Surface of the Digestive Tract Smaller than We Thought

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For as long as I can remember, I have considered the area of the surface of the digestive tract to be about the size of a tennis court—an amazing statistic when you think about it. Most of this area comes from the small intestine where fingerlike villi and microvilli extend out from the intestinal lining, greatly increasing the surface area so that nutrient absorption can be maximized over a short distance.

As it turns out, the surface area of the digestive tract is much smaller than we thought. Instead of a tennis court (or between 180 and 300 square meters) it’s more like half a badminton court (between 30 and 40 square meters). In a new study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers used radiologic investigations and endoscopic studies of the microscopic structure of the GI tract to determine a more accurate surface area of an average healthy adult.

“The gastrointestinal tract is a dynamic system that is difficult to access in the abdominal cavity, and this makes it difficult to measure. Since the past measurements were carried out either during post mortems or during abdominal surgery, when the tissue is relaxed, it is easy to obtain misleading measurements,” stated Herbert Helander, MD, PhD, lead researcher.

What to make of this new information? Helander states, “From an anatomical point of view, 30 to 40 square meters is more than enough for the uptake of nutrients.”

Further studies should be done to replicate the results of this study to make sure that what they found is correct. But many digestive health experts may need to modify what we have been saying for so many years. I’ll keep you posted if more studies are done.