, but we’re not outside doing work where we're moving our bodies. A lot of the lymph nodes are in the hinges of our bodies: the neck, the armpit, the waist, the inguinal nodes, elbows and knees, which are designed to get musculoskeletal movement reaching for things, turning our head, walking. So, if we’re on Zoom all day…
Yep. So, what is it lymphedema, and how do you know if you have it?
If someone's had breast cancer, that’s a good example, they remove lymph nodes under the armpit and they don't grow back. (There’s also prostate or ovarian or other kinds of cancer where they remove lymph nodes.) So, for the rest of their life, they're at risk of getting lymphedema. There's no cure at the moment. It's a constant swelling of lymph. Some people are born with an underdeveloped or mis-developed lymph system. That is often congenital, it's hereditary, and it doesn't necessarily go away no matter how much you exercise or diet because it's a problem in the lymph pathways.
If somebody came to you and didn't have lymphedema but was having health issues, are you able to tell what the problem is?
I can because I've been doing this a long time—28 years. I can tell when I feel a tissue quality change.
Are there any success stories that stand out in your mind?
There are so many. I have a client who has what's called primary lymphedema. She was born with an underdeveloped lymph system, so she has thick ankles, and her legs always swell when she flies. She wears compression socks, but they still swell. I taught a lymphatic self-massage workshop, she attended it. She did a lymphatic self-massage before her flight home—no swelling. That’s major.
Then I have this other story that I love. It wasn't permanent but it was just the most extraordinary visual of the lymph system I think I've seen in my career which is that I was called to work on someone who had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This person was non-ambulatory, they were in a wheelchair, they had a helper, and their wife was a nurse. So they called me and they said, "Can you come teach us lymphatic massage so the caregiver can do it?" Their feet were swollen and purple, because they’re not moving. I went and said, "Just stay in your wheelchair." I massaged the lymph nodes in the neck, massaged the lymph nodes in the armpits, I did deep belly breathing with them, massaged the lymph nodes at the top of the thigh, the inguinal nodes…I hadn't even touched their legs, and guess what color their feet were? They were skin-color. I was shocked—I had never seen anything like that. That's the power of your lymph system. All we did was massage the lymph node clusters.
I had another client, her father was dying of cancer and had had some painful surgeries, was in a ton of pain and was totally swollen in his abdomen. I walked her and her mom through how to massage him over Zoom. She would do it a couple of days a week and his pain was gone. His swelling improved. He eventually died—but just to be able to provide that comfort. I talk about it so casually but it really, truly amazes me all the time.
So how does lymph flow affect a person’s mental and emotional state?
We tend to trap our emotions in our bodies—you know that to be true if you've ever cried during a yoga class or during a massage. Our cells hold our emotions. And sometimes we're massaging areas that have never been touched, like your breasts or your stomach. And your stomach, in Chinese Medicine, the organs have different emotions, and so many people don’t realize it—a lot of people hold tension in their necks and backs, but lot of people also stuff their emotions in their stomach.
You'll notice if you get a massage, or work on yourself, you might feel lighter. And bringing joy into your life is going to help you feel better in your body. It’s all connected. We want to think that our emotions are over here and our work is over there, but that’s just not who we are as human beings. We have an emotional body and a physical body and a spiritual body—it's all connected. So when you are clearing one area, it's going to have a beneficial effect on the rest of your body.
I say it's sort of like feng-shuing your home. When you clear your closets, you feel five pounds lighter. You mentally feel better. Giving yourself a lymphatic massage does a similar thing. It removes that grime. I have this sequence for mental clarity, and even when I do the sequence on my face in the morning, the mental fog is gone. I know, it seems crazy, but what I love about it is it's rooted in science and physiology, so, there you go.
Why do you recommend massaging the lymph nodes as a first step in any of your sequences?
It’s like cleaning the dirty ring around your bathtub. You have to clear everything out of the drain first. Otherwise, when you start cleaning the ring, you get dirty germ water backed up around the drain because you haven't dealt with the drain (which is the lymph nodes). That's why all my massage sequences start by massaging the lymph nodes first, which is where things are going.
And how do your lymph nodes eliminate toxins?
The immune cells in the lymph nodes break down and purify the waste, then it leaves the lymph node. It comes in through one vessel, gets cleaned in the lymph nodes, and goes out. It often goes through many lymph nodes before it gets returned to the bloodstream. That's the power of your immune system and your immune cells. They sort sample it: "Is this harmful? Do I need to mount an immune response or clean it out?" I think it’s amazing.
Do certain foods help stimulate the lymph?
I'm not a nutritionist, and I don’t have to play things that I’m not, so a lot of times I refer out to a nutritionist. But what we do talk about in school is that there are different pillars in lymphatic health, of which lymphatic massage, deep breathing, movement, proper skin and nail care—not putting too many toxins on your skin that are going to get absorbed into your lymph system—and food and nutrition are part of that. There are certain types of food that, obviously, are going to be inflammatory. Then there are certain foods that improve the micro-circulation of your lymph system, like purple staining foods (cherries, beets, strawberries, cabbage) and there are anti-inflammatory foods and herbs. I don't tell people which herbs to take, I just list them, because I'm not an herbalist and I don't know what everybody's dealing with.
How does breathwork factor in?
Essentially, deep breathing changes the diaphragmatic pressure in the chest, which works on the largest lymphatic vessel in the body called the thoracic duct, which runs from the abdomen back up towards the heart. And that is the vessel, the largest duct, that takes the fluid from the lower half of your body back up. So when you're doing the deep diaphragmatic breathing, it puts external pressure to pump that fluid up. That's why diaphragmatic breathing is so beneficial for the lymph system.
What exercises do you most recommend?
Inversions are great because they take the fluid from the lower half of your body and bring it back to the heart. Yoga is great—twists are great for the abdomen. Swimming is one of the best exercises because the external pressure of the water works on the lymph system. Rebounding is great, obviously. But really, any movement. You don't have to do a hard workout. Sometimes too extreme of a workout can be inflammatory. So walking, biking, dancing, swimming, inversions, yoga, trampoline.
Is there such a thing as too much lymphatic massage?
That's a good question. When we talk about immunity, we sometimes fall to the trap of saying, "Boost your immunity." I tried to stop doing that as much because people with an auto-immune disease have an overactive immune system. You’re really talking about balancing your immune system.
What I love about traditional manual lymphatic drainage, and only people who are certified in MLD can use that term (that's why people don't use it—they'll say lymphatic contouring or lymph drainage) but if you are classically trained, you use MLD. That's Doctor Vodder, and his technique is much lighter working with the fluid layer so you are really balancing the system. You're not overdoing it.
What's the minimum people should do daily to maintain healthy lymph flow?
Like two minutes. Sometimes you can just do the neck or you can lie in bed and do the stomach massage. Sometimes I just do the armpit.
Why is dry brushing so great, and is it really better than just scrubbing your body in the shower?
I love that it's cheap, I love that it's easy. You're really not going to go wrong. And you feel good! It regenerates your skin cells. It's energizing, it's so easy and simple and great. I think it just hits everything that people want. I mean, if you want to use a scrub in the shower and you're going up towards your lymph nodes and you're massaging your lymph nodes, great. You're still going to get things moving.
I can get very specific but I also try not to get too precious. Just do something good for yourself. Go towards your heart, lightly with self-love and self-care, and you're going to be doing beneficial things for your body.
Do you have any tips for long-haul flights?
Do the leg sequence. Massage your neck, armpits, deep breathing. Get up and walk around. Some people might want to wear compression socks if they swell. Another tip: if you know your feet swell, wear sneakers and don't take them off. So many people take off their shoes when they get on a plane. I do. A tennis shoe is the best compression. Don't drink alcohol, drink a lot of water, get up and move around, stretch. Bring your own food, don't eat the salty peanuts and the salty pretzels. Bring some fruit, bring a salad. Those kinds of things are great.
Favorite ritual besides lymph massage?
I get sunshine on my body. It’s great for vitamin D and it elevates my mood instantly. I try to find joy every day in some regard. Sometimes it’s checking out a new store. Sometimes it’s going for a walk, sometimes it’s playing a board game with my son, and sometimes it’s doing the rebounder. I have a cup of green tea every night and get in bed and read. I'm religious about that. I just try to incorporate joy somehow every day.
Favorite beauty food?
Lemons, for sure. I love pineapple, I love papaya. I've been eating a lot of cabbage for the purple staining food—I've been putting chopped up cabbage in my salads. Ginger is one of my favorite beauty foods. I use that a lot in cooking. Berries, lots of berries. And greens, obviously.
To keep up with Lisa, check out her website and follow her at @thelymphaticmassage.