Right beneath your breast bone, at the same level as your heart, is a rarely mentioned gland that will keep you from getting sick – if you treat it right..
It’s the thymus gland — the birthplace of the immune system’s T-cells. Your thymus releases these disease-fighting cells into your body to fight invaders.
Because T-cells fight off viruses and other infections, a healthy thymus keeps you fit and healthy. The longer your thymus is functioning at top performance, the longer you’re likely to live.
Here’s what you can do. . .
The Cost of Thymus Shrinkage
It’s long been known that you start to lose thymus function as early as your twenties or thirties.
Oh, the gland’s still there behind your sternum. But fat cells inside the thymus start replacing the glandular cells that manufacture T-cells.
Now for a bit of good news: Researchers in England at the University of Birmingham and the University of London say you don’t have to take this lying down – and you shouldn’t.
You should get up and get some exercise. Especially as you head into your 50s, 60s and beyond.
To see how exercise affects the thymus, the British scientists ran tests on lifelong bicyclists aged 55 to 79 and compared their immune status to people of the same age who didn’t exercise.
They report that they got startling results. In the older cyclists who had been exercising consistently for years, the thymus was pumping out just about the same number of T-cells as you would expect in younger people – even though the functioning section of the older glands had apparently shrunk. Meantime, the seniors who didn’t exercise had experienced a significant drop in T-cell production.1
Exercise might not be the only way to help keep your thymus working better. Studies at the Scripps Institute in Florida reveal that antioxidants may also help to keep it functional.
According to the Scripps researchers, an aging thymus is vulnerable to oxidative damage from free radicals that are created when the mitochondria – energy-producing organelles in each cell – go about their daily task of fueling the activity of thymus cells. The problem, say the researchers, is that the thymus starts running short of catalase, an enzyme that plays a key role in preventing the DNA damage free radicals can cause.
But lab tests show that consuming extra amounts of antioxidant nutrients – the Scripps’ study used vitamin C and NAC (n-acetylcysteine) – can help fend off oxidative damage and keep the thymus gland’s T-cell manufacturing machinery up and running.2
In addition, getting plenty of antioxidants from meals full of fruits and vegetables, and supplements of other antioxidants like carotenoids and natural vitamin E, may also help reduce oxidative damage to the thymus.
Along with all those fruits and vegetables, holding back on the calories you consume is also believed to help the thymus stay young and healthy longer. Lab tests on animals at Louisiana State University found that a calorie-restricted diet helps to keep the thymus from getting filled up with fat cells that are useless for producing T-cells.
The researchers also note that this kind of diet – where you eat anywhere between 10 to 40 percent less than normal – has been shown to make the immune system function better. It seems to enable immune cells to fight off infections more readily.3
However, no one is sure exactly how many calories you’d have to eliminate to reap these benefits. And although the low-calorie diet has worked in animals no one has proved conclusively that it works in humans.
Most people find it next to impossible to achieve even a ten percent permanent reduction in the amount of calories they eat. But the advantages of fasting are so enormous (thymus health is not the only one), I recommend “intermittent fasting.” This consists of eating all your meals within an eight-hour window – maybe from 10 AM to 6 PM, and avoiding food the rest of the day. At the very least, make sure you put 12 hours between your last meal of the day and breakfast the next morning.
Currently, I’m on another calorie-restriction plan: a five-day fast each month (light eating for those five days, not total abstinence). And I’m going to stick to my exercise habits along with a nutrient-rich diet and supplements to help my thymus keep functioning.