Why do we have tonsils? Is there a particular function they serve?
Despite high tech medicine, there are still some basic questions about how the human body works that stump the medical profession. And the function of the tonsils is one of them.
When I was in medical school, almost nothing was mentioned about the tonsils. Textbooks devote only a paragraph or two to these organs. So doctors know more about how to remove them than what they do in your body.
Despite not knowing what they do or why our bodies have them, US doctors perform about 650,000 tonsillectomies each year. At around $10,000 per surgery, this means that removing tonsils generates close to $6.5 billion annually. And that’s for only one surgical procedure.
Removing the tonsils was at one time the fashion, and was supposed to relieve throat infections, although evidence suggests that there is not a significant enough decrease in throat infections following tonsillectomy to justify widespread use of this procedure. Now, the primary reason for tonsillectomies in children is for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders thought to be caused by enlarged tonsils obstructing the throat and airway.
What do doctors know about the function of the tonsils?
Medicine contends that the tonsils are part of the lymphatic system which helps to fight infections, since the tonsils contain lymphoid tissue that produced white blood cells and antibodies. However, tonsils are not lymph nodes. Lymph nodes have sinuses through which lymph fluid filters. Nothing like that happens with tonsils.
The tonsils are walnut sized glands composed of lymphoid tissue that surrounds several deep crypts, or folds. Lymph does not filter through the tonsils, but saliva filled with bacteria and food does contact the tonsil crypts. Bacteria are known to reside within these folds. As we swallow, food and saliva wash past these folds sending samples of the bacteria in them down our throats.
Medicine claims it has no idea what tonsils are really supposed to be doing in the body, apart from some vague immunity function. Textbooks say the tonsils are the first line of defense against infection, although any pathogen in the tonsils is already in your intestines and/or lungs, so it is hard to understand how this is a first line of defense. The tonsils are also said to trap pathogens in the mouth, although there is no mechanism to describe how tonsils can do this since they are not a filter, as are lymph nodes. In fact, tonsils are accused of spreading bacteria, not trapping it. Research also shows that removal of the tonsils does not seem to increase susceptibility to infection. So the role of tonsils in immunity is unclear.
Strange, isn’t it, that medicine can map the human genome, but they can’t tell you what the tonsils are for.
Tonsils and Bacteria
I would like to propose a new theory on the function of the tonsils and why we have them. But to understand their purpose in the body, you need to understand bacteria.
Most people realize that we live in a bacterial world. Our skin and mucous membranes are covered with colonies of bacteria. Our intestines are filled with bacteria. Each of us may have over 500 species of bacteria living on and in us.
Some of these bacteria can cause disease when the body is weakened. Other bacteria are helpful, aiding in digestion and fighting off bad bacteria. The emerging field of probiotics recognizes the importance of bacteria to health, and tries to supply needed bacteria to the human body. Lactobacillus acidophilus in yogurt is one example of a beneficial bacteria used to aid digestion.
The study of the interaction between bacteria and their human hosts is a relatively new field, so many links are just being discovered. Studies have already shown that intestinal bacteria can cause weight gain, or weight loss. Bacteria are needed for the production of certain B-vitamins and Vitamin K.
The discovery of the role of the stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori in the formation of stomach ulcers and cancer led to antibiotic therapy for these conditions. Now, however, scientists are warning that this bacterium is also beneficial. Maladies such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, Barrett’s esophagus (an ulcerlike disease in the esophagus), and cancers of the lower esophagus and gastric cardia (upper stomach) have been dramatically and progressively increasing since doctors have been eradicating this bacterium with antibiotics.
H. pylori has also been shown to control the levels of the human hunger-causing hormone ghrelin, produced by the stomach lining. Ghrelin increases appetite for high calorie foods. As a result of antibiotic therapy to kill H. pylori, levels of ghrelin become elevated, increasing hunger and food intake, and resulting in obesity.
It’s clear that some bacteria are an important part of our bodies and physiology. We have lived with them since the first humans. And we rely on them for health.
Bacteria and Digestion
One important benefit of bacteria to our health is the service they provide for digestion. Bacteria help us digest things we could not easily digest by ourselves.
Take the case of cows, goats, horses, and other grazing animals. These vegetarians cannot digest the cellulose in the grasses they eat without the help of bacteria. The bacteria breakdown the cellulose into sugar, which the animal can absorb. Without these bacteria, these animals would starve on their vegetarian diets.
So important are these digestive bacteria that these animals have special organs for incubating their bacteria and fermenting their food. Cows, goats, and sheep have a rumen, essentially a large fermentation sac that holds the eaten greens and bacteria. Horses ferment their grass diet in a sac called the ceacum, which is located between the small and large intestine.
Essentially, bacteria are part of these animals. They have special digestive organs that specifically rely on bacteria for digestion. You cannot understand the function of the rumen or ceacum of these animals without understanding the role of bacteria in their process of digestion.
In humans, bacteria also help the digestion of our food. While we make our own digestive enzymes for breaking down starch, proteins, and fats, bacteria in our intestines do their own digestion of our food, adding their digestive products to what we produce. We end up absorbing the products of bacterial digestion as well as the products of our own.
Given the high population of bacteria in our intestines, our bodies have lined the intestines with lymphoid tissue that is part of the immune system. This tissue produces white blood cells which in turn produce various substances, such as antibodies, that control and cultivate our bacteria to keep them from getting out of control.
Essentially, our bodies are part bacteria. We have organs that rely on bacteria, and an immune system with the ability to use and manage bacterial populations.
How do bacteria get into the human digestive system?
One way bacteria get into the human digestive system is with the food itself. Fermented foods, such as yogurt or sauerkraut, have their own bacterial ingredients, and these help in the digestion of these foods. Raw foods in general have more bacterial content, and the enzymes provided by these bacteria aid digestion, which is a main reason why some people are raw foodists. Most people, however, cook their food, killing potentially bad bacteria but also killing beneficial bacteria and their helpful enzymes.
The greatest source of bacteria for our intestines is the mouth. Our mouths are filled with bacteria. Each time we swallow or eat food, oral bacteria are washed down into the stomach. While the stomach has an acidic environment that kills some bacteria, many get through the stomach and into the intestines.
Mouth bacteria are everywhere – around the gums, on the tongue, and in the tonsils.
“Stones” or “kernels”?
Many people have “stones” in their tonsil crypts, also called tonsilloliths. These whitish plugs are sometimes a cause of annoyance and they can be expressed from the tonsils by gently pressing. The “stone” is composed of bacteria, calcium, and cell debris, and is reminiscent of kefir kernels which are used to develop bacterial cultures. Perhaps these tonsil stones are also for developing bacterial cultures.
Of course, the tonsils are exposed to food as well as bacteria. These get caught up in the tonsil crypts. The crypts would allow certain bacteria to flourish in response to this food. Each time we swallow, the bacteria in these crypts essentially seeds the digestive tract.
It seems, then, that the function of the tonsils is as incubators for intestinal bacteria. The crypts are there to create an environment where our food meets our bacteria. Lymphoid tissue surrounding the crypts help cultivate the correct bacterial balance for our diet.
The tonsils, then, seem to be digestive organs. Their function is to manage the microflora of our digestive system.
If you eat lots of dairy products, for example, the milk in your throat coats the tonsils and lets milk-eating bacteria flourish there. These bacteria can then inoculate your intestines to aid in digestion.
Of course, this may be only one of several other functions of the tonsils in the control of bacteria. But the fact that there are crypts or pockets in this organ which hold food and bacteria suggests that this organ is involved in bacterial homeostasis. Its location at the back of the throat and in close contact with food suggests its digestive function.
If true, then this means any change to our oral environment may impact on our tonsil bacteria. Alcohol, sugar, smoking, dehydration, and taking drugs may alter the bacterial community in the tonsils and impact on digestion. It could lead to derangement of the bacterial microecosystem within the tonsils. This may cause digestive problems such as bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, food sensitivities, and more.
If the bacteria within the tonsils gets out of hand, the tonsils swell as white blood cells are activated to manage the bacterial community. We have all experienced swollen tonsils. It is usually caused by bad bacteria taking over the tonsil crypts.
This is when medicine comes into the picture. Doctors recognize that tonsils get infected and can spread infection as you swallow, continually seeding your intestines with these bad bacteria. This can cause trouble swallowing and breathing, so the doctors often suggest tonsillectomy, about 650,000 times each year.
What happens if you remove the tonsils?
One disturbing outcome of tonsillectomy is excessive weight gain. Childhood obesity is a real problem and could be related to tonsillectomies. However, the medical community does not want to acknowledge the link, since they see no mechanism for the connection.
How would removal of the tonsils cause obesity? If you think of the tonsils as only lymphoid organs with no known function apart from some uncertain immune function, as medicine currently does, then this question is a mystery. However, when you think of the tonsils as digestive organs, it makes sense.
If the purpose of the tonsils is to help seed the digestive system with helpful bacteria that aid digestion, then loss of these bacterial enzymes means less efficient digestion. Certain deficiencies may result from the lack of bacterial enzymes, causing the tonsillectomized person to eat more to get needed nutrition. Eating a ‘normal’ quantity may not be enough to provide all the needed nutrition, although it still may provide lots of available calories. To get the nutrition needed, excess food is consumed producing excess glucose absorption and resulting fat deposits.
On the other hand, lack of certain bacteria may make calories less available, leading to weight loss.
We rely on bacteria for digestion, and on the tonsils to cultivate the right bacteria. Without tonsils the bacterial flora of the gut will be less controlled, and you might not have the correct bacteria for your digestive needs, leading to all sorts of problems.
This may also explain some food allergies. Food allergies usually result when foreign proteins are not completely digested into their component amino acids. Amino acids do not typically cause allergies, but proteins and protein fragments can be powerful antigens leading to allergies. Without the aid of bacterial digestive enzymes, there is a greater chance that these proteins will not be fully digested, increasing the chances of allergic reactions.
If removing the tonsils can lead to excessive weight gain, then what happens when you give people antibiotics? Shouldn’t antibiotics kill at least some of the bacteria within the tonsils? Shouldn’t this have a similar outcome as tonsil removal?
Actually, antibiotics also cause weight gain.
Why has the field of medicine failed to recognize this function of the tonsils?
Modern medicine has gained its power with the development of antibiotics. Bacterial diseases can kill, and antibiotics have saved lives. The prejudice against bacteria has permeated the medical and popular culture, resulting in antiseptic hand washes, mouthwashes, and an over sanitized world. You can’t expect an industry that discovered antibiotics to easily embrace bacteria as important to health. As a result, the tonsils are seen as a “first line of defense” against invading germs and nothing more. Once these bad germs get hold of the tonsils, they should be removed, they assert. It never occurred to them that the tonsils also hold good germs. To the antibiotic addicted medical model, there are no good germs.
There is a basic flaw in modern medical reasoning. Modern medicine considers some parts of the human body as unnecessary. Doctors are not trained to think that there is a reason for everything in our bodies. However, our bodies were designed by nature (or God) to work a certain way, even if we cannot currently understand that design. Crypts in tonsils collect bacteria for a purpose, even if our current science cannot fathom that purpose. Any doctor that removes the tonsils or the appendix or any other part of the body because, they assert, it has no purpose is only slightly less a fool than the person faithfully following their prescription.
This does not mean that tonsils should never be removed. There may be cases when this is necessary. But the cause of the tonsil problem needs to be addressed. Why would these bacteria-managing organs lose control over their bacteria?
The Causes of Tonsil Problems
Perhaps the greatest cause of tonsil problems is the overuse of antibiotics. We know that antibiotics can cause diarrhea as it disturbs our intestinal bacterial community. Antibiotics will also disturb our tonsil bacterial community. Eating foods with beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt, is often recommended after antibiotic use to reseed the intestines with these beneficial species. People who still have their tonsils may recolonize their tonsils with these good bacteria. Those without tonsils may need to continually reintroduce good bacteria with their food.
Another problem may be the use of alcohol, both as a beverage and as a mouthwash. Alcohol will disturb our tonsils, irritating the mucous membrane and altering the microfloral composition. Smoking may also be a problem. Nicotine has been shown to affect a broad spectrum of bacteria in the mouth, suppressing some bacterial species and stimulating others.
Realizing that the tonsils are digestive organs may open up a new field of medicine where we can clean and reseed tonsils with the proper bacterial community for our dietary and health needs.
What About the Appendix?
Of course, this raises a question about another organ that medicine says we don’t need – the appendix. This organ, like the tonsils, holds bacteria. It is at the mouth of the large intestines, or colon. Could the appendix be seeding the colon with beneficial bacteria for colonic digestion? After all, the colon is where vitamin B-12 is activated by bacteria. Could the appendix be the tonsils of the colon?
Don’t expect an answer from the medical community. There are nearly 300,000 appendectomies performed in the US each year.
Could a tonsillectomy lead to obesity?
By the time a surgeon sees an appendix or tonsil, it is usually when the organ is inflamed with disease. Perhaps in some situations the removal of these organs is appropriate and necessary.
However, before you can make that decision, you need to know what the tonsils and appendix normally do and what you might be missing without them.
Our culture is facing an epidemic of obesity. If tonsils are indeed important managers of the body’s intestinal bacterial communities, then loss of tonsils may be an important factor for creating obesity and other intestinal and colonic diseases.
Gas, indigestion, irritable bowels, food cravings, diarrhea, food allergies. The list of possible negative impacts of tonsillectomy will likely grow as knowledge of the role of bacteria in maintaining health grows.
In the meantime, if your doctor tells you to remove part of your body because he doesn’t know what it’s for, then find another doctor.