Skip to Main Content

What Does the Appendix Do? Shining New Light on an Age-Old Question

By Randall Gerber July 23, 2017 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

Search our network of doctors and schedule your appointment today

What does the appendix do? When facing this question, scientists have long used the terms "redundant" and "useless," telling patients that it's simply a remnant from eons ago that human development never got around to eliminating or an organ that only occasionally become infected with appendicitis, requiring removal. But now, scientists know that your appendix actually has a purpose.

According to a study by Duke University and other research by Midwestern University Arizona College, that pinky-sized appendage that sits near the juncture of your large and small intestines now evokes a new sense of purpose. And it all has to do with bacteria.

What Does the Appendix Do?

Your body has trillions of bacterial microorganisms, and many are found in your stomach and intestines. These are good bacteria, and their purpose is to help break down the foods you eat and stave off the growth of bad bacteria -- the kinds that make you sick. These good bacteria also play a critical role in producing vitamins and hormones needed by your body.

Before modern-day medicine and public health, people suffered from cholera or dysentery. Both diseases share the common symptom of severe diarrhea, emptying literally everything out of your gut -- including the good bacteria. Although not definitively proven, research solidly points to a new theory. It suggests that the appendix acts as a safe house for good bacteria. After intense diarrhea, the appendix repopulates and reboots the intestine with good bacteria before harmful bacteria finds a home there.

Humans aren't the only creatures with an appendix; about 533 mammal species live with an appendix. Scientists believe an appendix developed 30 separate times in different species over the ages, and once it appeared, it almost never disappeared.

What About Appendicitis?

In the so-called "hygienic" societies of a developed world, your immune system isn't challenged daily by parasites or disease-causing organisms. With no need to function regularly, the appendix may become blocked or overreact when asked to perform its duty, causing inflammation and appendicitis. Commonly, a surgeon removes the appendix and your life returns to normal. People without an appendix may take longer to recover from an intestinal infection, but in today's world, medicine can supply the protection that an appendix offered in the past.

The march of science continues, and the question of what the appendix actually does seems to have reached a satisfying conclusion for now. Perhaps the lesson to learn here is that no matter how small or insignificant something seems, almost everything has a purpose -- it just hasn't been discovered yet.

5 Questions Women Should Ask Their Primary Care Physician

MAR 01, 2023

Going to the doctor can be stressful. Whether for a general exam or a specific health problem, there is often so much information to process that we don't think to ask questions during our visit or simply feel embarrassed to ask.

Read More Additional information about Dignity Health | 5 Questions Women Should Ask Their Primary Care Physician

The Importance of Prenatal Vitamins

SEP 12, 2022

It's important to remember that vitamins and supplements cannot take the place of a healthy diet. For example, pregnant women should eat multiple servings of fresh green vegetables and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Higher doses of certain vitami...

Read More Additional information about Dignity Health | *

Breastfeeding for Working Moms: 5 Tips to Guide You

SEP 12, 2022

It's often said that breastfeeding is a full-time job. And in those first few weeks of motherhood, when it feels like you're feeding constantly, it certainly can be. But what happens a few months later when you have to go back to work?

Read More Additional information about Dignity Health | How to Make Breastfeeding for Working Moms Easy