10 Breathtaking Facts About the Lungs

Laughter needs lungs.
Laughter needs lungs.
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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

Every cell in your body needs oxygen in order to function properly. Your lungs are obviously crucial in achieving this goal—once you take air into your lungs, oxygen enters the bloodstream and moves through your body. Each cell makes a trade, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide—which your bloodstream then transports back to the lungs. When you exhale, you’re actually expelling carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen, and water vapor.

So how does your body make this happen? Bronchial tubes connect your lungs to your throat and mouth. These are lined with tiny little hairs called cilia that move in wave-like patterns, which pushes mucus up your throat. At the base of the bronchial tubes are tiny air sacs that hold the air you breathe in, called alveoli. Your right lung has three balloon-like sections, called lobes, which are full of spongy tissue. Your left lung has only two lobes, to make room for the heart. They sit in a special membrane called the pleura, that separates your lungs from the wall of your chest. Altogether, your lungs are a highly efficient machine—and they do a lot more than you might think.

1. TAKING IN OXYGEN IS ONLY ONE OF YOUR LUNGS' MOST IMPORTANT JOBS.

Yes, you need oxygen to live, but if you didn’t expel the carbon dioxide in your lungs, you would die. Carbon dioxide acts as an acid in the body and is generated by muscle action, Wendie Howland, a nurse with Howland Health Consulting, tells Mental Floss. “Your body operates optimally at a fairly narrow pH range, and when you generate extra CO2 by, say, running up the stairs, you bring your pH into the normal range almost immediately by excreting CO2 by breathing deeply.” So exhaling that more toxic CO2 is as important as taking in oxygen.

2. YOUR LUNGS ARE BLOOD BUCKETS.

Rather than thinking of your lungs as big balloons, Cascari says, “Think of your lungs as buckets of blood with air bubbles going through them.” In fact, your lungs contain as much blood as the entire rest of your body, which is why your center of gravity is above your waist. They produce blood cells as well. Every time your heart beats, it sends an equal amount of blood to your lungs as it does everywhere else in your body. “It’s this incredible system that can respire—an exchange of gas from the air into the blood and the lungs—without leaking. The fact that that goes on day in day out for our whole life is pretty amazing,” he says.

3. THEY'RE LARGER THAN YOU THINK.

Your lungs are one of your biggest organs, but you might be surprised to learn that if you spread out the surface area of the alveoli, the sacs where oxygen and blood interface, you could cover an entire tennis court, Schroeder says.

4. WITHOUT MUCUS, YOUR LUNGS WOULD DRY UP.

You may not be a big fan of mucus when it’s clogging your chest or nose during a cold, but it’s a “highly underrated powerful infection-fighting agent in your body with some pretty cool features," says Ray Casciari, a pulmonologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “It’s actually cleaner than blood,” Casciari reveals. “If you take bacteria and expose it to mucus, the mucus will stop the growth of the bacteria. Whereas blood will actually support the growth of the bacteria.” (In fact, researchers in laboratories often deliberately use blood to grow bacteria.) Your mucus is such an important protective agent that you’d die without it. “If you didn’t have mucus in your lungs, you would dehydrate, losing so much water through evaporation that you would die within minutes,” he says. On the other hand, too much mucus production is dangerous.

5. SMOKE GETS IN YOUR BRAIN

In under seven seconds, to be precise. Because of your lungs’ enormous surface area and “its intimate relationship with blood vessels that surround it,” says Scott Schroeder, director of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at the Floating Hospital of Tufts Medical Center, an inhalation of smoke or a vaporized medicine can reach the brain very quickly.

6. COUGHING ISN'T ALWAYS BAD.

Even when you aren’t sick, a normal person coughs about 10 times per day, says Schroeder—whether due to a sticky piece of food, an allergen you accidentally inhale, or your own mucus generated by exercise.

7. ASTHMA ISN'T ONE DISEASE.

Asthma, which causes wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, is actually a number of different illnesses under one name, Schroeder says. The good news is that deaths due to asthma are very uncommon, and have decreased significantly over the last 20 years, he reports (with one notable exception—African-American men age 18–24). But it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Women are much more likely to develop asthma as adults than men, especially if they are overweight. And people in urban areas are more likely to suffer from asthma than those in rural areas, likely due to increased particulate matter in the air from car exhaust and industrial pollutants.

8. EXERCISE CAN MAKE ASTHMA BETTER.

Asthma is actually improved by cardiovascular exercise. Schroeder says there are no sports that people with asthma cannot participate in, “except scuba diving, but I don’t consider that a sport.”

9. YOU CAN GET LUNG CANCER EVEN IF YOU'VE NEVER SMOKED.

“You can spend your whole life in a very clean environment, never having smoked, and still get lung cancer,” Casciari says. Not all lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking (though the majority is). Casciari cites occupational exposure, radiation exposure, and potential genetic risk factors, although researchers are still exploring the role genetics play. “Folks tend to think of their lungs very little, and when they do, they think, ‘I don’t smoke, so I’m ok,’ but that’s not completely true.”

10. BREAKTHROUGHS IN LUNG CANCER TREATMENT HAVE IMPROVED SURVIVAL RATES.

For decades, toxic chemotherapy has been the best medicine for treating lung cancer, but it comes with intense side effects. However, several new breakthroughs have recently improved outcomes for patients, says Casciari. Thoracic CT scans, for example, improve survival by 20 percent by providing earlier diagnosis and treatments. Furthermore, new minimally invasive surgery techniques have made recovery from lung cancer surgery much easier, with people being discharged on the same day of surgery. Finally, immunotherapies that target specific cancer markers and harness the immune system itself to fight cancer cells have improved outcomes—and decreased side effects—for lung cancer patients.

25 Amazing Facts About the Human Body

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The human body is an amazing piece of machinery—with a few weird quirks.

  1. It’s possible to brush your teeth too aggressively. Doing so can wear down enamel and make teeth sensitive to hot and cold foods.

  2. Goose bumps evolved to make our ancestors’ hair stand up, making them appear more threatening to predators.

Woman's legs with goosebumps
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  1. Wisdom teeth serve no purpose. They’re left over from hundreds of thousands of years ago. As early humans’ brains grew bigger, it reduced space in the mouth, crowding out this third set of molars.

  2. Scientists aren't exactly sure why we yawn, but it may help regulate body temperature.

  3. Your fingernails don’t actually grow after you’re dead.

  4. If they were laid end to end, all of the blood vessels in the human body would encircle the Earth four times.

  5. Humans are the only animals with chins.

    An older woman's chin
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    1. As you breathe, most of the air is going in and out of one nostril. Every few hours, the workload shifts to the other nostril.

    2. Blood makes up about 8 percent of your total body weight.

    3. The human nose can detect about 1 trillion smells.

    4. You have two kidneys, but only one is necessary to live.

    5. Belly buttons grow special hairs to catch lint.

      A woman putting her hands in a heart shape around her belly button
      iStock.com/PeopleImages
      1. The satisfying sound of cracking your knuckles comes from gas bubbles bursting in your joints.

      2. Skin is the body’s largest organ and can comprise 15 percent of a person’s total weight.

      3. Thumbs have their own pulse.

      4. Your tongue is made up of eight interwoven muscles, similar in structure to an elephant’s trunk or an octopus’s tentacle.

      5. On a genetic level, all human beings are more than 99 percent identical.

        Identical twin baby boys in striped shirts
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        1. The foot is one of the most ticklish parts of the body.

        2. Extraocular muscles in the eye are the body’s fastest muscles. They allow both of your eyes to flick in the same direction in a single 50-millisecond movement.

        3. A surgical procedure called a selective amygdalohippocampectomy removes half of the brain’s amygdala—and with it, the patient’s sense of fear.

        4. The pineal gland, which secretes the hormone melatonin, got its name from its shape, which resembles a pine nut.

        5. Hair grows fast—about 6 inches per year. The only thing in the body that grows faster is bone marrow.

          An African-American woman drying her hair with a towel and laughing
          iStock.com/GlobalStock
          1. No one really knows what fingerprints are for, but they might help wick water away from our hands, prevent blisters, or improve touch.

          2. The heart beats more than 3 billion times in the average human lifespan.

          3. Blushing is caused by a rush of adrenaline.

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

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