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 In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, “The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and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.
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.