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A benefit (perhaps) of having the appendix taken out in childhood - it is associated with a lower rate of Parkinson's disease decades later in life, according to an international study that looked at health records of 1.7 million people in Sweden. Other main findings is that this finding is especially strong for individuals living in rural areas (and not urban areas), and that removing the appendix also delayed the age of Parkinson's disease onset in those who got the disease. But if you read further, there were other interesting findings in the study, even though much is still unknown - it's still a big puzzle with lots of pieces still to be filled in.

By the way, other recent research also supports the view that Parkinson's disease gets its start in the gut - and not in the brain, which is what everyone thought for years. But note that there are other risk factors such as certain pesticide exposure or drug use, or trauma to the head that are linked to Parkinson's disease. Many studies find that rural living is associated with a higher risk for Parkinson's disease, and it is thought this is probably due to higher exposure to pesticides, which then somehow contributes to the development of Parkinson's disease. From Medical Xpress:

Appendix removal is linked to lower risk of Parkinson's

Scientists have found a new clue that Parkinson's disease may get its start not in the brain but in the gut—maybe in the appendix. People who had their appendix removed early in life had a lower risk of getting the tremor-inducing brain disease decades later, researchers reported Wednesday.

Why? A peek at surgically removed appendix tissue shows this tiny organ, often considered useless, seems to be a storage depot for an abnormal protein—one that, if it somehow makes its way into the brain, becomes a hallmark of Parkinson's ...continue reading "Appendix Removal and Parkinson’s Disease"

 More research supporting that the appendix has a purpose - that it has an immune function and is a "reservoir" for beneficial gut bacteria. That is, it is where beneficial bacteria go and hide out when the person has food poisoning or is taking antibiotics (which wipe out bacteria in the gut), and then these bacteria replenish the gut afterwards. (Other supporting research.) This is the opposite of what many have believed for years (and we were taught in school) - which was that it is something that may have had a purpose long ago, but now is a "vestigial organ" and useless in humans. Hah! Once again scientific knowledge is being rewritten.

The researchers examined 533 mammal species for the presence of an appendix, and found it in a number of them, including humans, chimps, and dogs. From Science Daily:

Appendix may have important function, new research suggests

The human appendix, a narrow pouch that projects off the cecum in the digestive system, has a notorious reputation for its tendency to become inflamed (appendicitis), often resulting in surgical removal. Although it is widely viewed as a vestigial organ with little known function, recent research suggests that the appendix may serve an important purpose. In particular, it may serve as a reservoir for beneficial gut bacteria. Several other mammal species also have an appendix, and studying how it evolved and functions in these species may shed light on this mysterious organ in humans.

Heather F. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, is currently studying the evolution of the appendix across mammals. Dr. Smith's international research team gathered data on the presence or absence of the appendix and other gastrointestinal and environmental traits for 533 mammal species. 

They discovered that the appendix has evolved independently in several mammal lineages, over 30 separate times, and almost never disappears from a lineage once it has appeared. This suggests that the appendix likely serves an adaptive purpose. Looking at ecological factors, such as diet, climate, how social a species is, and where it lives, they were able to reject several previously proposed hypotheses that have attempted to link the appendix to dietary or environmental factors. Instead, they found that species with an appendix have higher average concentrations of lymphoid (immune) tissue in the cecum. This finding suggests that the appendix may play an important role as a secondary immune organ. Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a "safe house" for helpful gut bacteria.

 Drawing of colon seen from front (the appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia

This is the second time I've seen research finding that antibiotics  alone could be used (instead of surgery) for the treatment of uncomplicated appendicitis (June 17, 2015 post), but this time in children. Appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix.  At the one year follow-up the researchers found that 75.7% of patients with uncomplicated appendicitis had been successfully treated with antibiotics alone and had not had any recurrences of appendicitis. This is a major finding because for years the gold standard for appendicitis treatment has been an appendectomy. The times are a changing. From Science Daily:

Antibiotics alone can be a safe, effective treatment for children with appendicitis

Using antibiotics alone to treat children with uncomplicated acute appendicitis is a reasonable alternative to surgery when chosen by the family. A study led by researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that three out of four children with uncomplicated appendicitis have been successfully treated with antibiotics alone at one year follow-up. Compared to urgent appendectomy, non-operative management was associated with less recovery time, lower health costs and no difference in the rate of complications at one year.

"Surgery has long been the 'gold standard' of care for treating appendicitis because by removing the appendix we eliminate the chance that the appendicitis will ever come back," said Dr. Deans. "However, early in our careers we noticed that patients with appendicitis who were placed on antibiotics overnight until their surgery the following morning felt better the next day. So, Pete and I asked ourselves: do they really need to have surgery?"

In the first study conducted and published in the United States examining non-operative management for appendicitis, they enrolled 102 patients age 7 to 17 who were diagnosed with uncomplicated acute appendicitis at Nationwide Children's between October 2012 and October 2013. Participants had early/mild appendicitis, meaning that they experienced abdominal pain for no more than 48 hours; had a white blood cell count below 18,000; underwent an ultrasound or CT scan to rule out rupture and to verify that their appendix was 1.1 centimeter thick or smaller; and had no evidence of an abscess or fecalith, which is hard stone-like piece of stool.

Thirty-seven families chose antibiotics alone and 65 opted for surgery. Those patients in the non-operative group were admitted to the hospital and received IV antibiotics for at least 24 hours, followed by oral antibiotics after discharge for a total of 10 days. Among those patients, 95% showed improvement within 24 hours and were discharged without undergoing surgery. Rates of appendicitis-related medical care within 30 days were similar between the groups with two patients in the non-operative group readmitted within 30 days for an appendectomy. At one year after discharge, three out of four patients in the non-operative group did not have appendicitis again and have not undergone surgery.

Appendicitis, caused by a bacterial infection in the appendix, is the most common reason for emergency abdominal surgery in children, sending more than 70,000 young people to the operating room each year. Although many of these cases are severe and require surgery, there are a good number that would be candidates for treatment with antibiotics alone, Dr. Minneci said.

According to the study results, patients who were transferred to Nationwide Children's from other institutions expressed concerns about the distance and time necessary to come back if the appendicitis recurred. These families opted for surgery more often. Patients whose families spoke primary languages other than English were more likely to choose antibiotics as a course of treatment due to cultural values to avoid surgery if at all possible.

Drawing of colon seen from front (appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia.

This new study gives further support for the role of the appendix as a "natural reservoir for 'good' bacteria". The researchers found that a network of immune cells (innate lymphoid cells or ILCs)  safeguard the appendix during a bacterial attack and help the appendix "reseed" the gut microbiome. They also said that a person's diet, such as the proteins in leafy green vegetables, could help produce ILCs. Note that while it is thought that this applies to humans, the research was done on mice. From Medical Xpress:

Immune cells make appendix 'silent hero' of digestive health

New research shows a network of immune cells helps the appendix to play a pivotal role in maintaining the health of the digestive system, supporting the theory that the appendix isn't a vestigial—or redundant—organ.

The research team....found that innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) are crucial for protecting against bacterial infection in people with compromised immune systems. By preventing significant damage and inflammation of the appendix during a bacterial attack, ILCs safeguard the organ and help it to perform an important function in the body, as a natural reservoir for 'good' bacteria.

"Popular belief tells us the appendix is a liability," she said. "Its removal is one of the most common surgical procedures in Australia, with more than 70,000 operations each year. However, we may wish to rethink whether the appendix is so irrelevant for our health. "We've found that ILCs may help the appendix to potentially reseed 'good' bacteria within the microbiome—or community of bacteria—in the body. A balanced microbiome is essential for recovery from bacterial threats to gut health, such as food poisoning."

Professor Belz said having a healthy appendix might even save people from having to stomach more extreme options for repopulating—or 'balancing out'—their microbiomes. "In certain cases, people require reseeding of their intestines with healthy bacteria by faecal transplant—a process where intestinal bacteria is transplanted to a sick person from a healthy individual," Professor Belz said. "Our research suggests ILCs may be able to play this important part in maintaining the integrity of the appendix.

"We found ILCs are part of a multi-layered protective armoury of immune cells that exist in healthy individuals. So even when one layer is depleted, the body has 'back ups' that can fight the infection. "In people who have compromised immune systems—such as people undergoing cancer treatment—these cells are vital for fighting bacterial infections in the gastrointestinal system. This is particularly important because ILCs are able to survive in the gut even during these treatments, which typically wipe out other immune cells."

Professor Belz has previously shown that diet, such as the proteins in leafy green vegetables, could help produce ILCs."ILCs are also known to play a role in allergic diseases, such as asthma; inflammatory bowel disease; and psoriasis," she said. "So it is vital that we better understand their role in the intestine and how we might manipulate this population to treat disease, or promote better health."

Drawing of colon seen from front (appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia.

For more than 100 years, the standard treatment for appendicitis has been surgery. Now a large Finnish study provides the best evidence to date that most patients can be treated with antibiotics alone. How did the usual treatment of doing an appendectomy (appendix removal) arise? In 1886 Dr. Reginald Fitz, while investigating pelvic infections (which resulted in many deaths in those days), decided that an inflamed appendix progresses from a mild inflammation, to gangrene, then perforation, which would result in pelvic abscess. This reason for an appendectomy (that it would prevent serious infection) became established in medical thought and still guides appendicitis management today. But nowadays we have antibiotics! And the researchers noted that some cases resolved on their own without any treatment.

And instead of the prevailing view for many years that the appendix is a "vestigial organ with no purpose",  it turns out that the appendix has a great reason for existence. It seems to provide a safe haven for good bacteria when gastrointestinal illness flushes those bacteria from the rest of the intestines.This reservoir of gut microbes then repopulates the digestive system following the illness. It makes me wonder why some people get appendicitis and others don't - do they have inflammation for some reason so that their bacterial communities are out of whack (dysbiosis)? Would dietary changes help prevent recurrences? From the NY Times:

Antibiotics Are Effective in Appendicitis, Study Says

For more than 100 years, the standard treatment for appendicitis has been surgery. Now a large Finnish study provides the best evidence to date that most patients can be treated with antibiotics alone.The study, published Tuesday in JAMA, involved 530 patients aged 18 to 60 who agreed to have their treatment — antibiotics or surgery — decided at random.Three out of four who took antibiotics recovered easily, the researchers found. And none who had surgery after taking antibiotics were worse off for having waited.

The new study comes amid growing questions about the routine use of surgery to treat appendicitis, which strikes about 300,000 Americans a year, afflicting one out of 10 adults at some point in their lives.

The results only apply to uncomplicated appendicitis, stressed Dr. Paulina Salminen, a surgeon at Turku University Hospital in Finland and lead author of the new study. She and her colleagues excluded from their trial the 20 percent of patients with complicated cases — people with perforated appendices or abdominal abscesses, and those with a little, rock like blockage of the appendix called an appendicolith.

In the 1950s, soon after antibiotics were discovered, some doctors reported success using them to treat patients with appendicitis. But, Dr. Livingston wrote in his editorial, “So powerful is the perceived benefit of appendectomy for appendicitis that surgical treatment for appendicitis remains unquestioned, with seemingly little interest in studying the problem.”

Dr. Livingston also found that most appendices that perforate have already done so by the time the patient shows up at an emergency room. Those that have not perforated when the patient seeks medical help almost never do so. People with so-called uncomplicated appendicitis, he concluded, seem to have a different disease — one that can be treated with antibiotics.

“The reason we take the appendix out and do it as an emergency is the belief, dating back to 1886, that the appendix will eventually become gangrenous and cause a pelvic abscess,” Dr. Livingston said.

Even with the results of the Finnish study, many questions remain. A person who has had one episode of appendicitis is at higher than usual risk for another....Accumulating data has led other experts to raise an even more controversial idea: Perhaps antibiotics aren’t always necessary, either. It is possible, some researchers say, that most people with appendicitis would get better on their own if doctors did nothing. The Finnish team is now planning a clinical trial to test that theory.

Drawing of colon seen from front (the appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia.

After posting yesterday "Probiotic Misconceptions", I was pleasantly surprised that today's NY Times had an article (by Jane Brody) raising similar concerns. What was good is that she wrote about supplements not being regulated. She also left out that probiotic beneficial organisms are found in more than the gut. A case in point being the sinuses - because healthy sinuses also have Lactobacillus sakei (according to the Abreu et al study of 2012), and which has been the basis for my family's successful kimchi treatment for sinusitis (see Sinusitis treatment link for the method). From the NY Times:

Probiotic Logic vs. Gut Feelings

The label on my bottle of Nature’s Bounty Advanced Probiotic 10 says it contains 10 probiotic strains and 20 billion live cultures in each two-capsule dose. The supplement provides “advanced support for digestive and intestinal health” and “healthy immune function.” I have no way to know if any of this is true. Like all over-the-counter dietary supplements, probiotics undergo no premarket screening for safety, effectiveness or even truth in packaging. 

To be sure, lay and scientific literature are filled with probiotic promise, and I am hardly the only consumer who has opted to hedge her bets. The global market for probiotic supplements and foods is expected to reach $32.6 billion this year,with a projected annual growth of 20 percent or more.

 Beneficial micro-organisms have since been shown to inhabit three main locations in the digestive tract: the stomach, the lower part of the small intestine and the large intestine. To better understand the current enthusiasm for enhancing the body’s supply of these micro-organisms, some definitions are needed.

Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial micro-organisms (that is, probiotics) in the gut. They are found naturally in oats, wheat, some fruits and vegetables (bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, soybeans, honey and artichokes), and in breast milk, and they are added to some infant formulas.

Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as “live micro-organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” The ailments that probiotics are said to benefit range from infection-caused diarrhea, inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome to asthma, allergy and Type 1 diabetes.

Synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. They are found in so-called functional foods like yogurt and kefir, fermented foods like pickles and some cheeses, and in some supplements.

That probiotic organisms are important to health is not questioned. As researchers at the Institute for Immunology at the University of California,Irvine have written intestinal micro-organisms play “an important role in the development of the gut immune system, digestion of food, production of short-chain fatty acids and essential vitamins, and resistance to colonization from pathogenic microorganisms.”

Dr. Walker has explained that probiotics enhance defensive action by the cells that line the gut. When a person takes antibiotics, especially the broad-spectrum antibiotics most often prescribed, many of these beneficial microbes are destroyed along with the disease-causing bacteria. Patients on antibiotics are often told to consume yogurt with active cultures to replenish the beneficial organisms.

In an extensive review of the evidence published in 2010 in the journal Pediatrics, an expert committee concluded that probiotics might limit the course of virus-caused diarrhea in otherwise healthy infants and children. But the committee said there was not sufficient evidence to justify routine use of probiotics to prevent rotavirus-caused diarrhea in child care centers. Nor did the committee endorse taking probiotics during pregnancy and nursing or giving them to infants to prevent allergic disorders in those at risk.

Only a small percentage of probiotic foods and supplements have the backing of peer-reviewed published research. They include Dannon’s Activia yogurt and DanActive drink and the supplements Culturelle and Align. Although kefir contains even more probiotic strains than yogurt, clinical studies have not shown it to be effective in preventing or treating infectious diarrhea.

The challenge in taking probiotics is to get the microbes past the stomach, where most are killed by gastric acid, said Robert Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University. Once in the intestines, they must compete effectively with the microbes already present.

Dr. Dunn, author of "The Wild Life of Our Bodies," says there is good reason to remain skeptical of probiotics“There are hundreds of kinds of prebiotics and probiotics in stores,” he said. “As a consumer, it’s almost impossible to figure out what is best. What are the specific species in your intestines, and how will what you take compete with them?” Still, he added, taking them doesn’t seem harmful. 

There is growing evidence for the role of the appendix in restoring a healthful balance of microbes in the body. Though long considered an expendable, vestigial organ, the appendix is now being looked at as “a storehouse of good bacteria,” Dr. Dunn said. In a study of recovery rates from Clostridium difficile, which causes a severe form of infectious diarrhea, often following antibiotic therapy, patients whose appendixes had been removed were more likely to have a recurrent infection than those who still had appendixes.