13 Fundamental Facts About the Anus

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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 anus might be the most underappreciated part of the body. Its very mention generally causes people to giggle or cringe. Yet without it, you'd be unable to eliminate waste and eventually die. In case your childhood wasn't enough to give you an accurate idea of its location, the anus is essentially the valve that stands between your poop and the toilet. It's considered the last piece of your digestive tract, essentially a two-inch long canal comprised of pelvic floor muscles and sphincters, easy to locate below either your vagina or your scrotum.

1. IT HAS TWO SPHINCTERS …

You may have heard talk of your "anal sphincter," which is not just one, but two valves. The internal sphincter is involuntary, meaning you can't squeeze it open—it's always closed up tight until it's time to poop. You can consciously hold closed the external, voluntary sphincter if you have to go to the bathroom but there's no toilet in sight, and consciously choose to open it when you're ready to poop. Thanks to your pelvic floor muscle, your poop normally doesn't come out when you don't want it to.

2. …AND ONE VERY IMPORTANT ROLE.

"The most important role is to eliminate waste," Rafael Lugo, a colorectal surgeon in Houston, tells Mental Floss. "We don't think much of it, but it's very important because if we don't eliminate waste, we have a [serious] problem." In rare cases, long-term constipation can cause illness and even death.

3. YOU REALLY SHOULD TAKE A LOOK AT IT … FOR YOUR HEALTH.

Since some of the health conditions of the anus don't cause any immediate symptoms you can feel, Lugo recommends you get comfortable looking at your anus from time to time. "We have these taboos in this society about looking at our bodies. Your body is your body. Touch it. The best place is in the shower. You have soap, feel the area. If anything is abnormal, take it to a mirror," he says. Once a year, have a professional look at it. He says he finds a lot of abnormalities that people live with and don't even know can be treated, such as fissures, hemorrhoids, and even cancer.

4. A SELF-CHECK CAN CATCH ANAL CANCER IN ITS EARLY STAGES.

"We can't control how [anal] melanoma happens, but it can be addressed early if you keep an eye on your butt. You can detect these changes early on and not die from it," Lugo advises. He recommends you "know your body head to toe. People tend to notice the dent in their car more often than they notice an issue in their body."

5. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SUNTAN TO GET ANAL CANCER.

Anal carcinoma, unfortunately, is not something you can usually feel with your hand. "It doesn't grow a tumor like a melanoma," Lugo says. "There's no bump." This kind of cancer can be genetic and is further reason to see a proctologist once a year, particularly if you have a family history of cancer.

6. ANAL SEX SLIGHTLY INCREASES YOUR RISK OF CANCER FROM THE HPV VIRUS.

Another form of anal carcinoma is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes genital warts. While this virus can spread from a penis or vagina to an anus, chances of transmission are greater by anal sex. Unlike the convenient test for the HPV virus in the vagina, there's not a similar test for signs of HPV of the anus. This is another reason why having a professional look at your anus is a good idea. "There might be a little wart, something that looks abnormal. If you're sexually active, have multiple partners, or having high-risk sex, you should be more vigilant every few months," Lugo says.

7. THERE'S NOTHING DIRTY ABOUT THE ANUS.

So long as you handle your basic hygiene, your anus isn't dirty, Lugo insists. He says the anus doesn't require soap to stay clean, just water and wiping. In fact, soaps and shampoos can irritate and dry out the sensitive skin of the anus, so go easy on those. "It's a very complex organ that we basically disregard," says Lugo.

8. HUMANS HAVE WIPED THEIR BUTTS IN A LOT OF WAYS.

Over the centuries, before the advent of toilet paper, humans turned to a wide variety of objects with which to wipe their butts, including "leaves, grass, stones, corn cobs, animal furs, sticks, snow, seashells, and, lastly, hands," as Scientific American reported. Notice that most of these objects are hard, and you might really appreciate that squeezably soft Charmin.

9. BUTT HAIR IS NORMAL.

In your infrequent inspection of your anus, you may discover that hair grows down there. Scientists aren't entirely sure why. That hasn't stopped us laypeople from asking, though. In fact, so many SciShow viewers asked host Hank Green to tackle the subject that he dedicated an episode to it. The prevailing theories can be summed up as: 1. we simply haven't evolved away from hair there, because it doesn't get in the way of elimination or procreation; 2. it helps conduct scents that our ancient selves relied upon for reproductive purposes; or 3. it helps prevent irritation or chafing in that sensitive tissue.

10. HEMORRHOIDS ARE VARICOSE VEINS OF THE ANUS.

The veins in your anus "help the anus seal," like a closing door, says Lugo. But when you get a hemorrhoid, essentially just a swollen, dilated vein, "it's like having a shoe in the door, because there's something uneven there." Not only can hemorrhoids bleed, throb and itch, they can lead to a condition called anal seepage. "There are many modalities to take care of them, but they're not very comfortable, and you may need a surgery to take care of it," Lugo says.

11. IT IS POSSIBLE TO PREVENT HEMORRHOIDS.

The key to preventing hemorrhoids is avoiding constipation and straining on the toilet. "Prevention is important: Keep your stool soft, [take] plenty of fiber, and drink plenty of water," Lugo advises.

12. TRY NOT TO SIT ON THE TOILET FOR MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES.

Don't spend more than five minutes on the toilet, Lugo advises. "You shouldn't be sitting there having a social event." When you sit on the toilet seat, gravity exerts its pull on tissues, including hemorrhoids. "When your butt is hanging there, all the blood [flows] into there. Hemorrhoids are like balloons, they stretch and contract."

13. BURNING SENSATION? IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK.

A burning or hot sensation of the anus is not always a hemorrhoid. It could be an anal fissure, or a tiny tear in the lining of the anus. "This can happen after a large bowel movement, especially if you already suffer constipation, which can stretch the anus," Lugo says. These can be treated by sitting in a hot bath for 20 minutes a day until the tissue heals. In cases where the fissure recurs and won't go away, surgery may be necessary.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

What Purpose Does the Belly Button Serve?

misuma/iStock via Getty Images
misuma/iStock via Getty Images

While your eyelashes are protecting your eyes, your lungs are letting you breathe, and virtually every other part of your body—inside and out—is performing its own relatively well-known task, your belly button is just sitting there collecting lint. And while it’s true that your navel served its most important purpose before you were born, it’s not totally useless now.

According to ZME Science, back when you were a fetus, your belly button was more of a belly portal: Your umbilical cord extended from it and connected you to the placenta on your mother’s uterine wall. That way, the placenta could channel nutrients and oxygen to you through the cord, and you could send back waste.

Your umbilical cord was cut when you were born, creating a tiny bulge that left behind some scar tissue after it healed. That scar tissue is your belly button, navel, or umbilicus. Though you may have heard that the shape of your belly button is a direct result of the scissor skills of the doctor who delivered you, that’s not true. Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that a belly button's shape “has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby’s body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie.” About 90 percent of people have innies.

Regardless of how your belly button looks, you probably don’t use it on a daily basis. However, if you’ve studied anatomy, medicine, or a related field, you might recognize it as the central point by which the abdomen is divided into the following quadrants: right upper, left upper, right lower, and left lower. Another way of classifying that area is into nine regions—including the hypochondriac, lumbar, iliac, epigastric, and hypogastric regions—with the umbilical region at the very center.

Abdominopelvic regions diagram
Blausen Medical, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Your belly button can also serve as the opening for laparoscopic surgery, which can save you from having a scar elsewhere on your abdomen.

The navel is a great central landmark outside of medicine, too. If you’ve taken yoga or Pilates classes, you may have heard it referred to as the center of balance or center of gravity. Because it sits right on top of your abdominal muscles, your belly button is an easy marker for your instructor to mention when they want you to access your core, which helps you balance.

And, of course, belly buttons are notorious for storing quite a bit of lint, which always seems to be blue (you can learn more about that here).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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