Many of us have had appendicitis, which resulted in the removal of the appendix in an operation known appendectomy. I didn’t have appendicitis but had my own appendix removed during another abdominal surgical procedure. I was told later that the appendix doesn’t perform any useful function and that I was better off without it.
The appendix is a closed-ended pouch like narrow tube that attaches to the cecum (the first part of the colon where the small intestine joins the large intestine) like a worm. The anatomical name for the appendix, vermiform appendix, means worm-like appendage. Being approximately 5–10 cm long and 0.5–1 cm wide it’s not a large part of our anatomy.
The human appendix has long mystified doctors who have wondered about the necessity of this tiny organ. In fact, the function of the human appendix has been a matter for debate for many years, with health care professionals believing it had no good reason to be there. A doctor may have decided to remove your appendix, without your permission because of this long held belief. In my case I did not have appendicitis and thus there wasn’t a real reason to remove it.
Of course, if your appendix becomes inflamed and infected it can be life threatening and then it does become necessary to have it removed. I don’t have New Zealand statistics, but according to the 'Centers for Disease Control and Prevention' in the U.S., 300 to 400 Americans die, and about 321,000 are hospitalised for appendicitis attacks each year.
The appendix is present in many primates, and in our distant past may have been an aid in the digestion of cellulose when we had a more plant-based diet. Charles Darwin was a proponent of this theory.
This worm like organ is often considered to be a vestige of evolutionary development despite evidence to the contrary. It has thus been regarded as a vestigial organ (a nonfunctional characteristic that has been fully functional at some point in time). Humans have a number of so called vestigial organs such as male nipples, wisdom teeth, tailbones (coccyx) and ear muscles.
Recently though, surgeons and immunologists at 'Duke University Medical School' have said that the appendix, does indeed, serve an important function inside the human body after all. They say that the appendix appears to help produce and protect the ‘good’ bacteria in the intestines by acting like a ‘good’ bacteria factory that cultivates and preserves them, thus maintaining a vital balance with harmful bacteria. When the gut is affected by a bout of diarrhoea or other illness, researcher William Parker, PhD says: “Once the bowel contents have left the body, the ‘good’ bacteria hidden away in the appendix can emerge and repopulate the lining of the intestine before more harmful bacteria can take up residence”.
I was really disappointed to read that the researchers in this study concluded that, “the appendix is really an unnecessary organ in today's modern world”. They say that in a modern society, less of these ‘good’ bacteria are needed due to better hygiene practices. They theorise that repopulating the gut with ‘good’ bacteria is not that hard to do. I think they have got it totally wrong. In western society today with a diet focused on processed foods laden with sugar and antibiotics that have been handed out like lollies, it has become ever more difficult to repopulate the gut with ‘good’ bacteria.
If we don’t have an appendix it’s an even greater challenge and we may struggle to retain the balance of ‘good’ bacteria in our gut. This is another important reason for taking a comprehensive probiotic supplement every day. Research in the future should be looking into ways that we can prevent appendicitis and thus retain what is clearly a very important human organ. More fibre in the diet would be a very good start.
John Appleton 09 489 9362