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Small intestinal length: a factor essential for gut adaptation.
  1. L T Weaver,
  2. S Austin,
  3. T J Cole
  1. MRC Dunn Nutrition Unit, Cambridge.


    Changes in small intestinal structure, cytokinetics, and function are dynamic ways in which the gut adapts to diet, disease, and damage. Adequate length provides a static 'reserve' permitting an immediate response to pathophysiological changes. The length of the small intestine from conception to adulthood using data taken from eight published reports of necropsy measurement of 1010 guts is described. Mean length at 20 weeks' gestation was 125 cm, at 30 weeks' 200 cm, at term 275 cm, at 1 year 380 cm, at 5 years 450 cm, at 10 years 500 cm, and at 20 years 575 cm. Prenatal small intestinal growth exceeded that of body length according to the law: small intestinal length alpha body length to the power 4/3. After birth there was a noticeable deceleration: small intestinal length alpha body length to the power 1/2. The coefficient of variation of small intestinal length postnatally was 24%, sixfold greater than for body length. The rapid prenatal small intestinal growth rate ensures that the mature newborn has adequate small intestine to meet postnatal nutritional demands, but handicaps the preterm infant who undergoes intestinal resection. The wide variation in lengths suggests a 'surplus' surface area that is immediately available to respond, independent of dynamic mucosal changes, to fluctuations in food availability, local intestinal disease, damage, rapid transit, and resection.

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