In the past, scientists have tended to agree that the appendix has no function in the body. It was regarded as a ‘vestigial organ’, something that has no function in the body. The appendix is thought to be left-over from evolution.
However, research shows that the appendix plays a role in the immune system.
The appendix is associated with lymphatic tissue, which is closely associated with the immune system (J. Anatomy 126 (1978) 87-101). This observation was made over 30 years ago.
It has recently been proposed (Journal of Theoretical Biology 249 (2007) 826-831) that the appendix works as a storage house for ‘good’ bacteria that live in the gut. These ‘good’ bacteria help the digestive system to break down food.
Note: The gut or digestive system includes the small bowel (small intestine) and the large bowel (large intestine or colon).
A team of scientists under the leadership of William Parker, Ph.D., have observed that there are biofilms in the bowel that protect these helpful bacteria. They also observed that there are more biofilms in and around the appendix.
So, this team has suggested that the appendix stores helpful bacteria in biofilms to repopulate the gut when the contents of the bowels are cleaned out by diarrhea. The appendix can then release more helpful bacteria back into the gut to keep it healthy and working well.
Since there is no consensus on the normal function of the appendix, it is difficult for doctors to decide when it is a problem. However, appendicitis (swelling, inflammation and infection of the appendix) is a common health issue.
Interestingly, appendicitis is more common in males than females.
Appendicitis: My Story
When I was a young teenager, I had my appendix out. I had been sick with various complaints including stomach pains for over a year. Doctors could provide no diagnosis or cure for what was wrong with me.
In females, appendicitis is harder to diagnose as we have more complicated apparatus in the abdomen.
One night I was woken up with extreme stomach pain- so bad I couldn’t move or make a sound until it diminished. By the time I was seen in the ER, the pain had completely gone and I felt fine. However, the hospital admitted me for observation and I ended up going into surgery.
Even as I was going into the theatre, doctors were explaining that the surgery was exploratory and appendicitis may not be the cause of the pain.
As it turns out, I did have appendicitis. My swollen appendix had burst and this had caused peritonitis (inflamed abdominal tissue). I was sick for over a year afterwards and on extremely strong antibiotics for months to fix the infection.
Doctors told me that my appendix had been ‘grumbling’ for the last year and I was lucky it had been removed before any further damage was done.
It was not until after I had colonic irrigation (my colon was washed out and then healthy gut bacteria inserted, it’s gross I know) and went on a crazy-strict no sugar, no gluten, no dairy diet for nine months that my body began to recover from persistent illness.
Contrast this with my male cousin, who experienced bad stomach pain and within a week his appendix had been removed.
Reflection on the role of the appendix
In light of the proposed idea that the appendix is a storehouse of good gut bacteria, I find it interesting that it was after I had colonic irrigation that I began to recover my health again.
This would seem to support the idea that the appendix plays a key role in the immune system by maintaining levels of useful bacteria in the gut.