No Seriously, What's the Deal with Our Appendix?
We may finally have an answer
I’ve been fascinated by the human body for as long as I can remember, and it amazes me how many mysteries our bodies hold. We recently learned about the connection between our brain and gut and its impact on our physical and mental health. But we aren’t even close to understanding how the mind works, where it’s located, or even if it’s independent of our physical body.
I mean, even our organs contain untold secrets. Do you remember when I told you about the new organ experts discovered within our skin? And, of course, the classic ongoing mystery of our appendix. At least for this one, scientists finally have some answers to our biggest questions. Why do we have one? What does the appendix do? And how come we can live without it?
What is the Appendix?
Your appendix looks like a tube about the size and shape of your finger. It’s located on the lower-right side of your abdomen and connects to a small pouch-like organ called the cecum (I’ll mention this later, too), which is thought to be the beginning of your large intestine and digestive tract. Though your appendix isn’t involved with digestion.
Appendicitis is when the appendix must be surgically removed after becoming inflamed or infected. Though sometimes if caught early enough, antibiotics can treat it. An easy test is to apply pressure to the lower-right quadrant of your torso. If it’s extremely painful, then it’s probably an inflamed appendix. Other symptoms include fever and problems with digestion, including vomiting or diarrhea. If surgery is needed but not received, the appendix can burst, spreading infection and all its contents to the rest of your abdomen. Gross.
I watched as both my brothers and an ex-boyfriend all had their appendices removed, and it didn’t look like any fun. But they all recovered and have gone on to live perfectly healthy lives, which is just what to expect. After all, unlike many of our other organs, we can live perfectly fine without our appendix. Although research suggests people without an appendix, tend to have weaker immune systems.
There have been plenty of ideas floating around regarding the purpose of the appendix. From what I can tell, Charles Darwin was the first to notice and investigate the appendix. Back in his day, he thought humans and great apes were the only animals with an appendix. Though now we know many animals have them including rabbits and rodents.
Aside from that, Darwin thought that the cecum in ancient humans used to be larger, allowing them to dine on leaves similar to herbivores. Then as our ancestors transitioned to eating more fruits, which are easier to digest, Darwin concluded the cecum shrank. And the appendix wound up as just a shriveled-up part of the cecum that’s in the process of evolving away.
Another suggestion I’ve heard is like Darwin’s, except instead of leaves, it was raw meat that the appendix helped us digest before we learned to cook meat using fire. Though, there is one more argument I’ve heard about why we have an appendix…
Late one night in the dorms during my freshman year in college, my assigned roommate and I were having a civil debate about evolution vs. creationism. At one point, I asked her to explain why we have an appendix if not for evolution. Her response? “We have extra organs so the Devil can attack them when we sin.”
So, ya know, there’s that too.
Fifteen years ago, in 2007, researchers proposed an alternative theory to Darwin’s (and my old roommate’s) after analyzing the biofilm in our gut. Biofilm is a layer of microorganisms— such as microbes, mucus, and immune system molecules — that stick to each other and surfaces, like the lining of your gastrointestinal tract and your appendix.
In fact, the researchers found the biofilm was most pronounced inside the appendix. From this, the researchers,
“propose[d] that the human appendix is well suited as a ‘safe house’ for commensal bacteria, providing support for bacterial growth and potentially facilitating re-inoculation of the colon in the event that the contents of the intestinal tract are purged following exposure to a pathogen.”
In other words, the researchers suggest the appendix is where all our beneficial bacteria is stored within the gut and that it may release more when needed to aid and heal from an infection in your G.I. tract. This also supports earlier research that people without an appendix may have weaker immune systems.
Over the years, research continues to support this theory, and I might even go so far as to say the “safe house” theory about the appendix has replaced Darwin’s. Except that in 2017, an associate professor at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, Heather F. Smith, Ph.D., analyzed the appendix (or lack thereof) in 533 different mammals. She discovered that the appendix independently evolved over 30 times within various genetic “trees.”
Even more interesting, Dr. Smith found that once a species evolved an appendix, it seldom disappeared. Suggesting the organ has a purpose. So even if Darwin was off in his reasonings, he was right that the appendix has evolved. Even more, than he thought.
The more I learn about the human body, the more I understand Michaelangelo’s obsession with it. Your body is complex beyond comprehension and sublimely designed. Sit with that for a second. I mean, it’s remarkable. The only thing that might be more mind-blowing is knowing that we have no idea how much we still don’t know about our bodies.
It’s the 21st century, and we’ve only begun to understand our appendix’s purpose. Still, the idea of the appendix housing our good bacteria opens an array of doors for more research. I wonder if there’s any connection between our appendix and the recently discovered brain-gut connection. We know the two regions communicate using multiple methods, including specialized cells, our vegas nerve, hormones and circulation, and our enteric nervous system. But that’s all regarding how the communication occurs.
Could the appendix be the headquarters in the gut for our “second brain?” Perhaps the appendix helps create and store the good bacteria needed for the brain-gut connection. I guess only time will tell!
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