The thymus gland lies behind the sternum, or breast bone, and partially in front of the heart. It is a specialized gland of the immune system. The idea behind consuming glandular material from other animals is that “like stimulates like,” and the hormones in supplemental bovine thymus may rejuvenate or heal human thymus disorders. No human research confirms this belief, although anecdotal claims go back many decades.
The Thymus Gland
The thymus gland is a specialized organ of the immune system that produces and "teaches" T-lymphocytes, or T-cells. T-cells are white blood cells essential to the adaptive part of the immune system, which must "learn" to identify pathogens from harmless material. The thymus is the primary location where T-cells distinguish pathogens and develop antibodies. The thymus is largest and most active during the neonatal period and childhood years. The thymus, like all glands, is sensitive to radiation, toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Adults can survive without their thymus glands without much compromise to their immune systems.
Brief History of Glandular Therapy
Glandular therapy, which involves consuming glands from other animals for medicinal purposes, began with the discoveries of Swiss physician Paul Niehans in the 1920s. Niehans called his glandular therapy “live cell therapy” and administered it to thousands of patients who displayed problems with various glands and organs. Much success was claimed by leading European doctors and their patients. By the 1930s, adrenal and thymus cell extracts and tablet forms were produced by several pharmaceutical companies, which lasted until the late 1960s. Since then, glandular products are made by supplement companies. As such, quality control and potency varies dramatically in glandular supplements.
Thymus Gland Supplements
Thymus gland supplements are usually made of raw glandular tissue from cows, which is dried and ground into capsules. Good quality brands use thymus glands from only USDA-inspected cattle facilities and certified laboratories to make the powdered supplements. The highest quality brands use thymus material from organic farms in New Zealand, where the cows are free-range and never been exposed to "mad cow" disease, which is a concern when consuming the brains, and perhaps glands, of cows. Glandular supplements can come from any animal, but most often they are derived from cows and sometimes from pigs and sheep.
Purpose of Supplementing
The concept behind taking thymus gland supplements is to ingest hormones and other substances to stimulate the human thymus gland and enhance immunity. It is claimed that thymus glandular material stimulates lymphocyte production, although quality human research is lacking to provide proof. Thymus extracts and supplements could influence the immune system, but it is impossible to know the short-term and long-term effects on the body. People do eat thymus glands of animals for culinary reasons, which are called sweetbreads, but they tend to be marinated and then cooked. Consuming any animal product raw always carries risk, so consult a health-care professional before embarking on a supplement regimen.
- “Textbook of Medical Physiology – 10th Edition”; Arthur C. Guyton et al; 2000
- “The New Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements, and Herbs”; Nicola Reavley; 1999
- “Nutritional Sciences”; Michelle McGuire; 2007
- “Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties”; Canadian Pharmacists Association; 2010