Digestive System Processes and Regulation


Functions of the Digestive Organs
Organ Major functions Other functions
  • Ingests food
  • Chews and mixes food
  • Begins chemical breakdown of carbohydrates
  • Moves food into the pharynx
  • Begins breakdown of lipids via lingual lipase
  • Moistens and dissolves food, allowing you to taste it
  • Cleans and lubricates the teeth and oral cavity
  • Has some antimicrobial activity
  • Propels food from the oral cavity to the esophagus
  • Lubricates food and passageways
  • Propels food to the stomach
  • Lubricates food and passageways
  • Mixes and churns food with gastric juices to form chyme
  • Begins chemical breakdown of proteins
  • Releases food into the duodenum as chyme
  • Absorbs some fat-soluble substances (for example, alcohol, aspirin)
  • Possesses antimicrobial functions
  • Stimulates protein-digesting enzymes
  • Secretes intrinsic factor required for vitamin B12 absorption in small intestine
Small intestine
  • Mixes chyme with digestive juices
  • Propels food at a rate slow enough for digestion and absorption
  • Absorbs breakdown products of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids, along with vitamins, minerals, and water
  • Performs physical digestion via segmentation
  • Provides optimal medium for enzymatic activity
Accessory organs
  • Liver: produces bile salts, which emulsify lipids, aiding their digestion and absorption
  • Gallbladder: stores, concentrates, and releases bile
  • Pancreas: produces digestive enzymes and bicarbonate
  • Bicarbonate-rich pancreatic juices help neutralize acidic chyme and provide optimal environment for enzymatic activity
Large intestine
  • Further breaks down food residues
  • Absorbs most residual water, electrolytes, and vitamins produced by enteric bacteria
  • Propels feces toward rectum
  • Eliminates feces
  • Food residue is concentrated and temporarily stored prior to defecation
  • Mucus eases passage of feces through colon

Digestive Processes

The processes of digestion include six activities: ingestion, propulsion, mechanical or physical digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and defecation.

The first of these processes, ingestion, refers to the entry of food into the alimentary canal through the mouth. There, the food is chewed and mixed with saliva, which contains enzymes that begin breaking down the carbohydrates in the food plus some lipid digestion via lingual lipase. Chewing increases the surface area of the food and allows an appropriately sized bolus to be produced.

Food leaves the mouth when the tongue and pharyngeal muscles propel it into the esophagus. This act of swallowing, the last voluntary act until defecation, is an example of propulsion, which refers to the movement of food through the digestive tract. It includes both the voluntary process of swallowing and the involuntary process of peristalsis. Peristalsis consists of sequential, alternating waves of contraction and relaxation of alimentary wall smooth muscles, which act to propel food along. These waves also play a role in mixing food with digestive juices. Peristalsis is so powerful that foods and liquids you swallow enter your stomach even if you are standing on your head.

Peristalsis moves food through the digestive tract with alternating waves of muscle contraction and relaxation.

This image shows the peristaltic movement of food. In the left image, the food bolus is towards the top of the esophagus and arrows pointing downward show the direction of movement of the peristaltic wave. In the center image, the food bolus and the wave movement are closer to the center of the esophagus and in the right image, the bolus and the wave are close to the bottom end of the esophagus.

Digestion includes both mechanical and chemical processes. Mechanical digestion is a purely physical process that does not change the chemical nature of the food. Instead, it makes the food smaller to increase both surface area and mobility. It includes mastication, or chewing, as well as tongue movements that help break food into smaller bits and mix food with saliva. Although there may be a tendency to think that mechanical digestion is limited to the first steps of the digestive process, it occurs after the food leaves the mouth, as well. The mechanical churning of food in the stomach serves to further break it apart and expose more of its surface area to digestive juices, creating an acidic “soup” called chyme. Segmentation, which occurs mainly in the small intestine, consists of localized contractions of circular muscle of the muscularis layer of the alimentary canal. These contractions isolate small sections of the intestine, moving their contents back and forth while continuously subdividing, breaking up, and mixing the contents. By moving food back and forth in the intestinal lumen, segmentation mixes food with digestive juices and facilitates absorption.

In chemical digestion, starting in the mouth, digestive secretions break down complex food molecules into their chemical building blocks (for example, proteins into separate amino acids). These secretions vary in composition, but typically contain water, various enzymes, acids, and salts. The process is completed in the small intestine.

Food that has been broken down is of no value to the body unless it enters the bloodstream and its nutrients are put to work. This occurs through the process of absorption, which takes place primarily within the small intestine. There, most nutrients are absorbed from the lumen of the alimentary canal into the bloodstream through the epithelial cells that make up the mucosa. Lipids are absorbed into lacteals and are transported via the lymphatic vessels to the bloodstream (the subclavian veins near the heart). The details of these processes will be discussed later.

In defecation, the final step in digestion, undigested materials are removed from the body as feces.

In some cases, a single organ is in charge of a digestive process. For example, ingestion occurs only in the mouth and defecation only in the anus. However, most digestive processes involve the interaction of several organs and occur gradually as food moves through the alimentary canal.

Digestive Processes
The digestive processes are ingestion, propulsion, mechanical digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and defecation.

This image shows the different processes involved in digestion. The image shows how food travels from the mouth through the major organs. Associated textboxes list the different processes such as propulsion, chemical and mechanical digestion and absorption near the organs where they take place.

Some chemical digestion occurs in the mouth. Some absorption can occur in the mouth and stomach, for example, alcohol and aspirin.