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12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

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.

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.

Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Melbourne's Monash University, shares with Mental Floss important facts about how your body processes your food.

1. YOUR 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.

Da Vinci mistakenly believed the digestive system aided the 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 In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and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," Zaph says. 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 BOWELS CAN FOLD LIKE A TELESCOPE. (THIS IS NOT GOOD.)

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 pain in the abdomen 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—infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this, but they do know that "good bacteria don't live in the mucus layer close to the intestinal epithelial cells." Zaph explains that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. YOUR SMALL INTESTINE HAS MANY "FINGERS" …

The lining of the small intestine is covered 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 help 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. YOUR GUT IS HOME TO A MARVELOUS MICROSCOPIC WORLD KNOWN AS THE 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. YOUR GUT IS VERY SENSITIVE TO CHANGES.

Zaph says that many things change the composition of the microbiome: antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, infections. But in general, most people return to a stable microbiome after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between many 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."

11. TRANSFERRING BACTERIA FROM ONE GUT TO ANOTHER CAN TRANSFER DISEASE—OR POSSIBLY 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 gut 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. YOUR GUT MICROBIOME MAY INFLUENCE HOW YOU RESPOND TO MEDICAL TREATMENT.

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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The Body
9 Interesting Facts About the Ribs
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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.

Ribs are not just an incredibly tasty order on the menu at the nearest steak house: These bony spindles in your torso attach to your sternum (breast bone) to protect your lungs, heart, spleen, and most of the liver and help with giving shape to your chest cavity, which assists in breathing. Ribs are protective on the one hand, but if badly broken, your ribs can turn lethal to you, piercing your organs. Mental Floss spoke to John Martinez, MD, an urgent care provider with Dignity Health Medical Foundation in California for these nine fascinating facts about the ribs.

1. YOUR RIBS MOVE LIKE A BUCKET HANDLE.

The ribs allow chest expansion for breathing, Martinez explains. "They function similarly to the bucket handle on a bucket and swing upwards as we take a breath, allowing the thoracic cavity to expand." This increase in the thoracic cavity makes it easier to take a breath.

2. YOU HAVE THREE TYPES OF RIBS.

The human skeleton has 12 pairs of ribs. Working from the top of the torso down, ribs 1 to 7 are considered "true ribs," as they connect directly from the spine to the sternum, Martinez says. Ribs 8 to 10 are called "false ribs" because they don't connect directly, but have cartilage that attaches them to the sternum. Ribs 11 and 12 are called "floating ribs" because they only connect to the spine in back. These, he says, "are much shorter."

3. THIS MYTH ABOUT WOMEN'S RIBS PERSISTS.

In an effort to prove the Bible story of Eve as wrought from Adam's rib "true," pastors and Sunday School teachers sometimes pass along a tale that women have more ribs than men. It's not true (and that story is sexist, anyway). Gender plays no part in the number of ribs you have: It's 12 ribs for everyone. However, women's ribs are about 10 percent smaller in volume on average than men's ribs.

4. IN RARE INSTANCES, HUMANS CAN HAVE A "GORILLA RIB."

In rare cases, which have nothing to do with gender, a human might turn up sporting extra lumbar ribs, for a total of 13 pairs of ribs, much like our distant cousins, the gorillas. Thus, it's colloquially known as a "gorilla rib."

5. RIBS ARE THE REASON NEANDERTHALS DIDN'T NEED BELTS.

Neanderthals had wider, thicker rib cages than we modern slim-waisted humans, which would have made them terrible models for skinny jeans. A 2016 study in American Journal of Physical Anthropology found that the Ice-Age diet is likely responsible for the larger ribcage and wider pelvis in Neanderthals. Essentially, carbs were scarce and fat was abundant. This led to an enlarged liver, kidneys and "their corresponding morphological manifestations," the authors write. In other words, they needed more space to house bigger organs.

6. TWO VERY DIFFERENT KINDS OF ATHLETE SHARE ONE COMMON INJURY. 

"Rowers and baseball pitchers are the most common athletes to suffer from stress fractures of the ribs," Martinez says. This is caused by the serratus anterior muscle pulling on the delicate ribs. "Other athletes that may be more likely to suffer from rib stress fractures include golfers, dancers, weightlifters and volleyball players," he adds.

7. YOU CAN SNEEZE YOUR WAY TO A RIB FRACTURE.

"True" rib fractures—where the bone breaks all the way through—are usually from traumatic events such as "a hard football tackle [or] car accident," Martinez says. However, sometimes a rib fracture can occur "from sneezing or coughing due to the force of the contracting chest wall muscles on the ribs." Treatment for true rib fractures is the same as rib stress fractures.

8. WAIST TRAINING USED TO BE ALL THE RAGE … AND STILL SOMETIMES IS.

Women have historically worn corsets, undergarments that cinch the torso in, particularly at the waist, bringing ribs and organs closer together for a smaller waist and more prominent bust. Despite corsets having gone out of fashion by the 1920s, when women began to prefer the looser, more flowing garments of the Flapper era, a number of contemporary women still wear them for reasons ranging from aesthetics to performance art, spawning a practice known as tight lacing or waist training. In this movement, women actively whittle their waists down to exceptionally small circumferences.

Doctors warn that there is risk of permanent damage to squished organs, as well as such uncomfortable syndromes as acid reflux syndrome and back pain. But it doesn't stop those who love the look.

9. THE GUINNESS RECORD HOLDER FOR A TINY WAIST IS 15 INCHES.

2011 Guinness Book of World Records winner Cathie Jung got her waist down to 15 inches through tight lacing by wearing corsets 24 hours a day, and moving down to smaller and smaller sizes. Her waist now has the same circumference as a regular jar of mayonnaise.

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7 Essential Facts About the Pelvis
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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.

The pelvis, which crooner Elvis was famous for thrusting around in ways that raised eyebrows, is not actually a single body part but a term that refers to a collection of bones, muscles and organs below the waist. We spoke to Katherine Gillogley, department chair of obstetrics and gynecology with Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, for these seven facts about the pelvis.

1. SO WHAT IS THE PELVIS, EXACTLY?

"The pelvis refers to the lower abdominal area in both men and women," Gillogley says. "An important function of the pelvis region is to protect organs used for digestion and reproduction, though all its functions are crucial," she says. It protects the bladder, both large and small intestines, and male and female reproductive organs. Another key role is to support the hip joints.

2. THE PELVIC BONES FORM A BASIN.

Four bones come together to form a bowl-like shape, or basin: the two hip bones, the sacrum (the triangle-shaped bone at the low back) and the coccyx (also known as the tailbone).

3. YOUR PELVIC FLOOR IS LIKE A TRAMPOLINE.

At the bottom of the pelvis lies your pelvic floor. You don't have to worry about sweeping it, but you might want to do Kegel exercises to keep it strong. The pelvic floor is like a "mini-trampoline made of firm muscle," according the Continence Foundation of Australia. Just like a trampoline, the pelvic floor is flexible and can move up and down. It also creates a surface (floor) for the pelvic organs to lie upon: the bladder, uterus, and bowels. It has holes, too, for vagina, urethra, and anus to pass through.

4. IT PLAYS A KEY PART IN WALKING.

Anyone who has ever broken a pelvic bone or pulled a pelvic muscle will know just how key a role the pelvis plays in such functions as walking and standing. "The pelvis also acts as a solid foundation for the attachment of the spinal column and legs," says Gillogley.

5. THE FEMALE PELVIS STARTS OUT LARGER, BUT NARROWS OVER TIME.

Gillogley says that the female pelvis "tends to be larger and wider" than the male, most likely to accommodate a baby during pregnancy and to make childbirth possible. However, women's pelvises narrow as they age, suggesting that they start out wider to accommodate childbearing and then shift when that is no longer necessary. A shifting pelvis shape is thought to be a key part of our evolutionary history, as it changed as when we began walking upright.    

6. PREGNANCY CHANGES THE PELVIS FOREVER.

During pregnancy the body secretes a hormone known as relaxin to help the body accommodate the growing baby and soften the cervix. However, what happens is, "the joints between the pelvic bones actually loosen and slightly separate during pregnancy and childbirth," Gillogley says. Sometimes, however, relaxin can make the joints too loose, causing a painful syndrome known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), causing the pelvic joint to become unstable, causing pain and weakness in the pelvis, perineum and even upper thighs during walking and other activities. Many women with the condition have to wear a pelvic belt. It usually resolves after pregnancy is over, though physical therapy may be necessary.

7. IT'S ACCIDENT PRONE.

According to the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, about 8 to 9 percent of blunt trauma includes pelvic injury, Gillogley says. "These accidents include falls, motor vehicle crashes, bicycle accidents, and pedestrians being struck by moving vehicles. With these serious injuries, pelvic bones can fracture or dislocate and sometimes bladder injury even occurs." So take care with your pelvis—in worse-case scenarios, breaks of the pelvic bones can require pins, rods, and surgery to fix.

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