11 Amazing Facts About the Nipple

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.

Despite its relatively small size on the human body, the nipple gets a lot of attention. Biologically, the nipple serves two key functions: In women, nipples deliver milk out of the ducts within the breast to babies, and for women and men, they serve as erogenous zones. Check out our list of fascinating facts about this often-misunderstood body part.

1. THE NIPPLE HAS ITS OWN SWEAT GLANDS.

The nipple is the raised bump or protrusion on top of the breast that sits on the circular area known as the areola. The areola is often much larger in circumference than the actual nipple, as it holds small sweat glands called Montgomery glands (named for William Fetherstone Montgomery, an Irish obstetrician who first described them). The sole function of these glands is to secrete fluids during breastfeeding to lubricate the nipple and to produce a scent that attracts the baby to its mother's breast.

2. NIPPLES CAN POKE IN OR OUT.

Not all nipples point jauntily outward. Men's and women's nipples can be inverted, essentially pointing inward. In the worst-case scenario, "the skin adheres to itself and has to peel open to [turn outward] initially, and [that] can be painful," Constance Chen, a board-certified plastic surgeon and clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, tells Mental Floss. For most women, however, an inverted nipple causes neither pain nor prevents breastfeeding with proper technique or nipple shields.

3. SOME PEOPLE HAVE EXTRA NIPPLES.

While most people have two nipples, one atop each breast (yes, both women and men have breasts), some people have extra or "supernumerary" nipples outside of the typical location. One Indian man was even found to have seven.

Leigh Anne O'Connor, a certified lactation consultant in New York, says these extra nipples can appear on or below an area named the Tail of Spence (after Scottish surgeon James Spence), which extends from the breast up into the armpit.

"Some people have nipples in their armpits, or even tiny breasts, and these nipples may leak," O'Connor tells Mental Floss. But an extra nipple is just an extra nipple—no cause for alarm or shame.

4. HERE'S WHY MEN HAVE NIPPLES.

Since the main purpose of nipples is breastfeeding babies, and male breasts do not lactate, it begs the question: Why do men have nipples? Scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin tried to get to the bottom of this conundrum in a seminal paper in 1993.

All human embryos start out essentially the same. If the embryo has XY chromosomes, a gene on the Y chromosome called SRY will activate within a couple weeks of conception and begin to differentiate the embryo into one with male genitals.

However, it turns out that breast tissue begins to develop before SRY kicks in, and since nipples in men essentially do no harm, Gould and Lewontin argue, there has simply never been a good enough reason—evolutionarily speaking—to do away with them. They linger because they're benign. Or as Andrew M. Simons, a professor of biology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario wrote in Scientific American, "The presence of nipples in male mammals is a genetic architectural by-product of nipples in females. So, why do men have nipples? Because females do."

5. THE WORLD'S STRONGEST NIPPLES BELONG TO THE GREAT NIPPULINI.

Who needs pecs when you have nipples like those of The Great Nippulini, a.k.a. Sage Werbock, a performer who makes a living demonstrating the mighty power of his nipples? Each nipple can lift 70 pounds, and he holds a Guinness record for the heaviest vehicle pulled by nipples for 20 meters (66 feet)—988.5 kilograms (2179.27 pounds). He has also lifted a variety of dumbbells, anvils, and bowling balls.

6. THEY'RE VERY SENSITIVE TO STIMULATION.

It's no secret that many people take sexual pleasure from nipple stimulation. However, Michael Reitano, an expert in sexual health and wellness at Roman Health in New York, brings up a study published in 2011 in which researchers set out to map the neurology of sexual stimulation in women. Through MRI imaging, they determined that "when [the nipple is] stimulated, the sensations travel to the same part of the brain that is stimulated when the clitoris, vagina, or cervix is stimulated," Reitano says. The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, also confirmed that it was possible for some women to have an orgasm by nipple stimulation alone.

While the same brain mapping has not yet been done on men, "there is every reason to believe that it has some capacity to function as a source of sexual pleasure for men as well," Reitano tells Mental Floss.

7. NIPPLES ARE AS UNIQUE AS FINGERPRINTS.

Nipples come in many colors, including pale pink, reddish-beige, brown, and black. Your own two nipples can even vary from each other, as can the areolae. "They also come in many different shapes," O'Connor says. "Some are more flat, while others can be quite bulbous. A person can have two nipples that look very different from each other. Asymmetry is normal."

8. A SPECIFIC KIND OF BREAST CANCER TARGETS THE NIPPLE.

While most forms of breast cancer affect the whole breast, Paget disease of the breast is a rare cancer that targets the skin and ducts of the nipple. "Most patients get a rash on the nipples that looks like a severe case of eczema. It is a cancer of breast epithelial (skin) cells," Chen says. Paget disease of the breast represents between 0.5 and 5 percent of all breast cancers.

9. AFTER MASTECTOMY, NIPPLE SENSATION CAN OCCASIONALLY BE RESTORED.

In breast cancer cases where mastectomy—removal of the breast—is necessary, it is sometimes possible to spare the nipple, allowing for a more realistic post-treatment reconstruction, though sensation is often lost. However, Chen says that in certain cases, "it is possible to restore sensation to the nipples with nerve repairs and nerve grafts when a woman undergoes natural tissue breast reconstruction. Sensory restoration to the nipple after mastectomy is very cutting edge, but if you find the right surgeon, it is possible."

10. NIPPLE STIMULATION CAN HELP INDUCE LABOR IN PREGNANT WOMEN.

When a woman is ready to give birth but the baby isn't, one piece of often-shared advice is to stimulate the mother's nipples to induce labor. A 2005 analysis of six trial studies found a significant decrease in the number of women who hadn't gone into labor after 72 hours. Just under 63 percent of the women who received stimulation were not in labor versus 94 percent who hadn't received it.

The mechanism isn't entirely clear, but breast stimulation causes the uterus to contract. It may also help release the hormone oxytocin, which can start contractions. Once the baby's born, the baby's suckling also has benefits for the mother. "When a newborn suckles, the increased oxytocin causes the uterus to contract [and shrink to its original size over the subsequent weeks] following birth," Reitano explains.

11. BREAST MILK HAS MULTIPLE WAYS TO EXIT THE NIPPLE.

If you've ever pumped your own breast milk or seen it done, you may have noticed that the milk doesn't just come out in a single stream. In a typical nipple, "There are between four and 20 outlets for the milk to come out—it can look like one stream or [coming from] various holes," O'Connor says.

10 Smart Facts About Your Gut

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. coli, a common gut bacteria
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. coli, a common gut bacteria
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Gut feelings get all the press, but your gut may be more of a thinker than you know. Some scientists now consider it a second brain. While it won’t necessarily help you study for an exam or get a promotion, your gut can influence the chemistry of your mood, emotions, immune system, and long-term health. Research even suggests the gut can “learn” new tricks through conditioning. These powerful connections are part an emerging field of science called neurogastroenterology designed to study the gut-brain link. Here are 10 facts you may not know about your gut.

1. THE GUT DOESN'T NEED THE BRAIN'S INPUT. 

You might think of your gut as a rebel against authority. It doesn’t wait for your brain’s impulses to do the important work of digestion, because it doesn’t need to—it acts as its own “brain.” No other organ, not even the all-powerful heart, can pull that off.

2. THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 MILLION BRAIN CELLS IN YOUR GUT.

Your gut’s power to think for itself is no surprise; there are millions of neurons in its lengthy coils (9 meters of intestines, from esophagus to anus). That’s more neurons than are found in the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system.

3. YOUR GUT HAS ITS OWN NERVOUS SYSTEM.

The enteric nervous system—the controlling mechanism of digestion and elimination—is the overlord of your gut, and functions all on its own. Some scientists see it as part of the central nervous system, while others consider it its own entity. It likely evolved to give the gut the go-ahead when the “got to go” impulse strikes, without requiring the brain’s sign-off, particularly when you consider the helplessness of an infant with its brand-new brain.

4. THERE'S AN INFORMATION HIGHWAY FROM YOUR GUT TO YOUR BRAIN.

There’s one big visceral nerve embedded in your gut—the vagus nerve. Research has revealed that up to 90 percent of its fibers carry information from the gut to the brain, rather than the other way around. In other words, the brain interprets gut signals as emotions. So you really should trust your gut.

5. MOST OF YOUR SEROTONIN IS IN YOUR GUT.

Some 95 percent of your body’s serotonin, that marvelous mood molecule that antidepressant drugs like Prozac keep in your body, can be found in the gut. So, it’s no wonder that diet, medications, and antibiotics can wreak havoc on one’s mood.

6. A HEALTHY GUT MAY PROTECT YOUR BONES.

In a study of the serotonin-gut relationship, scientists discovered an unexpected link between the gut and the bones. Inhibiting the gut’s release of serotonin counteracted the bone-density reduction of osteoporosis in mice. This research is going into studies on new osteoporosis-fighting drugs.

7. RESEARCH SHOWS LINKS BETWEEN AUTISM AND HAVING FEWER STRAINS OF GUT BACTERIA. 

In as many as nine out of 10 cases, autistic people have common gut imbalances such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and fewer strains of “good” bacteria. Research on mice is looking at possible treatments of some of the behavioral disorders of autism by balancing microbes in the guts, though many warn that such treatments can’t produce a “cure” for autism.

8. FOOD REALLY DOES AFFECT YOUR MOOD. 

Different foods, when introduced to the gut via feeding tubes, have been shown to change a person's moods without the person’s awareness of what they were "eating." Fat, for instance, increased feelings of happiness and pleasure (no surprise there) because appeared to trigger the release of dopamine—the brain’s natural opiate. Carbohydrate consumption stimulated the release of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

9. YOUR GUT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND IN COLD AND FLU SEASON.

Not only does your gut hold brain cells, it also houses the bulk of your immune cells—70 percent—in the form of gut associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT, which plays a huge part in killing and expelling pathogens. GALT and your gut microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live, like an immense microbial universe, in your gut—work hard to help you get over what ails you. That’s all the more reason to be careful with the use of antibiotics, which wipe out the good bacteria along with the bad.

10. YOUR GUT CAN BECOME ADDICTED TO OPIATES.

Inside your gut are opiate receptors, which are also found in the brain. The gut is just as susceptible to addiction as the brain and may contribute to the intense difficulty some addicts have trying to kick the habit.

What Causes Hiccups?

iStock/damircudic
iStock/damircudic

The cause of hiccups depends on whom you ask. The ancient Greek physician Galen thought hiccups were violent emotions erupting from the body, while others thought they were a sign of liver inflammation. Today, evidence points to spasms in the diaphragm, the large muscle between the chest and abdomen that aids airflow during breathing. This involuntary contraction can be brought on by a number of things that might irritate the nerves that control the movement of the muscle. A full stomach, heavy boozing, rapid shifts in temperature either inside or outside of the stomach, and certain emotions like shock or excitement are all common culprits.

No matter the cause, the result is the same: The diaphragm spasms and causes us to take a quick breath. The sudden rush of air causes the epiglottis (the flap that protects the space between the vocal cords) to shut and interrupt the breath, which makes the familiar "hic" sound.

WHAT CURES THEM?

The best cure for hiccups also depends on the person you ask. Almost all cures are based on one of two principles: One type works its magic by overwhelming the vagus nerve with another sensation. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that innervates the stomach and conveys sensory information about the body's organs to the brain. When distracted by overwhelming information of another sort, it basically tells the brain that something more important has come up and the hiccuping should probably be stopped (vagus nerve stimulation is also used to control seizures in epileptics and treat drug-resistant cases of clinical depression). The other method for curing hiccups is to interfere with the breathing, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, and causing the body to focus on getting rid of the of the CO2 and not making hiccups.

Swallowing a spoonful of sugar is probably the most commonly prescribed hiccup cure and falls into the first category. A teaspoon of sugar is usually enough to stimulate the vagus nerve and make the body forget all about the hiccups. Even ardent supporters of the sugar cure disagree if the sugar should be taken dry or washed down with water, though.

If this home remedy doesn't work, and your hiccups are both severe and persistent, you may need to bring out the big guns. For chronic cases like this, doctors sometimes use a cocktail of Reglan (a gastrointestinal stimulant) and Thorazine (an anti-psychotic with sedative properties) to quiet things down. In some cases that resist these drugs, Kemstro, an anti-spasmodic, is also used. Other doctors have used vagus nerve stimulators implanted in the upper chest of patients. The pacemaker-like devices send rhythmic bursts of electricity through the vagus nerve to the brain to keep the hiccup cycle in check.

Many people prefer home remedies to battle their hiccups, which may include holding your breath, gargling ice water, or breathing into a paper bag. While the same people will swear by the treatment they've been using all these years, there's no firm scientific consensus that any of them actually work. But if it helps you, isn't that all that matters?

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

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER