Volume 1: Issue #1
This Part of Your Body
Ages Faster than Any Other
(And it can mean the difference between sickness and health)
Sometimes, to keep from getting sick, you need to sweat the small stuff.
For instance, one unheralded but vital part of your immune system is the thymus – a small gland in your chest just behind the sternum. Few of us ever give it a thought, but it plays a key role in helping your body fight off infection.
But it suffers from a fatal flaw – so it needs all the help you can give it. . .
Seat of the soul
This strange little gland puzzled medical folks for thousands of years — until the 1960s when it became “the last organ in the human body to have its mechanisms fully understood.”1
The ancient Greeks believed the thymus was the seat of the soul. As far back as the time of the famous physician Galen, who lived around the year 200, medical people knew that the thymus gradually shrinks as we grow older, but still no one knew exactly what it did in the body.
But in 1961, tests on lab animals showed that the thymus keeps the immune system up and running. These experiments showed that without a thymus, the immune system can lose some of its ability to respond to an attack by pathogens.2
Decline and fall of the thymus
As you age, your thymus gland atrophies – the functional part of the gland gradually disappears and is replaced by an influx of fat cells.
According to researchers at the Scripps Institute in Florida, that shrinkage puts you at greater risk for potentially fatal infections. The vanishing thymus is a big part of older people’s increased susceptibility to illness.
“The thymus ages more rapidly than any other tissue in the body, diminishing the ability of older individuals to respond to new immunologic challenges…” warns senior researcher Howard Petrie.
The Scripps scientists add that much of this shrinkage and loss of immune system function is linked to the gland’s inability, with the passing years, to successfully defend itself from oxidative damage to its genetic material.3
As caustic free radicals – a product of the body’s normal, everyday metabolism – wreak oxidative havoc on the thymus’s DNA, the gland begins to produce fewer and fewer T cells. These are immune cells the body needs to stem the invasion of microbes. The “T” actually stands for thymus.
Source of immune cells
T cells are white blood cells that make cytokines, substances that direct other immune cells in their responses to infection.4 In addition, T cells can directly attack pathogens while recognizing viruses, bacteria and other dangers in the body and alerting the rest of the immune system to their presence.
Now, T cells aren’t immortal. They have to be replaced all the time. But quite early in our lives — around the time of adolescence — the thymus starts to contract, and its production of new T cells begins to slow.
The decrease in new T cells generated by the thymus is partially offset by the ability of existing T cells to reproduce themselves by cell division. However, in this process, most of the new T cells that are regenerated are what are called “memory” T cells – T cells that are designed to recall infectious agents from previous illnesses. They’ve been stamped, so to speak, as specialists in fighting diseases you’ve had before.
As a result, there’s a decline in the number of T cells that can learn about new pathogens and effectively generate an immune response against a novel microbe never experienced before that is a threat to cause illness.
The research at Scripps shows that as the thymus grows older, it loses access to an antioxidant enzyme known as catalase that defends it against oxidative destruction.
They haven’t definitively proven it yet, but the researchers believe (and their study strongly suggests) that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables as well as antioxidant supplements like vitamin C, vitamin E and the carotenoids can help protect the thymus as the supply of catalase diminishes.
So the moral of the story is that your shrinking thymus needs your help. And since taking antioxidant supplements and eating a diet full of antioxidant phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables can’t hurt, it’s time to make sure this little gland gets the antioxidant support it needs.