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The Thymus Gland and Type 1 Diabetes

The thymus gland is most active during early life, playing a critical role in the development of a child’s immune system before birth and for some time thereafter. Usually by the age of two, the thymus gland has reached its maximum size with the immune system becoming fully functional. After puberty, the gland begins to shrink and is replaced by connective tissue and fat. Many individuals believe the thymus gland becomes irrelevant, however, researchers are studying the impact that optimizing the gland’s function, in both children and adults, could have on immunity. Preliminary research on optimizing thymus gland function is showing a positive impact on cancer, HIV/AIDS and numerous autoimmune diseases.

Function of the thymus gland involves overseeing the development of T cells so as to build a strong adaptive immune system. T cells are cytotoxic, killing foreign organisms and mutated cells directly; they are so effective in this regard that one of the critical points of their maturation, which takes place in the thymus gland, is the selective elimination of those T cells that recognize themselves as foreign. This critical maturation point reduces the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. The primary anti-autoimmune function of the thymus is the process of central tolerance (newly developed T and B cells become non-reactive to self), which leads us to the link to diabetes.

Although the primary cause for type 1 diabetes is unknown, more research is showing a correlation between thymic dysfunction and the development of type 1 diabetes.

Although the importance of the thymus gland is debated, the thymus serves an important function in the development and maintenance of a healthy immune system throughout life. The critical process of educating our immune system to attack infectious non-self antigens is managed solely by the thymus gland, and such, it should not be disregarded either in childhood or adulthood.

Tags: thymus gland, immunity, cancer, HIV/AIDS, autoimmune diseases, type 1 diabetes,