Can Dieting Improve Lymphedema Symptoms?


Although lymphedema affects up to 10 million Americans, solutions to the condition's symptoms are not commonly discussed. While the pain and swelling that come with lymphedema may seem permanent, there are many methods for minimizing lymphedema symptoms. Specifically, eating the right foods and dieting can greatly reduce the effects of lymphedema.

To shed more light on the topic, this article will explain what lymphedema is, common lymphedema symptoms, what foods help lymphedema and a few additional ways to manage lymphedema symptoms. Keep reading to find out what a lymphedema diet consists of, along with other practical methods of coping with the condition.

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a medical condition commonly caused by damage to or the removal of your lymph nodes as a part of treatment for cancer, such as radiation therapy or surgery. In fact, studies have shown that following treatment for breast cancer, patients have a 5-50% chance of developing lymphedema. Although most often caused by cancer treatment, lymphedema may not appear until months or even years after the initial treatment.  When lymphedema develops following treatment for another condition, this is known as secondary lymphedema. 

While surgery and radiation treatments are secondary causes for lymphedema, some rare conditions can cause primary lymphedema. These conditions include Milroy's disease, Meige's disease and late-onset lymphedema, all of which involve an inherited condition that leads to complications with the development of the body's lymph vessels.

Lymphedema occurs when a blockage forms in the lymphatic system, which is a part of the immune system, preventing the lymph fluid from properly draining. With nowhere else to go, the lymph fluid begins to build up and cause swelling. This swelling can range from mild, barely noticeable changes in limb size to intense swelling that makes the limb difficult to use.

The following symptoms are strong signs of lymphedema:

  1. Swelling: Swelling due to lymphedema typically affects part or all of an arm or leg, including the fingers or toes.
  2. Fibrosis: Lymphedema may lead to fibrosis, which is the hardening and thickening of the skin.
  3. Discomfort: Often, lymphedema includes feelings of heaviness or tightness along with aching or discomfort.
  4. Limited flexibility: Due to the swelling and feelings of heaviness, lymphedema may restrict the normal range of motion.
  5. Infections: Lymphedema may come with recurring infections.

Although there is currently no cure for lymphedema, an early diagnosis can make the symptoms quite manageable and reduce the damage done to the affected limbs.

Dieting Tips for Improving Lymphedema Symptoms

Adhering to a healthy diet can help alleviate lymphedema symptoms because an increased amount of fat makes it more difficult for the lymphatic system to drain and pass fluid properly. Specifically, those with lymphedema can eat to starve lymphedema by consuming foods that fight both lymphedema and cancer, along with avoiding foods that contribute to symptoms.

Below are five dieting tips to starve lymphedema and lessen its symptoms:

1. Avoid Alcohol, Caffeine and Diuretics

Does drinking water help with lymphedema? Absolutely! Because the body is more prone to hold onto excess liquid when it feels dehydrated, drinking enough water is especially important for those with lymphedema so they can maintain a healthy fluid and chemical balance. Of course, lymphedema patients should be careful not to drink too much water, which can overwhelm the body and make swelling worse.

Those with lymphedema should be wary of beverages that contain alcohol and caffeine, both of which can contribute to dehydration. For this reason, coffee and lymphedema do not mix well.

Although drinking enough water is essential for those with lymphedema, diuretics — also known as water pills — should be avoided. Although diuretics may have positive short-term effects by removing the water content of swelling, taking diuretics can worsen lymphedema symptoms in the long-term because the dehydration effect of diuretics leaves a higher concentration of protein mass in the lymph fluid that draws more water to the swollen area as soon as the diuretic wears off. However, before stopping taking diuretics, check with your healthcare provider as to what your options are.

2. Keep Protein in Your Diet

Protein is essential to keeping your body healthy and fully functional. When you do not eat enough protein, fluid can seep from your bloodstream into your tissues, making lymphedema worse. For this reason, you should work healthy protein from seeds, nuts, eggs, legumes, fish, poultry and tofu into your regular diet.

To maintain your body's fluid balance, you should consume enough protein each day. The recommended amount of daily dietary protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. Be careful not to consume an excessive amount of protein, which can overwhelm the kidneys and cause other fluid retention issues.

3. Reduce Your Salt Intake

Consuming a large amount of sodium often causes water retention within the body. This means that the more salt you eat, the more fluid your body holds onto, which can make pre-existing lymphedema symptoms worse.

Because salt is most often found in processed foods, you can limit your daily intake of sodium by avoiding canned foods, pickled foods, frozen and boxed meals, salty condiments, cured meats and fast food. Be sure to read nutrition labels carefully so you can steer clear of excess sodium.

4. Incorporate More Whole Foods Into Your Diet

Whole foods are the best types of foods to eat for those with lymphedema because they are not processed. Unlike whole foods, prepared foods typically contain added sugar, soy, salt, unhealthy fats and other unnatural additives.

For those who cannot eat solid whole foods, juicing is an alternative option. However, juicing is not recommended if you can eat solid food because the process of juicing breaks down fiber, which is a valuable health benefit of whole foods. Fruit juices can also spike blood glucose levels more rapidly than whole fruits.

5. Limit Certain Foods

Along with incorporating whole foods into your diet, you should try to cut other foods out of your diet. Some foods can exacerbate lymphedema symptoms because of the way they are processed and the additives or high salt content they contain. These foods include added sugars — specifically fructose — refined grains, chemically modified fats and most animal and dairy products.

Additional Ways to Manage Lymphedema Symptoms

In addition to following a healthy diet, you can do other things to keep lymphedema symptoms to a minimum. Combining a proper lymphedema diet with other strategies for managing lymphedema can help mitigate the condition's effects.

Here are seven extra ways to manage lymphedema symptoms:

  1. Exercise: Regular exercise promotes joint motion, which can aid circulation and boost lymph vessel activity.
  2. Compression therapy: By applying pressure from the outside, compression therapy can help move and filter fluid through the lymphatic system, alleviating lymphedema symptoms.  There are also a variety of compression garments that may be helpful between treatments. These garments provide pressure to prevent the buildup of lymphatic fluid in the affected area. A trained professional can help you find the appropriate compression garments and ensure they fit correctly.
  3. Massage therapy: Similar to compression therapy, massage therapy can help manually push fluid through the lymphatic system and reduce swelling.
  4. Proper skin care: Keeping your skin clean is key for managing lymphedema. Practice good skin hygiene and keep a close watch on your arm and leg skin so you can spot any changes or breaks in the skin early. If you have a cut or scrape, take care of it quickly. Catching these issues early can help prevent infection.
  5. Wear loose clothing: Avoid wearing tight articles of clothing that could constrict your leg or arm and restrict the lymphatic system.
  6. Elevate your limb: Whenever you can, try to elevate the affected arm or leg above the level of your heart. When sleeping, place a pillow under your arm or leg (whichever limb is affected).
  7. Avoid extreme temperatures: Try not to expose the affected limb to extreme cold or heat. This means you should not apply ice or a heating pad to the swollen arm or leg nor should you go into a sauna.

For More Ways to Manage Lymphedema, Contact PAM Health.

A full lymphedema treatment program will provide you with all the tools and techniques you need to manage your lymphedema symptoms. At PAM Health, patients can benefit from a full range of lymphedema therapies, from manual lymphatic drainage to compression therapy. With individualized treatment plans, therapists work with patients to tweak them as needed.  They can also teach patients how put on compression garments, advise on which ones will work best, and educate family members on the best ways to offer support.

In addition, therapists can help you by listening to patients because they understand their condition. This is important because besides physical pain and discomfort, lymphedema can take a mental toll on those with the condition. Having an experienced professional to lean on can assist both physically and emotionally. 

PAM Health focuses on delivering patients the highest quality care possible to achieve long-term positive outcomes. The dedicated and caring staff at PAM Health will work with you to develop a treatment plan that reduces the pain caused by lymphedema and improve your quality of life.

To get started on reducing the effects of your lymphedema today, contact the PAM Health location nearest you.