Beloved by supermodels and Dua Lipa, the evidence behind the benefits of the massage is admittedly shaky at best, despite it being marketed as a miracle treatment
If there’s one thing the wellness world is obsessed with, it’s detoxing. There is no shortage of cleanses or products that promise to get rid of all the toxins in your body, so it’s unsurprising that a type of massage that promises to “drain” your body of toxins is growing in popularity: manual lymphatic drainage (MLD).
Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, vessels, ducts, and nodes that move lymph (a fluid made up of white blood cells, proteins and fats) from your tissues into your bloodstream, getting rid of waste and toxins – it’s often referred to as your body’s own sewage system (sexy). The idea is that by massaging your lymph nodes, manual lymphatic drainage supposedly stimulates the lymphatic system and speeds up the process.
MLD was actually developed in the 1930s by Dr Emil Vodder and his wife Estrid, as a way to treat their patients in the French Riviera when they presented with chronic colds and swollen lymph nodes. Now, in 2020, the massage has evolved from its humble mom and pop origins into a sort of miracle treatment adored by celebrities and socialites as a pre-holiday boost or photoshoot prep.
Popularised by The Tox LA, manual lymphatic drainage is loved by the likes of Victoria’s Secret models, celebs like Dua Lipa and, of course, the Jenners – so it’s no wonder that it’s become 2020’s beauty buzzword. Its alleged benefits include a “boosted” immune system, faster metabolism, clearer skin, and a flatter stomach. But aside from the aesthetic promises, it’s often promoted to help with chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia and lupus. So how, exactly, is a gentle massage supposed to do all this?
“Our lymphatic system’s main function is immune defence,” explains NHS surgical doctor Dr Joshua Wolrich. “All the lymph nodes that you have in your body filter the lymph fluid along its route and contain lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. They recognise bacteria and viruses and signal an immune response – this is the reason why you can get swollen lymph nodes in your neck alongside a sore throat.” This explains why manual lymphatic drainage massages purportedly also help keep colds at bay, but Dr Wolrich reassures that your body does a pretty good job at filtering out nasties on its own. “If you have a normally functioning lymphatic system, manual lymphatic drainage isn’t going to do anything,” he says.
The treatment sounded outlandish and ridiculous enough to pique my interest, so I thought I’d try it for myself and see what the growing obsession is about. One of the many benefits of MLD is that it supposedly helps with bloating, and as someone who has been dealing with IBS and chronic bloating for most of my adult life, I’m not going to lie, I had high hopes. I’ve tried pretty much everything to help with my IBS and bloating: a low FODMAP diet, anti-flatulence pills, activated charcoal, probiotics, daily exercise and even a failed stint with meditation, but nothing has helped.
I went to see Flavia Morellato, a physiotherapist and lymphatic drainage specialist whose clients include Made In Chelsea socialites like Rosie Fortescue and Millie Mackintosh, and supermodel Sara Sampaio. Flavia has brought the treatment over from Brazil, where it’s been a well-loved treatment for some time, to her Notting Hill clinic. Her tagline? “Let’s drain it all!” Her price tag? £150 for a 60-minute session (but my treatment was very kindly gifted).
During our consultation, I explained to Flavia that I’m constantly bloated and, as I was due on my period, particularly puffy and uncomfortable. Although she assured me that MLD would help, she also warned me that many people misguidedly come in expecting to leave with a visible six-pack. I wasn’t going to leave with Emily Ratajkowski’s abs, that was clear.
I’ve always thought that massages are over-hyped, but the treatment was unlike any massage I’ve ever experienced. For one thing, it’s not relaxing at all – in fact, it was a little bit uncomfortable. And not in the “painful but pleasant” kind of way you’d associate with deep tissue massages. Vodder’s original MLD technique traditionally relies on light pressure, but Flavia goes at it, using her own signature style. She started the treatment by pressing on my stomach in circular motions, letting me know that if I had to pass gas during the treatment, I could go ahead and fart – she didn’t care, it was perfectly fine!
After spending a good amount of time on my bloated stomach, she was delighted when my gut eventually started making guttural sounds, like a sigh of relief. She then moved onto my legs, massaging the back of my knees – that’s where our lymph nodes are, along with our lower abdomen, armpits and neck. After massaging the first leg, she had me lift it, and it felt weightless. I hate using the word “light” because it reminds me of twee adverts for low-fat yoghurt, but that’s how my whole body felt after the treatment: light. Then, before I got off the table, she told me to poke my tummy. For the first time ever it didn’t feel like I had ingested a lead balloon. My tummy felt like it should: squishy, but not tense. Yes, my stomach was also visibly flatter, but as Flavia had warned me, the result was so subtle I doubt anyone would be able to tell without looking at the before and after pictures.
Based on all its promised benefits, MLD sounded too good to be true. According to Dr Wolrich: “Lymph fluid is pumped through the system, mostly against gravity, by smooth muscle contraction of the bigger lymphatic vessel wells. The initial smaller vessels don’t have a muscle layer and rely on nearby muscle contraction and other pressure changes. Massage may well encourage fluid to move slightly faster in these smaller vessels, but the whole system is limited by how fast the fluid can be filtered through the lymph nodes; something that can’t be sped up through a massage. Those waste products (or “toxins”) won’t be cleared any faster.”
Dr Wolrich explains that most of the claims about MLD are completely unfounded, and there is no evidence to support the treatment’s effects on the immune system, metabolism, and fat loss. But it is recognised as a possible treatment for lymphoedema, a disorder of the lymphatic system that causes swelling and can often happen as a result of cancer treatment. “Even in patients with this condition, the research is mixed as to whether MLD actually has the ability to improve symptoms, especially long-term,” explains Dr Wolrich. “The theory is that the pressure from the massage may help the lymph fluid to travel away from the affected area. Seeing as it is a safe treatment and with some patients reporting a positive outcome, it is often offered alongside things such as compression bandaging.” MLD’s ability to reduce swelling is also why it’s often marketed as a means to a flatter stomach – a claim that, admittedly, immediately made me suspicious of it.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a difference. Almost a week later, my stomach is still not bloated and my IBS hasn’t flared up. I went in hoping for the treatment to deliver, but I wasn’t really expecting it to, so I’m pleasantly surprised. My recommendation? If you have lymphoedema, MLD is worth trying,” says Dr Wolrich. “If you have a condition that improves with compression stockings (as long as you haven’t been diagnosed with a blood clot), MLD may be worth a try. If you have musculoskeletal pain, any massage is worth a go; find one you like the most and isn’t overly expensive! Avoid anyone that offers massages and talks about “toxins”, “boosting your immune system” or “fat loss”– it’s always better to find someone who isn’t misinforming you from the start.”
Would I pay £150 for another session? If my IBS and bloat get really bad, yes – but I’d sleep on it first. If you have the money burning a hole in your pocket and, like me, you’ve tried everything to help with a bloated stomach, give MLD a go. Just don’t expect it to turn you into Hailey Bieber.