Why do You Have an Appendix?
(Actually, It’s There for a VERY Good Reason)
© 2023 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
Your appendix is a 3-1/2 inch long finger-shaped pouch that extends from your large intestine, on the lower right side of your abdomen. For ages it has been thought that the appendix has no real purpose.
In fact, even Charles Darwin said the appendix is a “vestigial organ,” or one that has become essentially useless over time -- a concept that is still spouted in biology textbooks to this day.
Recently, however, researchers from Duke University Medical Center have made a very good case for why your appendix may actually be incredibly important. Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, they point out that an appendix “has been maintained in mammalian evolution for 80 million years or longer.”
The fact that it has been around for so long, surviving species changes and also existing in a wide variety of species (70 percent of all primate and rodent groups contain species with an appendix, according to the Duke researchers) suggests it plays a critical function in survival ... but what?
Well, last year researchers discovered that your appendix actually produces good bacteria and helps protect good bacteria in your gut.
This is especially important if you were to be infected with an illness that killed off most of your friendly bacteria, such as cholera or dysentery. In these cases, your appendix restores your body's supply of good bacteria, fast -- an action that could be crucial for your survival.
"We propose 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," the researchers wrote in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Your appendix is also important during the early days and years of your life, when it helps make white blood cells and antibodies.
Fortunately, due to clean drinking water and hygiene standards in place in many parts of the world, most of us will not have a need to replace the entire contents of our gut bacteria … but should you ever get a bad case of diarrhea, your appendix may very well come in handy (as will large doses of a high-quality probiotic.
When a Good Appendix Goes Bad
According to William Parker, an immunologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. and author of the aforementioned studies, cultural changes like improved sanitation have in some ways left our appendixes at risk.
"Those changes left our immune systems with too little work and too much time on their hands -- a recipe for trouble," he told Live Science. "Darwin had no way of knowing that the function of the appendix could be rendered obsolete by cultural changes that included widespread use of sewer systems and clean drinking water."
As reported by Live Science, Parker points out that giving our immune systems more work may be the key to staying healthy, as it is known that there is immune system tissue in your appendix as well.
"If modern medicine could figure out a way to do that, we would see far fewer cases of allergies, autoimmune disease, and appendicitis," he told Live Science.
In short, Parker points out that an over-reactive immune system -- caused in part by the absence of good bacteria in our environment -- may lead to the inflammation associated with appendicitis, or could lead to an obstruction of your intestines that causes appendicitis.
In the meantime, if you notice pain in your navel and lower right abdomen, which grows more severe over a period of six to 12 hours, you could have appendicitis, which is an inflammation of your appendix.
Often, if you put pressure on the area the pain will feel worse after you take the pressure off. Coughing, walking and other abrupt movements also tend to make the pain more severe. Aside from pain, appendicitis may cause:
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Diarrhea or constipation
An inability to pass gas
If you feel these symptoms it's essential to get help right away as your appendix may rupture, causing life-threatening complications.
Journal of Evolutionary Biology
Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 249, Issue 4, 21, Pages 826-831