My first thought when hearing that was “What the hell is the thymus gland?”
The Thymus gland is located just beneath the breastbone and next to the heart, and is probably one of the more important, if not THE most important gland within the immune system. This is because within the Thymus gland is where our T-cells (T-lymphocytes) mature.
T-cells are essential for human immunity. They are a type of white blood cell, found in our bodies, that scan for cellular abnormalities and infections. There are several different kinds of T-cells that can loosely be split into two types – killer T-cells and helper T-cells.
Killer T-cells have the ability to see inside our own cells simply by scanning their surface. Because of this ability, they are able to hunt down and destroy cells that are infected with germs or microbes and those that have become cancerous. They have the ability to directly “kill” infected cells.
Helper T-cells coordinate an immune response and play important roles in all aspects of immunity. They control and regulate the immune system by providing “help” to other white blood cells.
HIV/AIDS illustrates the devastating effects of a lower than normal number of just one type of T-cell.
Just by understanding T-cells, the importance of the Thymus becomes clearly evident. It is key to a healthy, functioning immune system. The Thymus gland appears to do most of its work in the earlier part of life and its shrinkage is one of the most important biomarkers of ageing, with some suggesting that the decline in Thymic hormones gradually robs the body of its ability to fight off infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Now here’s where it becomes relevant to this week’s fact…
In a study from 1996, they found that when comparing 4-month-olds who were fed differently (Exclusively breastfed, mixed fed and formula fed), that there were significant differences in the size of the Thymus gland. There was little difference in size at birth, but by 4 months the formula fed babies had an average Thymic index of 18.3, mixed fed babies had an average of 27.3 and exclusively breastfed babies had an average of 38.3. That’s more than double that of a formula fed baby!
One thing that is evident – the work the Thymus does, prior to its shrinking, has a lifelong influence and its impact may not even be evident for many decades!
If you’re a regular to our little corner, you’ll already be aware of other Fun Fact Fridays that have looked at the amazing panacea that is breastmilk! For those of you that want to know more, check out these Fun Facts…