Detoxifying the mystery of an underrated organ

We’re a few months into the new year now, so how’s that “New Year, New You” life plan going? More specifically, how about those detoxes or cleanses? You may have noticed a few detox trends on the covers of magazines while buying organic veggies for your vegan meals (which may or may not have turned into weekend candy runs or ice cream binges by now).

Maybe a few of you have tried out some of those detox and cleanse treatments to ‘refresh your body’, ‘rid yourself of toxins’, or even ‘cure bacterial infections’. However, let’s not get carried away or fooled by advertising tactics. In all honesty, a healthy body can handle most of the things that many of these detoxes claim to do and much more.

Let me introduce to you an essential, yet often overlooked, body part: your spleen. Unlike that pesky appendix that’s apt to rupturing and leading to extreme pain or the hefty liver known for its ability to handle that post-exam wine or spirit – the spleen is basically ignored. More familiar organs, like the intestines (most often seen being pulled out of unsuspecting cheerleaders in B horror movies) are mainly for digestive functions- which the spleen has no part of.

In the past, the spleen was even named “organon mysterii plenum” or organ full of mystery because no one knew what it did. Today, the functions of the spleen are well characterized and it’s quite important!

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Image Credit:  Terese Winslow, NIH

So what does this weird organ even do?

The spleen is divided into two main compartments called ‘red pulp’ and ‘white pulp’ (no relation to the pulp you find in orange juice though!). The ‘red pulp’ filters blood by removing damaged red blood cells and microbes from the bloodstream.  The spleen is actually the largest filter of the blood in our body – so you can bet that your spleen does not need the assistance of lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or even echinacea (all of which are common detox ingredients) to do its job.

The ‘white pulp’ contains cells that help mediate immune responses to a variety of pathogens (some of which are mounted directly against microbes captured in the red pulp). Some of the specialized immune cells, known as T cells and B cells, ‘live’ in the spleen. When an infection is detected within the body, T and B cells become activated and leave the spleen in search of the microbes that are attacking other portions of the body.

The spleen is essentially one rest stop along the I-95 of the body’s defenses. T and B cells circulate from all over the body through various lymph nodes to search for potential invaders to fight! How’s that for a cleansing experience? Your spleen is facilitating a 24/7 microbe surveillance!

Unlike some organs whose function be improved with the addition of some activities (i.e running to help out your heart) and ending others (i.e quitting smoking to improve lung function), there’s no specific activity that’s targeted enough to improve splenic function.The spleen doesn’t need fancy alkaline waters, $19 avocado toast or coffee enemas to keep itself healthy. In fact, many of those activities are dangerous for your checkbook and life-threatening.

One factor in decreased spleen function arises from immune deficiencies such as chronic immune thrombocytopenia (ITP) or sickle cell disease which can predispose patients to have severe spleen dysfunction. These patients may have to undergo a process known as a splenectomy to help improve life expectancy if cases are severe enough.

What about for the people without immune deficiencies? How can we have a spleen fit for all those 5K marathons and non-refundable gym memberships we signed up for on January 1st?

Just try to not get yourself killed. Seriously.

Traumatic injury can rupture the spleen which may lead to an emergency splenectomy. These injuries can occur during sports, car accidents, even horseback riding. Unfortunately, long-term risks can arise after life-saving treatment because splenectomies predispose patients to death from a variety of life-threatening illnesses such as ischemic heart disease, sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis.

In the end, the best detox you can do for your spleen is to simply be careful! The spleen is a big deal- even if we can survive without one! It may not be the heart, lungs or brain of our body, but it works hard to keep our bodies free of infections! So next time you see those magazine covers, consider saving a few bucks and rely on your body to handle any detoxing needs.

Featured Image Credit: Practical Cures via Flickr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKara Wyatt is a PhD student in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia currently studying the immune response to influenza within the lung epithelium. In her spare time she enjoys playing video games, hiking with her husband, or watching Kind of the Hill on repeat. You can connect with Kara by email at kara.wyatt@uga.edu. More from Kara Wyatt.