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 In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and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.

12 Fantastic Facts About the Immune System

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

If it weren't for our immune system, none of us would live very long. Not only does the immune system protect us from external pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but it also battles cells that have mutated due to illnesses, like cancer, within the body. Here are 12 fascinating facts about the immune system.

1. The immune system saves lives.

The immune system is a complex network of tissues and organs that spreads throughout the entire body. In a nutshell, it works like this: A series of "sensors" within the system detects an intruding pathogen, like bacteria or a virus. Then the sensors signal other parts of the system to kill the pathogen and eliminate the infection.

"The immune system is being bombarded by all sorts of microbes all the time," Russell Vance, professor of immunology at University of California, Berkeley and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tells Mental Floss. "Yet, even though we're not aware of it, it's saving our lives every day, and doing a remarkably good job of it."

2. Before scientists understood the immune system, illness was chalked up to unbalanced humors.

Long before physicians realized how invisible pathogens interacted with the body's system for fighting them off, doctors diagnosed all ills of the body and the mind according to the balance of "four humors": melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. These criteria, devised by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, were divided between the four elements, which were linked to bodily fluids (a.k.a. humors): earth (black bile), air (blood), water (phlegm) and fire (yellow bile), which also carried properties of cold, hot, moist, or dry. Through a combination of guesswork and observation, physicians would diagnose patients' humors and prescribe treatment that most likely did little to support the immune system's ability to resist infection.

3. Two men who unraveled the immune system's functions were bitter rivals.

Two scientists who discovered key functions of the immune system, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, should have been able to see their work as complementary, but they wound up rivals. Pasteur, a French microbiologist, was famous for his experiments demonstrating the mechanism of vaccines using weakened versions of the microbes. Koch, a German physician, established four essential conditions under which pathogenic bacteria can infect hosts, and used them to identify the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Though both helped establish the germ theory of disease—one of the foundations of modern medicine today—Pasteur and Koch's feud may have been aggravated by nationalism, a language barrier, criticisms of each other's work, and possibly a hint of jealousy.

4. Specialized blood cells are the immune system's greatest weapon.

The most powerful weapons in your immune system's arsenal are white blood cells, divided into two main types: lymphocytes, which create antigens for specific pathogens and kill them or escort them out of the body; and phagocytes, which ingest harmful bacteria. White blood cells not only attack foreign pathogens, but recognize these interlopers the next time they meet them and respond more quickly. Many of these immune cells are produced in your bone marrow but also in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus, and are stored in some of these tissues and other areas of the body. In the lymph nodes, which are located throughout your body but most noticeably in your armpits, throat, and groin, lymphatic fluid containing white blood cells flows through vein-like tubules to escort foreign invaders out.

5. The spleen helps your immune system work.

Though you can live without the spleen, an organ that lies between stomach and diaphragm, it's better to hang onto it for your immune function. According to Adriana Medina, a doctor who specializes in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, your spleen is "one big lymph node" that makes new white blood cells and cleans out old blood cells from the body.

It's also a place where immune cells congregate. "Because the immune cells are spread out through the body," Vance says, "eventually they need to communicate with each other." They do so in both the spleen and lymph nodes.

6. You have immune cells in all of your tissues.

While immune cells may congregate more in lymph nodes than elsewhere, "every tissue in your body has immune cells stationed in it or circulating through it, constantly roving for signs of attack," Vance explains. These cells also circulate through the blood. The reason for their widespread presence is that there are thousands of different pathogens that might infect us, from bacteria to viruses to parasites. "To eliminate each of those different kinds of threats requires specialized detectors," he says.

7. How friendly you're feeling could be linked to your immune system.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans' high sociability may have less to do with our bigger brains, and more to do with our immune system's exposure to a greater number of bacteria and other pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have theorized that interferon gamma (IG), a substance that helps the immune system fight invaders, was linked to social behavior, which is one of the ways we become exposed to pathogens.

In mice, they found IG acted as a kind of brake to the brain's prefrontal cortex, essentially stopping aberrant hyperactivity that can cause negative changes in social behavior. When they blocked the IG molecule, the mice's prefrontal cortexes became hyperactive, resulting in less sociability. When they restored the function, the mice's brains returned to normal, as did their social behavior.

8. Your immune system might recruit unlikely organs, like the appendix, into service.

The appendix gets a bad rap as a vestigial organ that does nothing but occasionally go septic and create a need for immediate surgery. But the appendix may help keep your gut in good shape. According to Gabrielle Belz, professor of molecular immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, research by Duke University's Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker suggests the appendix houses symbiotic bacteria that are important for overall gut health—especially after infections wipe out the gut's good microbes. Special immune cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in the appendix may help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria and put the gut back on track to recovery.

9. Gut bacteria has been shown to boost immune systems in mice.

Researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that one group of mice in their lab had a stronger response to a cancer treatment than other mice. They eventually traced the reason to a strain of bacteria—Bifidobacterium—in the mice's guts that boosted the animals' immune system to such a degree they could compare it to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which keep the immune system from overreacting.

To test their theory, they transferred fecal matter from the robust mice to the stomachs of less immune-strengthened mice, with positive results: The treated mice mounted stronger immune responses and tumor growth slowed. When they compared the bacterial transfer effects with the effects of a checkpoint inhibitor drug, they found that the bacteria treatment was just as effective. The researchers believe that, with further study, the same effect could be seen in human cancer patients.

10. Scientists are trying to harness the immune system's "Pac-Man" cells to treat cancer.

Aggressive pediatric tumors are difficult to treat due to the toxicity of chemotherapy, but some researchers are hoping to develop effective treatments without the harmful side effects. Stanford researchers designed a study around a recently discovered molecule known as CD47, a protein expressed on the surface of all cells, and how it interacts with macrophages, white blood cells that kill abnormal cells. "Think of the macrophages as the Pac-Man of the immune system," Samuel Cheshier, lead study author and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford Medicine, tells Mental Floss.

CD47 sends the immune system's macrophages a "don't eat me" signal. Cancer cells fool the immune system into not destroying them by secreting high amounts of CD47. When Cheshier and his team blocked the CD47 signals on cancer cells, the macrophages could identify the cancer cells and eat them, without toxic side effects to healthy cells. The treatment successfully shrank all five of the common pediatric tumors, without the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.

11. A new therapy for type 1 diabetes tricks the immune system.

In those with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreatic cells, interrupting its normal ability to produce insulin in response to glucose. In a 2016 paper, researchers at MIT, in collaboration with Boston's Children's Hospital, successfully designed a new material that allows them to encapsulate and transplant healthy pancreatic "islet" cells into diabetic mice without triggering an immune response. Made from seaweed, the substance is benign enough that the body doesn't react to it, and porous enough to allow the islet cells to be placed in the abdomen of mice, where they restore the pancreatic function. Senior author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor at MIT, said in a statement that this approach "has the potential to provide [human] diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That's the dream."

12. Immunotherapy is on the cutting edge of immune system research.

Over the last few years, research in the field of immunology has focused on developing cancer treatments using immunotherapy. This method engineers the patient's own normal cells to attack the cancer cells. Vance says the technique could be used for many more conditions. "I feel like that could be just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "If we can understand better what the cancer and immunotherapy is showing, maybe we can go in there and manipulate the immune responses and get good outcomes for other diseases, too."

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA/iStock via Getty Images
CharlieAJA/iStock via Getty Images

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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