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Chances are you’ve heard of glands like the thyroid and adrenals. But we don’t hear nearly enough about an odd little organ located deep in the chest, close to the heart. This organ is the thymus gland.
It produces several hormones like thymulin and thymosin, which regulate immune cell production. It also synthesizes hormones such as insulin and melatonin.
But its central function is to produce and release powerful immune cells to help fight infection and disease.
Most experts believed, however, that the thymus’ contributions occurred in the womb and didn’t extend into adulthood.
But investigators have found that theory was wrong.
In fact, they believe the thymus may hold the secret to a lifetime of good health, thanks to a specialized kind of cell they hope to harness for future preventative treatments…
The education of T cells
A team of Australian researchers examined thymus samples donated to the Melbourne Children’s Heart Tissue Bank from heart surgery patients up to 16 years old. They likely chose these samples because the thymus is most active in childhood.
The researchers looked at the role of gamma delta T cells within the gland and found for the first time how the organ produced these cells.
“We have large numbers of these specialized cells in our blood and tissues, which accumulate as we become adults,” says study co-author Dan Pellicci, a professor at the University of Melbourne. “Until our study, it was unclear how these cells develop in the body.
Similar to receiving an elementary, high school and college education, the T cells are trained over three stages and fully form in the thymus, Pellicci says.
“Following this education, the cells are ready to enter the rest of the body and are completely capable of fighting infections,” he adds.
Some previous studies suggested these immune cells were mainly derived in the liver and thymus during fetal development in the womb.
“Many experts assumed that after birth, the thymus played little role in the development of these cells as we age, but we now know this little unsung organ helps the body prepare for a lifetime of good health,” Pellicci says.
The hope is that through understanding their function, these T cells can be manipulated to help prevent cancer and highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis.
The care and feeding of this important gland
It’s clear the thymus gland is a key part of our immune system. Unfortunately, the thymus tends to shrink with age, and by the time we hit the age of 65, it’s pretty much unable to produce any new T cells.
This explains why older people are at higher risk for a lot of diseases like cancer, and why they have a harder time fighting off infections.
The good news is there are a few things you can do to support it:
- Get more antioxidants. One study found that antioxidants — especially vitamin C — can protect the thymus from damaging free radicals and prevent some of that age-related thymus shrinkage.
- Cut down on wheat. Research has shown that a chemical in wheat called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) contributes to a shrinking thymus.
- Get enough zinc. It’s the most important mineral your thymus needs to stay healthy. Correcting a zinc deficiency can prompt the thymus to grow and start generating T cells again.
- Don’t use artificial sweeteners. Studies have found artificial sweeteners like sucralose shrink the thymus gland in rats.
- Try tapping. It’s not scientifically proven (yet), but tapping your chest over your thymus gland can supposedly stimulate a sluggish immune system. Try tapping the center of your chest, below your collarbone, for 15 to 20 seconds several times per day. Hum as you do it for even better results.
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What is the thymus gland? — Medical News Today