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 In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and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

8 Surprising Facts About Your Nose

iStock/AntonioGuillem
iStock/AntonioGuillem

Your nose is more than just a bump on your face—it’s an important part of the respiratory system and affects many other senses, including your taste and hearing. For being something that’s so central to our daily interactions with the world, there’s still a surprising amount to discover about the nose. Here's a bit of what we do know.

1. Your nose can detect billions of different odors.

Although the human nose is weak compared to canine sniffers, our noses can detect 1 trillion smells. Strangely, scientists still aren’t sure exactly how we smell. For decades, researchers thought the olfactory system worked through receptor binding, meaning molecules of different shapes and sizes bonded to specific parts of the nose like puzzle pieces, triggering smell recognition in the brain. But recently, biophysicist Luca Turin has proposed the nose detects smell through quantum vibrations. Turin suggests the frequency at which different molecules vibrate helps the nose identify them as different scents. The theory could explain why molecules of the same shape smell quite differently. Intriguing as it is, this new theory hasn’t been tested enough to be universally accepted.

2. Our big brains might have caused our noses to protrude.

As anyone who’s been to a zoo probably knows, great apes (the closest human ancestors) have flat nasal openings—and researchers found that type of nose is far more effective at inhaling air than the human version. So what’s up with ours? Scientists think the shape might be a by-product of our big brain. The growing cerebellum forced human faces to become smaller, which probably affected the nose as well.

3. Women's noses are more sensitive than men's.

In the battle of the sexes, women’s noses come out on top. When tested for odor detection and identification, women score consistently higher than men. This might have something to do with the size of their olfactory bulb, a structure in the brain that helps humans identify smells. One study found that women have, on average, 43 percent more cells in their olfactory bulb than men do—meaning they can smell more smells.

4. Holding your nose really does help you swallow something distasteful.

Think you like chocolate just because it tastes good? Think again. Smell is responsible for 75 to 95 percent of flavor, which explains why plugging your nose helps you swallow something unappetizing. More recently, chefs and neurologists have teamed up to create meals for cancer patients and others with a diminished sense of smell, such as the elderly. Cooking meals tailored to the smell-less could help stave off depression and improve the appetite without relying on sugar and salt.

5. Surgeons can regrow damaged noses.

When people have cancer or are in an accident, the nose can become infected or even be completely destroyed. But fear not. Plastic surgeons have a way to regrow your nose—on your forehead. Using cartilage from the ribs and tissue expanders that allow the skin to stretch and grow, a new nose can be formed to replace the old one. And while a nose growing out of your forehead looks odd, it's actually one of the best places for a new nose to grow. The forehead's blood vessels can be harnessed to help grow the tissue, and removing the new nose only leaves a small scar [PDF]. Doctors have performed the procedure in the U.S., China, and India.

6. Your nose can sense more than smells.

The nose doesn’t just translate odors in the nasal passage—the tip is also full of nerves that detect pain and temperature. This helps us “smell” non-odor smells. Even people who can no longer smell things with their olfactory system can detect substances like menthol, the minty compound that makes your skin tingle. (Unfortunately, they can’t detect pure scents like vanilla.)

7. About 20,000 liters of air pass through the nose every day.

The average adult breathes around 20,000 liters of air every day, which keeps the nose quite busy. As the first line of defense for the lungs, the nose filters out small particles like pollen and dust. It also adds moisture to the air and warms it so the lungs are saved from any irritation.

8. Anosmia is just one of several smell disorders affecting the nose.

There are plenty of things that can go wrong in your nose. Allergic rhinitis, sinus infections, and broken noses are just a few. But perhaps less well known are disorders that affect the nose’s ability to smell. Anosmia is the complete inability to detect odors and can be caused by illness, aging, radiation, chemical exposure, or even genetics. Equally bizarre are parosmia and phantosmia: The former changes your perception of smells, and the latter creates the perception of smells that don’t exist. Luckily, only 1 or 2 percent of North Americans suffer from any smell disorders.

Why Do We Get Shivers Up Our Spines?

iStock.com/martin-dm
iStock.com/martin-dm

Picture this: You're sitting on your couch in the dark alone, watching a scary movie. The killer is walking toward an unsuspecting victim, then suddenly jumps out at her. In that moment, the hairs on your body stand up, and you get a shiver down your spine. When you go for a walk on a crisp morning, the same thing happens. When the music swells during your favorite song, you get the shivers again, this time with the little goosebumps on your arms that appear when you get that sensation.

There's a good reason for shivers and goosebumps: they're your body's response to emotion or stress. We got this from our animal ancestors. When they were cold, the hair on their bodies would stand up—the movement of the arrector pili muscle would cause the skin to contract, raising each hair—to provide an extra layer of insulation. This response is also in play when animals feel threatened: their natural reaction is to try to look bigger than their attacker, so their skin and hair expand to play up that effect. The part of the brain called the hypothalamus is what controls this reaction.

So why do goosebumps—also known as cutis anserina or piloerection—appear, aside from the functional purpose of looking larger or creating insulation? It's because our emotions are also connected with the hypothalamus, so sometimes goosebumps are just our body reacting to our brain's signals of intense emotion.

When we feel things like love, fear, or sadness, the hypothalamus sends a signal to our bodies that produces adrenaline in our blood. The signal triggers the arrector pili muscles to contract, and then we have goosebumps caused by emotion. The sudden adrenaline rush may also cause sweaty palms, tears, increased blood pressure, or shivers.

When we listen to music and get shivers, it is a mixture of subjective emotions toward the music and physiological arousal. If we hear a song we get excited about, or a song that makes us sad, the hypothalamus reacts to the sudden change in emotion and we physically feel the shiver along our spine.

This article was republished in 2019.

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