Tending Mother Ocean: Herbs for the Lymph

tending mother ocean

I remember the first time I heard the term “Mother Ocean”. I was at herb school in New Mexico with Michael Moore. Learning from Michael was an amazing experience in so many ways. One of the many things that I brought away from that program was the concept that we carry the ocean around inside of us. It makes a lot of sense if you think about evolution.

After all, Life came from water, that primordial ocean that was on earth over 3.8 billion years ago, and that water has been cycling around this amazing and beautiful planet ever since. Life stayed in the oceans until about 530 million years ago. After all, everything that Life needed was all around it, in Mother Ocean. Need a drink of water? It is right there. Need to get rid of wastes? Easy. Eventually, animals followed plants onto land. In preparation for this new journey, they had to figure out how to carry Mother Ocean with them.

Just like water cycles around the Earth, it also cycles around our bodies. It is essential for human life. We use it for both chemical and metabolic reactions, temperature regulation and the transport of nutrients and elimination of wastes. It is essential for all the eliminatory organs from the liver to the GI tract, from the kidneys to the skin to the respiratory system. Water is so important, it is no wonder that the body has developed so many ways to reclaim it.

My favorite way to think about Mother Ocean is on a cellular level. Most of the cells in our body are stationary. It is the circulatory system’s job to deliver nutrients and take away cellular metabolites and wastes. Without blood flow, cells would quickly die. But there is more to Mother Ocean than that.

Plasma filled with glucose and other solutes from the blood leaves the capillaries, the small porous blood vessels that feed the tissues of the body. This fluid, also called interstitial fluid (fluid between the cells) carries nutrients such as glucose, vitamins, electrolytes, and proteins, hormones, and gasses such as oxygen. This fluid, Mother Ocean, creates a slow wash across the cells, like the ocean lapping gently at the shore. As Mother Ocean delivers life giving nutrients, cellular wastes are being picked up. The capillaries take much of this fluid back up and it is pumped through the eliminatory organs to filter out wastes and old red blood cells and do its work again.

There is another key element to the movement of Mother Ocean in the body: the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, structures, nodes and organs containing lymph fluid. The lymph works closely with the circulatory system to maintain cellular health.

The lymph helps drain fluid from tissues and cells. This fluid is then filtered and sorted in lymph nodes by white blood cells such as macrophages, T cells and B cells. Foreign bodies are “eaten” (called phagocytosis) and antibodies are made for long-term immune reactions. This is how humans develop their acquired immunity.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymph has no pump. Instead movement and pressure, both from internal sources such as breathing and from external sources such as massage, circulate the lymph. Little valves keep the lymph moving upwards against gravity. Ultimately, the lymph gets transported back toward the heart and returns to the blood via the subclavian vein and thus the journey to the cells begins again.

About two-thirds of lymphatic fluid, called chyle, is normally derived from the liver and intestines. Chyle is composed, in part, of emulsified fats.

Now, stay with me here…

This means that in order to have healthy lymph flow, we need to eat, digest and assimilate fats. Keeping the lymph healthy is one of the reasons it is important to eat high quality fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, cold water fish and essential fatty acids. Avoid hydrogenated oils, margarine, butter replacements, synthetic oils, fried foods and most processed oils.

The liver produces bile, which digests fats, breaking them down into smaller particles so we can absorb them. This process is called emulsification. The intestines then need to absorb these emulsified fats and from there they go into the lymph. It isn’t a simple process and each organ needs to do its job efficiently for the lymph to function well. It is truly amazing, I think, how beautifully all the body systems work together and rely on each other for the healthy functioning of the whole person.

There are certain times when it is particularly important to support lymphatic function such as with edema, injury and illness. Edema, or excess fluid building up in the tissues, can be a sign that the lymph is under functioning or overwhelmed. The site of lymph swelling can help identify where a problem is in body. “Cleaning up” tissues after an injury is also an important job for the lymph and can help speed healing. It is always important to support lymph when dealing with acute, chronic or viral illnesses. Herbs, along with gentle massage can often help to move the lymph in a particular area.

There are several categories of herbs that can help keep Mother Ocean healthy and moving well in the body including alterative, chologogue, antibacterial and lymphatic herbs. What follows is a list of herbs in these categories and three herbal formulas. Some of these herbs are low dose and better administered by an herbalist. I have denoted these herbs with an asterisk.


Alteratives are traditionally thought of as “blood cleansers”. I think of alteratives as herbs that support or stimulate many of the eliminatory organs in the body, including the lymph, liver, digestive system, kidneys and skin. This helps to encourage proper tissue and cellular functions.

Alterative Herbs:

  • Burdock (Arctium lappa)
  • Cleavers (Galium aparine)
  • Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
  • Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata)
  • Nettles (Urtica spp.)
  • Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata)
  • Yellow dock (Rumex crispus)


Chologogues stimulate bile flow in the liver and gallbladder, thereby aiding our digestion and assimilation of fats.

Chologogue Herbs:

  • Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
  • Barberry (Berberis spp.)
  • Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
  • Gentian (Gentiana spp.)
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)
  • Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)

oregon grape

Antibacterial herbs inhibit or suppress the growth of bacteria.

Antibacterial Herbs:

  • Bee balm (Mondarda spp.)
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis),
  • Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)
  • Elecampane (Inula helenium)
  • Eucalyptus (Euclayptus spp.)
  • Garlic (Allium sativum)
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)
  • Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
  • Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum)
  • Myrrh (Commiphora mol-mol) *
  • Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Sage, white or garden (Salvia apiana or S. officinalis)
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
  • Usnea (Usnea spp.)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

rosemary fl

Lymphagogues support the lymphatic organs or stimulate their movement or activity.

Lymphatic Herbs:

  • Baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) *
  • Blue flag (Iris versicolor) *
  • Burdock (Arctium lappa)
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
  • Cleavers (Galium aparine)
  • Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata)
  • Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
  • Poke (Phytolacca americana) *
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Red root (Ceanothus spp.)

red root lf

Lymphatic Essential Oils should only be used externally and need to be diluted. Generally using 10-12 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil (such as olive oil) is a good practice. The Lymph Massage Oil recipe below is stronger and should only be used on specific areas of the body that have swollen lymph nodes.

Lymphatic Essential Oils:

  • Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)
  • Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
  • Geranium (Pelargonium spp.)
  • Grapefruit (Citrus paradise)
  • Juniper berry (Juniperus communis)
  • Lemon (Citrus limon)
  • Lime, cold pressed (Citrus aurantifolia)
  • Orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Tangerine (Citrus tangerinia)

Herbal Formulas:

Immune Support Tea

  • 1 part Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
  • 1 part Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
  • 1 part Red Root (Ceanothus spp.)
  • 1/2 part Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Lymph Stimulating Tincture

  • 1 part Ocotillo (fresh) (Fouquieria splendens)
  • 1 part Red Root (Ceanothus spp.)
  • 1 part Cleavers (Galium aparine)
  • 1 part Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

Lymph Massage Oil

  • 1 oz poke (Phytolacca americana) root infused oil
  • 10 drops lemon (Citrus limon) essential oil
  • 10 drops geranium (Pelargonium spp.) essential oil
  • 10 drops rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) essential oil
  • 10 drops cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) essential oil

This oil can be used in small amounts to massage directly over swollen lymph nodes or behind the ear and down the neck for ear infections. If irritation occurs, dilute the oil with olive oil or discontinue use.

* = Low dose herb better administered by an herbalist.

© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2016

ElaineAbout the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons.

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4 Comments on “Tending Mother Ocean: Herbs for the Lymph

  1. Where do I get fresh ocotillo here in Great Falls? Or is there an acceptable substitute?

    • Michael cottingham at “Voyage Botanica”. He practices ethical wildcrafting, his prices are fair and he cultivates a lot of plants on his own; including Osha (L. porteri). I would never buy an at risk species from anyone who was taking them from the wild. He loves plants and teaches on ethical harvesting practices. Check him out. I bought fresh Osha and ocotillo from him. He sends them out right away and takes the proper precautions to ensure the quality is perfect upon receiving.

  2. Elaine – you are outstanding – Thanks for being there and providing all this wonderful /healthful / information to the masses !

    GOD BLESS ! I would like specific info on relieving edema right ankle only ?

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