In this series, “The Miraculous Immune System,” we explore the true power of immunity and the organs that work tirelessly to protect the body.
The thymus is like a military base that trains soldiers—T cells—to battle for the immune system against dangers such as COVID-19 and cancer.
Despite its critical role, the thymus gland's ability to stimulate effective T cell generation declines with age. Thymus atrophy or degradation may contribute to the overall reduction in immunological function that occurs with aging.
Factors Inducing Thymic AtrophyGradual thymus gland atrophy with age is a well-known physiological phenomenon; it's a complex process that can be hastened by various triggers such as malnutrition, bacterial or viral infections, stressful situations, and alcoholism.
Lack of NutrientsWhen the body is deprived of nutrients, digestive disorders develop, resulting in a decline in thymus function and accelerated thymus degeneration.
StressThe thymus is extremely sensitive to acute stress-induced atrophy and is often referred to as a “barometer of stress” for the body. The more stress one has, the more likely the thymus will shrink and undergo acute thymic atrophy.
Bacterial InfectionAlthough less studied, bacterial infections also undermine thymic function, mostly by inducing premature apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the thymus, resulting in acute thymic atrophy, according to the Dudakov paper.
SARS-CoV-2 InfectionAnother study, published in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology, revealed that patients with COVID-19 (caused by SARS-CoV-2) may have pathological alterations that affect thymus development and may have fewer lymphocytes. Whether this affects thymic atrophy wasn't confirmed.
Alcohol AddictionA Russian autopsy study found that the volume of thymus tissue was significantly smaller in 54 people addicted to alcohol than in 53 nonalcoholic age-matched controls. The study reported similar findings regarding spleen tissue.
Lack of SleepStudies have established that lack of sleep contributes to thymic atrophy.
Iatrogenic Thymic AtrophyThe application of immunosuppressive therapy, such as chemo- and radiotherapy in cancer management or before transplantation, not only damages tumor cells and peripheral immune cells, but also has catastrophic effects on the thymic microenvironment, resulting in fewer T lymphocytes.
The Thymus Can RegenerateAlthough the thymus can degenerate, it also has a powerful ability to regenerate. In the chemotherapy study described above, thymus regrowth was observed in 90 percent of the patients studied.
The study suggests that the adult thymus has the ability to regenerate and play a significant role in rebuilding the peripheral T cell pool after chemotherapy-induced lymphopenia, at least up to middle age.
Strategies to Protect the ThymusThere are numerous simple and effective techniques to help preserve the thymus and boost immunity.
Consuming Thymus-Friendly FoodsMany nutrients act as co-factors in the synthesis, secretion, and activity of thymic hormones. Specific nutritional deficits can result in diminished thymic hormone activity and poor immunological function.
- Zinc: oysters, beef, chicken, tofu, pork, nuts, seeds, lentils, yogurt, oatmeal, and mushrooms.
- Vitamin C: guava, bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries, oranges, papaya, broccoli, tomatoes, kale, and snow peas.
- Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, avocados, pumpkin, kiwi, trout, shrimp, olive oil, wheat germ oil, and broccoli—the primary dietetic sources of vitamin E are plant oils, such as soybean, sunflower, corn, and walnut.
Reducing StressNumerous studies have proven that meditation is an effective stress management method. According to the Harvard Health Journal, research has even indicated that mindfulness meditation may have a longer-lasting effect on stress reduction than taking a vacation.
Exercising RegularlyA study in the journal Aging Cell compared the immune systems of adults aged 55 to 79 who have been physically active for most of their lives with those of inactive older adults and of young adults who don't exercise regularly.
Researchers also observed less of a reduction in immune function with age in the cyclists. The study suggests that physical activity helps slow down some of the age-related changes that occur in the immune system.
Exercise increases blood flow, allowing nutrients to reach the body's most critical areas and removing waste materials.
Getting Adequate SleepGetting enough sleep is crucial for a strong immune system and overall well-being. Getting seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night helps support the health of the thymus gland and keeps the immune system working at its best.
Avoiding Exposure to Environmental PollutantsExposure to contaminants such as environmental toxins, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and hazardous chemicals can affect the thymus.
Next: Bone marrow, though mysterious, has essential functions, and it needs to be safeguarded to optimize health.Read Part 1: The Silent Gatekeepers of Your Immunity Many People Don’t Know Of
◇ References:Ashwell, J. D., M. Lu, F. W., & Vacchio, M. S. (2003). Glucocorticoids in T Cell Development and Function*. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.immunol.18.1.309
Ageev, A. K., Sidorin, V. S., Rogachev, M. V., & Timofeev, I. V. (1986). Morfologicheskaia kharakteristika izmeneniĭ vilochkovoĭ zhelezy i selezenki pri alkogolizme [Morphologic characteristics of the changes in the thymus and spleen in alcoholism]. Arkhiv patologii, 48(10), 33–39. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3800680/
Sfikakis, P. P., Gourgoulis, G. M., Moulopoulos, L. A., Kouvatseas, G., Theofilopoulos, A. N., & Dimopoulos, M. A. (2005). Age-related thymic activity in adults following chemotherapy-induced lymphopenia. European journal of clinical investigation, 35(6), 380–387. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2362.2005.01499.x
Mackall C L, Fleisher T A, Brown M R, Andrich M P, Chen C C, Feuerstein I M, Horowitz M E, Magrath I T, Shad A T, Steinberg S M. Age, thymopoiesis, and CD4+ T-lymphocyte regeneration after intensive chemotherapy. N Engl J Med. 1995;332:143–149. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199501193320303
Leblond V, Othman T B, Blanc C, Theodorou I, Choquet S, Sutton L, Debre P, Autran B. Expansion of CD4+CD7– T cells, a memory subset with preferential interleukin-4 production, after bone marrow transplantation. Transplantation. 1997;64:1453– 1459.
Storek J, Witherspoon R P, Storb R. T cell reconstitution after bone marrow transplantation into adult patients does not resemble T cell development in early life. Bone Marrow Transplant. 1995;16:413–425.
Duah, M., Li, L., Shen, J., Lan, Q., Pan, B., & Xu, K. (2021). Thymus Degeneration and Regeneration. Frontiers in Immunology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2021.706244
Velardi, E., Tsai, J. J., & M., M. R. (2021). T cell regeneration after immunological injury. Nature Reviews Immunology, 21(5), 277-291. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41577-020-00457-z
Kinsella, S., & Dudakov, J. A. (2020). When the Damage Is Done: Injury and Repair in Thymus Function. Frontiers in Immunology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2020.01745