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The human digestive system is a coiled, muscular tube (6-9 meters long when fully extended) extending from the mouth to the anus. Several specialized compartments occur along this length: mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. Accessory digestive organs are connected to the main system by a series of ducts: salivary glands, parts of the pancreas, and the liver and gall bladder (bilary system).
The above image is from http://www.niddk.nih.gov/digesyst/digesyst.html.
The Mouth and Pharynx
Mechanical breakdown begins in the mouth by chewing (teeth) and actions of the tongue. Chemical breakdown of starch by production of salivary amylase from the salivary glands. This mixture of food and saliva is then pushed into the pharynx and esophagus. The esophagus is a muscular tube whose muscular contractions (peristalsis) propel food to the stomach.
In the mouth, teeth, jaws and the tongue begin the mechanical breakdown of food into smaller particles. Most vertebrates, except birds (who have lost their teeth to a hardened bill), have teeth for tearing, grinding and chewing food. The tongue manipulates food during chewing and swallowing; mammals have tastebuds clustered on their tongues.
Salivary glands secrete salivary amylase, an enzyme that begins the breakdown of starch into glucose. Mucus moistens food and lubricates the esophagus. Bicarbonate ions in saliva neutralize the acids in foods.
Swallowing moves food from the mouth through the pharynx into the esophagus and then to the stomach.
Structure of the throat and the mechanics of swallowing. Image from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
Peristalsis and the movement of food from the mouth to the stomach. Image from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
The Stomach (or Churn, Churn, Churn)
During a meal, the stomach gradually fills to a capacity of 1 liter, from an empty capacity of 50-100 milliliters. At a price of discomfort, the stomach can distend to hold 2 liters or more.
Epithelial cells line inner surface of the stomach, and secrete about 2 liters of gastric juices per day. Gastric juice contains hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen, and mucus; ingredients important in digestion. Secretions are controlled by nervous (smells, thoughts, and caffeine) and endocrine signals. The stomach secretes hydrochloric acid and pepsin. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) lowers pH of the stomach so pepsin is activated. Pepsin is an enzyme that controls the hydrolysis of proteins into peptides. The stomach also mechanically churns the food. Chyme, the mix of acid and food in the stomach, leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine.
Scanning electron micrograph of the stomach lining of a mammal, X2000. This image is from http://22.214.171.124/FMRes/FMPro?-db=images.fp3&key=32819&-img, used by permission of Nanoworld.
Hydrochloric acid does not directly function in digestion: it kills microorganisms, lowers the stomach pH to between 1.5 and 2.5; and activates pepsinogen. Pepsinogen is an enzyme that starts protein digestion. Pepsinogen is produced in cells that line the gastric pits. It is activated by cleaving off a portion of the molecule, producing the enzyme pepsin that splits off fragments of peptides from a protein molecule during digestion in the stomach.
Carbohydrate digestion, begun by salivary amylase in the mouth, continues in the bolus as it passes to the stomach. The bolus is broken down into acid chyme in the lower third of the stomach, allowing the stomach's acidity to inhibit further carbohydrate breakdown. Protein digestion by pepsin begins.
Alcohol and aspirin are absorbed through the stomach lining into the blood.
Epithelial cells secrete mucus that forms a protective barrier between the cells and the stomach acids. Pepsin is inactivated when it comes into contact with the mucus. Bicarbonate ions reduce acidity near the cells lining the stomach. Tight junctions link the epithelial stomach-lining cells together, further reducing or preventing stomach acids from passing.
Peptic ulcers result when these protective mechanisms fail. Bleeding ulcers result when tissue damage is so severe that bleeding occurs into the stomach. Perforated ulcers are life-threatening situations where a hole has formed in the stomach wall. At least 90% of all peptic ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori. Other factors, including stress and aspirin, can also produce ulcers.
The Small Intestine
The small intestine is where final digestion and absorption occur. The small intestine is a coiled tube over 3 meters long. Coils and folding plus villi give this 3m tube the surface area of a 500-600m long tube. Final digestion of proteins and carbohydrates must occur, and fats have not yet been digested. Villi have cells that produce intestinal enzymes which complete the digestion of peptides and sugars. The absorption process also occurs in the small intestine. Food has been broken down into particles small enough to pass into the small intestine. Sugars and amino acids go into the bloodstream via capillaries in each villus. Glycerol and fatty acids go into the lymphatic system. Absorption is an active transport, requiring cellular energy.
Structure and details of the small intestine. Images from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
Food is mixed in the lower part of the stomach by peristaltic waves that also propel the acid-chyme mixture against the pyloric sphincter. Increased contractions of the stomach push the food through the sphincter and into the small intestine as the stomach eempties over a 1 to 2 hour period. High fat diets significantly increase this time period.
The small intestine is the major site for digestion and absorption of nutrients. The small intestine is up to 6 meters long and is 2-3 centimeters wide. The upper part, the duodenum, is the most active in digestion. Secretions from the liver and pancreas are used for digestion in the duodenum. Epithelial cells of the duodenum secrete a watery mucus. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes and stomach acid-neutralizing bicarbonate. The liver produces bile, which is stored in the gall bladder before entering the bile duct into the duodenum.
Digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats continues in the small intestine. Starch and glycogen are broken down into maltose. Proteases (enzymes secreted from the pancreas) continue the breakdown of protein into small peptide fragments and some amino acids.
Bile emulsifies fats, facilitating their breakdown into progressively smaller fat globules until they can be acted upon by lipases. Bile contains cholesterol, phospholipids, bilirubin, and a mix of salts. Fats are completely digested in the small intestine, unlike carbohydrates and proteins.
Most absorption occurs in the duodenum and jejeunum (second third of the small intestine). The inner surface of the intestine has circular folds that more than triple the surface area for absorption. Villi covered with epithelial cells increase the surface area by another factor of 10. The epithelial cells are lined with microvilli that further increase the surface area; a 6 meter long tube has a surface area of 300 square meters.
Each villus has a surface that is adjacent to the inside of the small intestinal opening covered in microvilli that form on top of an epithelial cell known as a brush border. Each villus has a capillary network supplied by a small arteriole. Absorbed substances pass through the brush border into the capillary, usually by passive transport.
Maltose, sucrose, and lactose are the main carbohydrates present in the small intestine; they are absorbed by the microvilli. Starch is broken down into two-glucose units (maltose) elsewhere. Enzymes in the cells convert these disaccharides into monosaccharides that then leave the cell and enter the capillary. Lactose intolerance results from the genetic lack of the enzyme lactase produced by the intestinal cells.
Peptide fragments and amino acids cross the epithelial cell membranes by active transport. Inside the cell they are broken into amino acids that then enter the capillary. Gluten enteropathy is the inability to absorb gluten, a protein found in wheat.
Digested fats are not very soluble. Bile salts surround fats to form micelles that can pass into the epithelial cells. The bile salts return to the lumen to repeat the process. Fat digestion is usually completed by the time the food reaches the ileum (lower third) of the small intestine. Bile salts are in turn absorbed in the ileum and are recycled by the liver and gall bladder. Fats pass from the epithelial cells to the small lymph vessel that also runs through the villus.
Absorption of lipids by cells in the small intestine. Images from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
The Liver and Gall Bladder
The liver sends bile to the small intestine. Bile contains bile salts, which emulsify fats, making them susceptible to enzymatic breakdown. In addition to digestive functions, the liver functions in other systems: 1) detoxification of blood; 2) synthesis of blood proteins; 3) destruction of old erythrocytes and conversion of hemoglobin into a component of bile; 4) production of bile; 5) storage of glucose as glycogen; and 6) production of urea from amino groups and ammonia.
The liver and associated organs and their connections to the digestive system. Images from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
Glycogen (chains of glucose molecules) serves as a reservoir for glucose. Low glucose levels in the blood cause release of hormones to stimulate breakdown of glycogen into glucose. When no glucose or glycogen is available, amino acids are converted into glucose in the liver. The process of deamination removes the amino groups from amino acids. Urea is formed and passed through the blood to the kidney for export from the body.
Jaundice occurs when the characteristic yellow tint to the skin is caused by excess hemoglobin breakdown products in the blood, a sign that the liver is not properly functioning. Jaundice may occur when liver function has been impaired by obstruction of the bile duct and by damage caused by hepatitis. Hepatitis A, B, and C can all cause liver damage. Cirrhosis of the liver commonly occurs in alcoholics, who place the liver in a stress situation due to the amount of alcohol to be broken down.
The pancreas sends pancreatic juice, which neutralizes the chyme, to the small intestive through the pancreatic duct.
The Large Intestine
The large intestine is made up by the colon, cecum, appendix, and rectum. Material in the large intestine is mostly indigestible residue and liquid. Movements are due to involuntary contractions that shuffle contents back and forth and propulsive contractions that move material through the large intestine.
Secretions in the large intestine are an alkaline mucus that protects epithelial tissues and neutralizes acids produced by bacterial metabolism. Water, salts, and vitamins are absorbed, the remaining contents in the lumen form feces (mostly cellulose, bacteria, bilirubin). Bacteria in the large intestine, such as E. coli, produce vitamins (including vitamin K) that are absorbed.