Women literally have more guts than men, new anatomy study discovers

RALEIGH, N.C. — When it comes to guts, it turns out women have men beat — literally by an entire foot! A new study reveals that women have longer small intestines than their male counterparts. Interestingly, researchers believe this could help women deal with stress better.

Despite being, on average, five inches shorter, women have approximately a foot more (30cm) of the winding muscular tube extending from the stomach to the colon. This longer intestine is believed to help women better absorb nutrients if needed for pregnancy and breastfeeding, according to a team from North Carolina State University.

“The small intestine is all about absorption, absorption, absorption. It’s where you get the vast majority of your nutrients,” says study lead author Amanda Hale, a Ph.D. candidate at NC State.

Surprisingly, there have been few investigations into the anatomical variations that can exist between different people’s organs. Thus, the researchers measured the digestive tracts of 21 female and 24 male adult cadavers that had been donated to Duke University, also in North Carolina.

They found that, on average, the males’ small intestines were slightly over 13 feet long, while those of their female counterparts were 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) longer.

“When we began exploring this issue, we were astonished at the extent of the variability we found,” says Hale in a university release.

“Because having a longer small intestine helps you extract nutrients from your diet, this finding supports the canalization hypothesis, which posits that women are better able to survive during periods of stress.”

Erin McKenney measures the length of human small intestines.
Erin McKenney measures the length of human small intestines. (Credit: NC State)

However, this difference likely doesn’t explain why some gastrointestinal conditions are more common in one sex than the other. Co-author Dr. Erin McKenney, also from NC State, suggests that gender variations in immune systems and genetics probably play a role. Overall, the results indicate the importance of considering people’s anatomy when diagnosing and treating them.

“Given that there is more variation in human gut anatomy than we thought, this could inform our understanding of what is driving a range of health-related issues and how we treat them,” says Dr. McKenney. “Basically, now that we know this variability exists, it raises a number of research questions that need to be explored.”

The small intestine hangs in sausage-like coils. It is longer than the large intestine but has a smaller diameter. Most of the nutrients in the food you eat pass through the lining of your small intestine into your blood. By the time food leaves your small intestine, all the nutrients in your food will have entered your bloodstream. All that remains is indigestible food, which is passed from your small intestine to your large intestine for further processing.

On a global scale, the average height of men is around 5 feet 9 inches, while the average height of women is around 5 feet 4 inches. When it comes to your guts however, it appears size doesn’t matter.

The findings are published in the journal PeerJ.

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South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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