9 Fascinating Facts About the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is so named because it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out sensory fibers from your brainstem to your visceral organs. The vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves, controls your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system. And it oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment for serious, incurable diseases. Here are nine facts about this powerful nerve bundle.

1. THE VAGUS NERVE PREVENTS INFLAMMATION.

A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal. But an overabundance is linked to many diseases and conditions, from sepsis to the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis. The vagus nerve operates a vast network of fibers stationed like spies around all your organs. When it gets a signal for incipient inflammation—the presence of cytokines or a substance called tumor necrosis factor (TNF)—it alerts the brain and draws out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that regulate the body’s immune response.

2. IT HELPS YOU MAKE MEMORIES.

A University of Virginia study in rats showed that stimulating their vagus nerves strengthened their memory. The action released the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, which consolidated memories. Related studies were done in humans, suggesting promising treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

3. IT HELPS YOU BREATHE.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, tells your lungs to breathe. It’s one of the reasons that Botox—often used cosmetically—can be potentially dangerous, because it interrupts your acetylcholine production. You can, however, also stimulate your vagus nerve by doing abdominal breathing or holding your breath for four to eight counts.

4. IT'S INTIMATELY INVOLVED WITH YOUR HEART.

The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to specialized muscle tissue—the heart’s natural pacemaker—in the right atrium, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse. By measuring the time between your individual heart beats, and then plotting this on a chart over time, doctors can determine your heart rate variability, or HRV. This data can offer clues about the resilience of your heart and vagus nerve.

5. IT INITIATES YOUR BODY'S RELAXATION RESPONSE.

When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. The vagus nerve’s tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiber-optic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down. People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness.

6. IT TRANSLATES BETWEEN YOUR GUT AND YOUR BRAIN.

Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials". Your gut feelings are very real.

7. OVERSTIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE IS THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF FAINTING.

If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak. You’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulates the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. During extreme syncope, blood flow is restricted to your brain, and you lose consciousness. But most of the time you just have to sit or lie down for the symptoms to subside.

8. ELECTRICAL STIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE REDUCES INFLAMMATION AND MAY INHIBIT IT ALTOGETHER.

Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey was the first to show that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. Results on rats were so successful, he reproduced the experiment in humans with stunning results. The creation of implants to stimulate the vagus nerve via electronic implants showed a drastic reduction, and even remission, in rheumatoid arthritis—which has no known cure and is often treated with the toxic drugs—hemorrhagic shock, and other equally serious inflammatory syndromes.

9. VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION HAS CREATED A NEW FIELD OF MEDICINE.

Spurred on by the success of vagal nerve stimulation to treat inflammation and epilepsy, a burgeoning field of medical study, known as bioelectronics, may be the future of medicine. Using implants that deliver electric impulses to various body parts, scientists and doctors hope to treat illness with fewer medications and fewer side effects.

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.

11 Facts About the Kidneys

iStock.com/Davizro
iStock.com/Davizro

Kidneys are kind of like the Brita filters of the human body. Each of these bean-shaped organs is only about the size of a fist, but they serve several vital functions. In addition to ridding your body of waste, the kidneys also help make red blood cells and regulate your blood pressure. If they aren’t kept healthy, though, they can cause a variety of kidney disease symptoms, from kidney stones to infections that could require a kidney transplant. Here are 11 facts you might not know.

1. Your pair of kidneys is lopsided.

Kidneys are located in the lower back—right below the rib cage—and they’re usually asymmetrical. Your right kidney tends to be smaller and sit a little lower than your left one because it needs to make room for the liver, whose bulkiest part is situated on the right side of your body. Your left kidney, on the other hand, has some more room to sprawl out below the spleen, an organ of smaller stature.

2. There’s a reason why you only need one kidney to live.

Most people have two kidneys at birth, but only one kidney is needed to lead a healthy life. Each kidney has about 1.5 million blood-filtering units called nephrons, which help remove a waste product called urea from blood as it flows through the organs. People only need a minimum of 300,000 nephrons to filter blood properly, and one kidney is more than enough to fulfill this purpose. (People without healthy kidneys can survive with dialysis, a process where blood is filtered by machine, or opt for a kidney transplant.)

3. Your kidneys filter about 45 gallons of blood per day.

Although the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, the kidneys are doing their fair share of work, too. They filter a half-cup of blood every minute, which works out to be 45 gallons of blood per day—or enough to fill a small bathtub.

4. Kidneys make pee.

As part of the body’s urinary system, kidneys create urine from urea, water, and other waste products. The fluid flows from the kidney’s tubules, which are found inside the nephrons, to two tubes called ureters. The ureters then release the urine into the bladder—and you know what happens from there. But if problems occur, the urine can get backed up and cause kidney infections. In addition, in cases where minerals in the urine crystallize, kidney stones can form.

5. Ancient Egyptians may have been the first people to describe kidneys.

Prior to 2018, it was commonly thought that ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the kidneys, even though their understanding of medicine and the human body was advanced in other ways. That changed when an Egyptian papyrus dating back some 3500 years revealed otherwise. It contained the world’s first known description of the kidneys, among other medical insights.

6. Kidneys are mentioned frequently in the Bible.

The kidneys are cited more than 30 times in the Bible—far more frequently than the heart, which was rarely mentioned. According to a 2005 article in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology by Baylor College of Medicine professor Garabed Eknoyan, it was not uncommon for symbolic meaning to be ascribed to various organs in ancient Middle Eastern texts. “Unlike most ancient literature, however, the kidneys receive special attention in the Bible as the seat of conscience, emotions, desire, and wisdom,” Eknoyan wrote. “The broader region of the loins, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary is implied in the now archaic term ‘reins,’ is considered the site of physical strength and prowess.”

7. A procedure for removing kidney stones used to be deadly.

These days, if a patient is unable to pass a kidney stone naturally (albeit painfully), laser and high-frequency sound wave treatments can be used to break the hard mineral deposits into smaller pieces. For much of history, though, a patient’s only option was to go under the knife. Kidney stone surgeries were common from the 16th to 18th centuries, and one of the procedures involved cutting open the perineum, inserting a cutting instrument into the bladder, and chopping up the stone manually. Self-taught surgeon Frère Jacques Beaulieu came up with this technique, but it wasn’t without serious risk. In 1698, 25 of the 60 patients he operated on died.

8. A Dutch doctor used sausage casing, orange juice cans, and a washing machine to invent an "artificial kidney" that predated dialysis.

At the start of World War II, not long after Germany invaded the Netherlands, Dutch doctor Willem Kolff got to work inventing an artificial kidney that evolved into modern-day dialysis. Because supplies were limited during the war, he wrapped semipermeable sausage casings around a wooden drum to create his kidney machine. A patient’s blood was pumped into the casings, and the drum was rotated to remove impurities. Later, he improved his invention by adding orange juice cans and a washing machine to the mix. Some of his earliest patients with kidney failure died after a few days, but in 1945, one woman lived seven more years thanks to Kolff’s machine. When Kolff wasn’t busy creating artificial organs, he was saving lives in other ways: He also established Europe’s first blood blank and helped more than 800 people avoid Nazi concentration camps by hiding them in his hospital.

9. Drinking too much water can be bad for kidneys.

Staying hydrated helps keep your kidneys in good working order, but on the flip side, you don’t want to drink too much water. Doing so can cause a condition called hyponatremia, which occurs when the sodium in the blood becomes diluted because the kidneys can’t get rid of the fluid fast enough. The condition can be severe, causing swelling of the cells. It's uncommon, though, and it mainly occurs among athletes who overexert their bodies and drink extra water to compensate. So how much water is the right amount? It varies from person to person, but the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that women drink around 9 cups (2.2 liters) per day, and that men drink about 13 cups (3 liters).

10. Too much ibuprofen and aspirin can also harm kidneys.

All drugs pass through your kidneys, so you want to be careful what you’re feeding them. If used daily for long periods of time, pain medications like ibuprofen, higher-dose aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve) can damage kidneys and potentially cause a disease called chronic interstitial nephritis. However, taking a daily low-dose aspirin to prevent heart attacks has no effect on kidney function.

11. Climate change may be causing an uptick in chronic kidney disease.

Recent research shows that chronic kidney disease is becoming more prevalent in Central America and parts of Asia, especially among manual laborers who spend most of their day outdoors. Although diabetes and high blood pressure are the main causes of impaired kidney function, these factors were ruled out among workers in El Salvador, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries. Other environmental factors may be involved, but researchers say the extreme heat is largely to blame—and climate change is only making it worse. For one, the more someone sweats, the more dehydrated they become. Over time, this can result in severe kidney damage.

“This can be considered the first disease that’s related to climate change,” Dr. Roberto Lucchini, an environmental medicine and public health professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, tells Mental Floss. He says the problem is so severe in Guatemala that job applicants’ creatinine levels are tested before they’re hired to work an outdoor job. Creatinine is a waste product that gets removed from blood by the kidneys, and if those levels are too high, it could signal a greater risk of kidney disease. Two other studies suggest the problem is even starting to affect outdoor workers in warmer parts of the U.S., including California and Florida. “If this continues as a general trend towards increased temperature, this is concerning,” Lucchini says.

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