The digestive system is a group of organs responsible for the conversion of food into absorbable chemicals that are then used to provide energy for growthand repair. The digestive system is also known by a number of other names, including the gut, the digestive tube, the alimentary canal, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the intestinal tract, and the intestinal tube. The digestivesystem consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines, along with several glands, such as the salivary glands, liver, gall bladder, and pancreas. These glands secrete digestive juices containing enzymes that break down the food chemically into smaller, more absorbable molecules. In addition to providing the body with the nutrients and energy it needs to function, the digestive system also separates and disposes of waste products ingested with the food.
Food is moved through the alimentary canal by a wavelike muscular motion known as peristalsis, which consists of the alternate contraction and relaxationof the smooth muscles lining the tract. In this way, food is passed through the gut in much the same manner as toothpaste is squeezed from a tube. Churning is another type of movement that takes place in the stomach and small intestine, which mixes the food so that the digestive enzymes can break down the food molecules.
Food in the human diet consists of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. The remainder of the food is fiber and water. The majority of minerals and vitamins pass through to the bloodstream without the need for further digestive changes, but other nutrient molecules must be broken down to simpler substances before they can be absorbed and used.
Food taken into the mouth is first prepared for digestion in a two step process known as mastication. In the first stage, the teeth tear the food into smaller pieces. In the second stage, the tongue rolls these pieces into balls (boluses). Sensory receptors on the tongue (taste buds) detect taste sensationsof sweet, salt, bitter, and sour, or cause the rejection of bad-tasting food. The olfactory nerves contribute to the sensation of taste by picking up thearoma of the food and passing the sensation of smell on to the brain.
The sight of the food also stimulates the salivary glands. Altogether, the sensations of sight, taste, and smell cause the salivary glands, located in themouth, to produce saliva which then pours into the mouth to soften the food.An enzyme in the saliva called amylase begins the breakdown of carbohydrates(starch) into simple sugars, such as maltose. Ptyalin is one of the main amylase enzymes found in the mouth; ptyalin is also secreted by the pancreas.
The bolus of food, which is now a battered, moistened, and partially digestedball of food, is swallowed, moving to the throat at the back of the mouth (pharynx). In the throat, rings of muscles force the food into the esophagus, the first part of the upper digestive tube. The esophagus extends from the bottom part of the throat to the upper part of the stomach.
The esophagus does not take part in digestion. Its job is to get the bolus into the stomach. There is a powerful muscle (the esophageal sphincter), at thejunction of the esophagus and stomach which acts as a valve to keep food, stomach acids, and bile from flowing back into the esophagus and mouth.
Chemical digestion begins in the stomach. The stomach, a large, hollow, pouched-shaped muscular organ, is shaped like a lima bean. When empty, the stomachbecomes elongated; when filled, it balloons out.
Food in the stomach is broken down by the action of the gastric juice containing hydrochloric acid and a protein-digesting enzyme called pepsin. Gastric juice is secreted from the linings of the stomach walls, along with mucus, which helps to protect the stomach lining from the action of the acid. The 3 layers of powerful stomach muscles churn the food into a fine semiliquid paste called chyme. From time to time, the chyme is passed through an opening (the pyloric sphircler), which controls the passage of chyme between the stomach and the beginning of the small intestine.
There are several mechanisms responsible for the secretion of gastric juice in the stomach. The stomach begins its production of gastric juice while the food is still in the mouth. Nerves from the cheeks and tongue are stimulated and send messages to the brain. The brain in turn sends messages to nerves inthe stomach wall, stimulating the secretion of gastric juice before the arrival of the food. The second signal for gastric juice production occurs when the food arrives in the stomach and touches the lining. This mechanism providesfor only a moderate addition to the amount of gastric juice that was secreted when the food was in the mouth.
Gastric juice is needed mainly for the digestion of protein by pepsin. If a hamburger and bun reach the stomach, there is no need for extra gastric juicefor the bun (carbohydrate), but the hamburger (protein) will require a much greater supply of gastric juice. The gastric juice already present will beginthe breakdown of the large protein molecules of the hamburger into smaller molecules--polypeptides and peptides. These smaller molecules in turn stimulatethe cells of the stomach lining to release the hormone gastrin into the bloodstream.
Gastrin then circulates throughout the body, and eventually reaches the stomach, where it stimulates the cells of the stomach lining to produce more gastric juice. The more protein there is in the stomach, the more gastrin will beproduced, and the greater the production of gastric juice. The secretion of more gastric juice by the increased amount of protein in the stomach represents the third mechanism of gastric juice secretion.
While digestion continues in the small intestine, it also becomes a major site for the process of absorption, that is, the passage of digested food into the bloodstream, and its transport to the rest of the body.
The small intestine is a long, narrow tube, about 20 ft (6 m) long, running from the stomach to the large intestine. The small intestine occupies the areaof the abdomen between the diaphragm and hips, and is greatly coiled and twisted. The small intestine is lined with muscles that move the chyme toward the large intestine. The mucosa, which lines the entire small intestine, contains millions of glands that aid in the digestive and absorptive processes of the digestive system.
The small intestine, or small bowel, is subdivided by anatomists into three sections, the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. The duodenum is about 1 ft(0.3 m) long and connects with the lower portion of the stomach. When fluidfood reaches the duodenum it undergoes further enzymatic digestion and is subjected to pancreatic juice, intestinal juice, and bile.
The pancreas is a large gland located below the stomach that secretes pancreatic juice into the duodenum via the pancreatic duct. There are three enzymesin pancreatic juice that digest carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. Amylase,(the enzyme that is also found in saliva) breaks down starch into simpler sugars such as maltose. The enzyme maltase in intestinal juice completes breaksmaltose down into glucose.
Libases in pancreatic juice break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol, while proteinases continue the break down of proteins into amino acids. The gall bladder, located next to the liver secretes bile into the duodenum. While bile does not contain enzymes, it contains salts and other substances that help to emulsify (dissolve) fats that are otherwise insoluble in water. The fatsso broken down into small globules allow the lipase enzymes a greater surface area for their action.
Chyme passing from the duodenum next reaches the jejunum of the small intestine, which is about 3 ft (0.91 m) long. Here the digested breakdown products of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and most of the vitamins, minerals, and ironare absorbed. The inner lining of the small intestine is composed of up to five million tiny, finger-like projections called villi. The villi increase the rate of absorption of the nutrients into the bloodstream by extending the surface of the small intestine to about five times that of the surfacearea of the skin.
There are two transport systems that pick up the nutrients from the small intestine. Simple sugars, amino acids, glycerol, and some vitamins and salts areconveyed to the liver in the bloodstream. Fatty acids and vitamins are absorbed and then transported through the lymphatic system, the network of vesselsthat carry lymph and white blood cells throughout the body. Lymph eventuallydrains back into the bloodstream and so circulates throughout the body.
The last section of the small intestine is the ileum. It is smaller and thinner-walled than the jejunum, and it is the preferred site for vitamin B12 absorption and bile acids derived from the bile juice.
The large intestine, or colon, is wider and heavier then the small intestine,but much shorter-only about 4 ft (1.2 m) long. It rises up on one side of the body (the ascending colon), crosses over to the other side (the transversecolon), descends (the descending colon), forms an s-shape (the sigmoid colon), reaches the rectum and anus, from which the waste products of digestion (feces or stool) are passed out, along with gas. The muscular rectum, about 5 in(13 cm) long, expels the feces through the anus, which has a large muscularsphincter that controls the passage of waste matter.
The large intestine extracts water from the waste products of digestion and returns some of it to the bloodstream, along with some salts. Fecal matter contains undigested food, bacteria, and cells from the walls of the digestive tract. Certain types of bacteria of the large intestine help to synthesize thevitamins needed by the body. These vitamins find their way to the bloodstreamalong with the water absorbed from the colon, while excess fluids are passedout with the feces.