11 Facts About the Kidneys

iStock.com/Davizro
iStock.com/Davizro

Kidneys are kind of like the Brita filters of the human body. Each of these bean-shaped organs is only about the size of a fist, but they serve several vital functions. In addition to ridding your body of waste, the kidneys also help make red blood cells and regulate your blood pressure. If they aren’t kept healthy, though, they can cause a variety of kidney disease symptoms, from kidney stones to infections that could require a kidney transplant. Here are 11 facts you might not know.

1. Your pair of kidneys is lopsided.

Kidneys are located in the lower back—right below the rib cage—and they’re usually asymmetrical. Your right kidney tends to be smaller and sit a little lower than your left one because it needs to make room for the liver, whose bulkiest part is situated on the right side of your body. Your left kidney, on the other hand, has some more room to sprawl out below the spleen, an organ of smaller stature.

2. There’s a reason why you only need one kidney to live.

Most people have two kidneys at birth, but only one kidney is needed to lead a healthy life. Each kidney has about 1.5 million blood-filtering units called nephrons, which help remove a waste product called urea from blood as it flows through the organs. People only need a minimum of 300,000 nephrons to filter blood properly, and one kidney is more than enough to fulfill this purpose. (People without healthy kidneys can survive with dialysis, a process where blood is filtered by machine, or opt for a kidney transplant.)

3. Your kidneys filter about 45 gallons of blood per day.

Although the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, the kidneys are doing their fair share of work, too. They filter a half-cup of blood every minute, which works out to be 45 gallons of blood per day—or enough to fill a small bathtub.

4. Kidneys make pee.

As part of the body’s urinary system, kidneys create urine from urea, water, and other waste products. The fluid flows from the kidney’s tubules, which are found inside the nephrons, to two tubes called ureters. The ureters then release the urine into the bladder—and you know what happens from there. But if problems occur, the urine can get backed up and cause kidney infections. In addition, in cases where minerals in the urine crystallize, kidney stones can form.

5. Ancient Egyptians may have been the first people to describe kidneys.

Prior to 2018, it was commonly thought that ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the kidneys, even though their understanding of medicine and the human body was advanced in other ways. That changed when an Egyptian papyrus dating back some 3500 years revealed otherwise. It contained the world’s first known description of the kidneys, among other medical insights.

6. Kidneys are mentioned frequently in the Bible.

The kidneys are cited more than 30 times in the Bible—far more frequently than the heart, which was rarely mentioned. According to a 2005 article in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology by Baylor College of Medicine professor Garabed Eknoyan, it was not uncommon for symbolic meaning to be ascribed to various organs in ancient Middle Eastern texts. “Unlike most ancient literature, however, the kidneys receive special attention in the Bible as the seat of conscience, emotions, desire, and wisdom,” Eknoyan wrote. “The broader region of the loins, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary is implied in the now archaic term ‘reins,’ is considered the site of physical strength and prowess.”

7. A procedure for removing kidney stones used to be deadly.

These days, if a patient is unable to pass a kidney stone naturally (albeit painfully), laser and high-frequency sound wave treatments can be used to break the hard mineral deposits into smaller pieces. For much of history, though, a patient’s only option was to go under the knife. Kidney stone surgeries were common from the 16th to 18th centuries, and one of the procedures involved cutting open the perineum, inserting a cutting instrument into the bladder, and chopping up the stone manually. Self-taught surgeon Frère Jacques Beaulieu came up with this technique, but it wasn’t without serious risk. In 1698, 25 of the 60 patients he operated on died.

8. A Dutch doctor used sausage casing, orange juice cans, and a washing machine to invent an "artificial kidney" that predated dialysis.

At the start of World War II, not long after Germany invaded the Netherlands, Dutch doctor Willem Kolff got to work inventing an artificial kidney that evolved into modern-day dialysis. Because supplies were limited during the war, he wrapped semipermeable sausage casings around a wooden drum to create his kidney machine. A patient’s blood was pumped into the casings, and the drum was rotated to remove impurities. Later, he improved his invention by adding orange juice cans and a washing machine to the mix. Some of his earliest patients with kidney failure died after a few days, but in 1945, one woman lived seven more years thanks to Kolff’s machine. When Kolff wasn’t busy creating artificial organs, he was saving lives in other ways: He also established Europe’s first blood blank and helped more than 800 people avoid Nazi concentration camps by hiding them in his hospital.

9. Drinking too much water can be bad for kidneys.

Staying hydrated helps keep your kidneys in good working order, but on the flip side, you don’t want to drink too much water. Doing so can cause a condition called hyponatremia, which occurs when the sodium in the blood becomes diluted because the kidneys can’t get rid of the fluid fast enough. The condition can be severe, causing swelling of the cells. It's uncommon, though, and it mainly occurs among athletes who overexert their bodies and drink extra water to compensate. So how much water is the right amount? It varies from person to person, but the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that women drink around 9 cups (2.2 liters) per day, and that men drink about 13 cups (3 liters).

10. Too much ibuprofen and aspirin can also harm kidneys.

All drugs pass through your kidneys, so you want to be careful what you’re feeding them. If used daily for long periods of time, pain medications like ibuprofen, higher-dose aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve) can damage kidneys and potentially cause a disease called chronic interstitial nephritis. However, taking a daily low-dose aspirin to prevent heart attacks has no effect on kidney function.

11. Climate change may be causing an uptick in chronic kidney disease.

Recent research shows that chronic kidney disease is becoming more prevalent in Central America and parts of Asia, especially among manual laborers who spend most of their day outdoors. Although diabetes and high blood pressure are the main causes of impaired kidney function, these factors were ruled out among workers in El Salvador, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries. Other environmental factors may be involved, but researchers say the extreme heat is largely to blame—and climate change is only making it worse. For one, the more someone sweats, the more dehydrated they become. Over time, this can result in severe kidney damage.

“This can be considered the first disease that’s related to climate change,” Dr. Roberto Lucchini, an environmental medicine and public health professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, tells Mental Floss. He says the problem is so severe in Guatemala that job applicants’ creatinine levels are tested before they’re hired to work an outdoor job. Creatinine is a waste product that gets removed from blood by the kidneys, and if those levels are too high, it could signal a greater risk of kidney disease. Two other studies suggest the problem is even starting to affect outdoor workers in warmer parts of the U.S., including California and Florida. “If this continues as a general trend towards increased temperature, this is concerning,” Lucchini says.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

What Purpose Does the Belly Button Serve?

misuma/iStock via Getty Images
misuma/iStock via Getty Images

While your eyelashes are protecting your eyes, your lungs are letting you breathe, and virtually every other part of your body—inside and out—is performing its own relatively well-known task, your belly button is just sitting there collecting lint. And while it’s true that your navel served its most important purpose before you were born, it’s not totally useless now.

According to ZME Science, back when you were a fetus, your belly button was more of a belly portal: Your umbilical cord extended from it and connected you to the placenta on your mother’s uterine wall. That way, the placenta could channel nutrients and oxygen to you through the cord, and you could send back waste.

Your umbilical cord was cut when you were born, creating a tiny bulge that left behind some scar tissue after it healed. That scar tissue is your belly button, navel, or umbilicus. Though you may have heard that the shape of your belly button is a direct result of the scissor skills of the doctor who delivered you, that’s not true. Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that a belly button's shape “has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby’s body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie.” About 90 percent of people have innies.

Regardless of how your belly button looks, you probably don’t use it on a daily basis. However, if you’ve studied anatomy, medicine, or a related field, you might recognize it as the central point by which the abdomen is divided into the following quadrants: right upper, left upper, right lower, and left lower. Another way of classifying that area is into nine regions—including the hypochondriac, lumbar, iliac, epigastric, and hypogastric regions—with the umbilical region at the very center.

Abdominopelvic regions diagram
Blausen Medical, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Your belly button can also serve as the opening for laparoscopic surgery, which can save you from having a scar elsewhere on your abdomen.

The navel is a great central landmark outside of medicine, too. If you’ve taken yoga or Pilates classes, you may have heard it referred to as the center of balance or center of gravity. Because it sits right on top of your abdominal muscles, your belly button is an easy marker for your instructor to mention when they want you to access your core, which helps you balance.

And, of course, belly buttons are notorious for storing quite a bit of lint, which always seems to be blue (you can learn more about that here).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER