People sometimes start talking about the spleen when they get a stitch while running. But this run-a-little-slower organ has many more functions. And that sting, the spleen doesn’t even seem to be the culprit.
With or without spleen
How useful can an organ be that you can actually do without? In some forms of cancer, an immune disease or after an accident, the spleen is sometimes removed in its entirety. After that, a person can continue to live for many years. That will not happen so quickly if you lose your heart or your liver. The spleen does not seem very important. And let’s be honest: do you know what it’s for? In short, this forgotten body could use some promotion.
Bacteria: you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them
‘Your intestines are chock full of bacteria. If you didn’t have that, you wouldn’t be able to live either,’ begins professor of immunology Reina Mebius of the Amsterdam UMC. ‘They do a lot, they break down toxic substances and produce essential building materials for our health.’ But no matter how indispensable these bacteria are, they also pose major dangers. The French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered this in 1859. ‘There is only one layer of cells, namely the cell wall of the intestine, between all those bacteria and our body.’
And then you have invaders in your body
That one thin cell layer is not always sufficient to keep every bacteria out. As soon as one manages to get in, it can become a danger. It is not without reason that there are many immune cells in the intestinal region ready to attack intruders. But some bacteria immediately take the high-speed line in our body: they end up in the blood, after which they can travel throughout the body. Something like that could mean your death, unless your body can quickly ward off those black travelers.
Supermilt will come to your rescue
There the spleen makes its appearance as the hero of this story. “It is a filter of the blood,” says Mebius. ‘It filters bacteria and micro-organisms that can make us sick.’ The spleen thus performs important work: bringing invaders and their fighters together.
The spleen is located on the left side of your abdominal area, just below the diaphragm and behind the stomach. Your blood flows continuously through the small organ.
An intruder wandering through your body is difficult to grab. Not because the right defense is missing, but because it is in the wrong place.
The world is full of microscopic dangers
There are an incredible number of bacteria and viruses that can pose a danger to your health. This requires many immune cells, each of which can often only fight a small portion of the culprits.
An out-of-control bacterium will encounter many immune cells in your body (because they also float in the bloodstream), but they usually leave it alone. They look for other enemies. And as long as the bacteria has not yet taken hold, it can multiply, causing significant damage to your body. Mebius: ‘Ultimately, such bacteria can gain the upper hand in your body.’
Fortunately, there is the spleen. All your blood passes through that checkpoint of your bloodstream in about an hour and a half. A whole battery of inspectors is ready there, so that even the most devious bacteria are screwed.
Spleen is your first and second defense
The spleen houses a double line of defense, Mebius explains. First there are white blood cells that attack like wild dogs on anything that looks hostile. After they have neutralized the danger, the second defense starts.
These are other cells, B cells and T cells, that learn what the enemy looks like. This specific defense develops antibodies that only respond to the newly discovered danger. ‘These cells and antibodies patrol blood and tissue fluid and eliminate bacteria as soon as they come into contact with them.’
Lymph node of your bloodstream
This way, the intruder is caught in your entire body, and you are prepared for the danger next time. As a checkpoint for invaders, the spleen is most reminiscent of the lymph nodes. Cell fluid collects in these organs before returning to the bloodstream. A cordon of immune cells also keeps watch in your lymph nodes, because many bacteria and viruses will pass through there. The spleen is also seen as a kind of lymph node, but of the blood system.
Spleen works together
If the blood passes anyway, your spleen might as well take on some extra chores. Because the body does more than safety checks. For example, old blood cells are broken down in such a way that the iron from those cells can be reused. Conversely, the spleen also helps produce new immune cells. There are therefore many reasons to praise the spleen, although its immune function remains by far the most important.
I’d rather not go through life without a spleen
And yet we can do without it. According to Mebius, it is the wrong conclusion that the spleen is unimportant. ‘The immune system is so important that it is divided over several organs.’ Keeping invaders out is so fundamental that a whole series of organs are working on it almost full-time.
If the spleen is missing, the lymph nodes can largely compensate for the loss. Bacteria will still be exposed, but that may take longer. This means that the risk of serious infections without a spleen is much greater. People without a spleen must take antibiotics continuously. So you can be happy if your spleen does its job well.
Are you an expert when it comes to the human body? Find out with the Quest test: what do you know about your organs? And after reading this article, the question about the spleen is of course a piece of cake.
Still need some extra information? For example, read all about your diaphragm, another unknown part of your body.