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We don’t talk much about the thymus gland.
Perhaps because, until recently, most experts believed the thymus’ contributions to our immune health occurred in the womb and didn’t extend into adulthood.
But investigators have found that theory to be incorrect. A recent study revealed the thymus continues to produce and release powerful immune cells to help fight infection and disease as we age.
Unfortunately, when we grow older, the thymus begins to shrink and fold in on itself. By the time we hit the age of 65, the thymus often is unable to produce any new T cells.
This deterioration of the thymus has made medical professionals believe we can live just fine without it. However, they weren’t just wrong — they were dead wrong…
Thymectomy can increase premature death and cancer risk
Often during cardiothoracic surgery, the thymus is removed in a procedure known as incidental thymectomy. That’s because the small gland is inconveniently located in front of the heart, and since convention held it was inconsequential, it made sense to surgeons just to get it out of the way.
But, thankfully, a team of researchers decided to look deeper…
They set out to compare patients who had nonlaparoscopic cardiac surgery with thymectomy at Massachusetts General Hospital from January 1993 to March 2020 against patients who had the same cardiac surgery but left the operating room with their thymus intact.
First, they excluded patients who died within 90 days after the procedure or who had cardiac surgery within 5 years after the procedure, as well as patients who had heart failure before the surgery.
Then, of those patients left, researchers did blood tests of a subset of both groups of patients to measure their T cell production and plasma cytokine levels. They found that thymectomy patients:
- Had reduced production of newly formed T cells compared with the control group.
- They also had more than 10 times the level of inflammatory cytokines. You may remember hearing about cytokines during the pandemic and how they contribute to dangerous inflammation.
They also found that the rate of autoimmune disease was 12.3 percent after thymectomy compared with 7.9 percent in those who did not have their thyroid removed.
But that wasn’t the most shocking finding…
Results showed adults who had their thymus removed had at least double the risk of all-cause mortality and cancer at 5 years post-surgery compared with those without thymectomy.
The study also compared the thymectomy patients to the general population and found all-cause mortality and death from cancer were both higher in the thymectomy patients.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Naomi Taylor of the National Cancer Institute Pediatric Oncology Branch called the research a “landmark” study that strongly argues against total thymectomy in cardiothoracic surgery if it can be avoided.
The researchers cautioned that because of the retrospective and observational study design, causality of the findings could not be determined. However, the evidence of an association between thymectomy and adverse outcomes strongly suggests that when possible, preserving the thymus should be a clinical priority.
Nourishing your existing T cells
If you still have your thymus, there’s a lot you can do to support its continued health even as you get older. I’ve listed some of the steps here.
However, if you’ve had your thymus removed, you may want to take action to supercharge the T cells you already have.
- Make sure your diet has plenty of selenium, a trace mineral that studies show helps increase the effectiveness of T cells.
- You may also want to try cat’s claw, a plant native to South America that may turn on T cells.
- You can energize your T cells by getting 10 to 20 minutes of daily sunlight, preferably around midday. One study indicates sunlight directly activates key immune cells by increasing their movement.
- Lastly, get adequate vitamin D. Even with daily sunlight, our skin doesn’t synthesize vitamin D as well as we get old—so you may need to take a supplement. A study in the journal Nature Immunology reported that vitamin D can increase T-cell responsiveness by 750 percent.
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Health Consequences of Thymus Removal in Adults — The New England Journal of Medicine