Overview of the Digestive System

The digestive system is continually at work, yet people seldom appreciate the complex tasks it performs in a choreographed biologic symphony. Consider what happens when you eat an apple. Of course, you enjoy the apple’s taste as you chew it, but in the hours that follow, unless something goes amiss and you get a stomachache, you don’t notice that your digestive system is working. You may be taking a walk or studying or sleeping, having forgotten all about the apple, but your stomach and intestines are busy digesting it and absorbing its vitamins and other nutrients. By the time any waste material is excreted, the body has appropriated all it can use from the apple. In short, whether you pay attention or not, the organs of the digestive system perform their specific functions, allowing you to use the food you eat to keep you going. This chapter examines the structure and functions of these organs, and explores the mechanics and chemistry of the digestive processes.

The function of the digestive system is to break down the foods you eat, release their nutrients, and absorb those nutrients into the body. Although the small intestine is the workhorse of the system, where the majority of digestion occurs, and where most of the released nutrients are absorbed into the blood or lymph, each of the digestive system organs makes a vital contribution to this process.

Components of the Digestive System
All digestive organs play integral roles in the life-sustaining process of digestion.

This diagram shows the digestive system of a human being, with the major organs labeled.

As is the case with all body systems, the digestive system does not work in isolation; it functions cooperatively with the other systems of the body. Consider for example, the interrelationship between the digestive and cardiovascular systems. Arteries supply the digestive organs with oxygen and processed nutrients, and veins drain the digestive tract. These intestinal veins, constituting the hepatic portal system, are unique; they do not return blood directly to the heart. Rather, this blood is diverted to the liver where its nutrients are off-loaded for processing before blood completes its circuit back to the heart. At the same time, the digestive system provides nutrients to the heart muscle and vascular tissue to support their functioning. The interrelationship of the digestive and endocrine systems is also critical. Hormones secreted by several endocrine glands, as well as endocrine cells of the pancreas, the stomach, and the small intestine, contribute to the control of digestion and nutrient metabolism. In turn, the digestive system provides the nutrients to fuel endocrine function. The following table gives a quick glimpse at how these other systems contribute to the functioning of the digestive system.

Contribution of Other Body Systems to the Digestive System
Body system Benefits received by the digestive system
Cardiovascular Blood supplies digestive organs with oxygen and processed nutrients
Endocrine Endocrine hormones help regulate secretion in digestive glands and accessory organs
Integumentary Skin helps protect digestive organs and synthesizes vitamin D for calcium absorption
Lymphatic Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue and other lymphatic tissue defend against entry of pathogens; lacteals absorb lipids; and lymphatic vessels transport lipids to bloodstream
Muscular Skeletal muscles support and protect abdominal organs
Nervous Sensory and motor neurons help regulate secretions and muscle contractions in the digestive tract
Respiratory Respiratory organs provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide
Skeletal Bones help protect and support digestive organs
Urinary Kidneys convert vitamin D into its active form, allowing calcium absorption in the small intestine

Digestive System Organs

The easiest way to understand the digestive system is to divide its organs into two main categories. The first group is the organs that make up the alimentary canal. Accessory digestive organs comprise the second group and are critical for orchestrating the breakdown of food and the assimilation of its nutrients into the body. Accessory digestive organs, despite their name, are critical to the function of the digestive system.

Alimentary Canal Organs

Also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or gut, the alimentary canal (aliment- = “to nourish”) is a one-way tube about 7.62 meters (25 feet) in length during life and closer to 10.67 meters (35 feet) in length when measured after death, once smooth muscle tone is lost. The main function of the organs of the alimentary canal is to nourish the body. This tube begins at the mouth and terminates at the anus. Between those two points, the canal is modified as the pharynx, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines to fit the functional needs of the body. Both the mouth and anus are open to the external environment; thus, food and wastes within the alimentary canal are technically considered to be outside the body. Only through the process of absorption do the nutrients in food enter into and nourish the body’s “inner space.”

Accessory Structures

Each accessory digestive organ aids in the breakdown of food. Within the mouth, the teeth and tongue begin mechanical digestion, whereas the salivary glands begin chemical digestion. Once food products enter the small intestine, the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas release secretions—such as bile and enzymes—essential for digestion to continue. Together, these are called accessory organs because they sprout from the lining cells of the developing gut (mucosa) and augment its function; indeed, you could not live without their vital contributions, and many significant diseases result from their malfunction. Even after development is complete, they maintain a connection to the gut by way of ducts.

Nerve Supply

As soon as food enters the mouth, it is detected by receptors that send impulses along the sensory neurons of cranial nerves. Without these nerves, not only would your food be without taste, but you would also be unable to feel either the food or the structures of your mouth, and you would be unable to avoid biting yourself as you chew, an action enabled by the motor branches of cranial nerves.

Intrinsic innervation of much of the alimentary canal is provided by the enteric nervous system, which runs from the esophagus to the anus, and contains approximately 100 million motor, sensory, and interneurons (unique to this system compared to all other parts of the peripheral nervous system). These enteric neurons are grouped into two plexuses. The myenteric plexus (plexus of Auerbach) lies in the muscularis layer of the alimentary canal and is responsible for motility, especially the rhythm and force of the contractions of the muscularis. The submucosal plexus (plexus of Meissner) lies in the submucosal layer and is responsible for regulating digestive secretions and reacting to the presence of food.

Extrinsic innervations of the alimentary canal are provided by the autonomic nervous system, which includes both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. In general, sympathetic activation (the fight-or-flight response) restricts the activity of enteric neurons, thereby decreasing GI secretion and motility. In contrast, parasympathetic activation (the rest-and-digest response) increases GI secretion and motility by stimulating neurons of the enteric nervous system.

Blood Supply

The blood vessels serving the digestive system have two functions. They transport the protein and carbohydrate nutrients absorbed by mucosal cells after food is digested in the lumen. Lipids are absorbed via lacteals, tiny structures of the lymphatic system. The blood vessels’ second function is to supply the organs of the alimentary canal with the nutrients and oxygen needed to drive their cellular processes.

Specifically, the more anterior parts of the alimentary canal are supplied with blood by arteries branching off the aortic arch and thoracic aorta. Below this point, the alimentary canal is supplied with blood by arteries branching from the abdominal aorta. The celiac trunk services the liver, stomach, and duodenum, whereas the superior and inferior mesenteric arteries supply blood to the remaining small and large intestines.

The veins that collect nutrient-rich blood from the small intestine (where most absorption occurs) empty into the hepatic portal system. This venous network takes the blood into the liver where the nutrients are either processed or stored for later use. Only then does the blood drained from the alimentary canal viscera circulate back to the heart. To appreciate just how demanding the digestive process is on the cardiovascular system, consider that while you are “resting and digesting,” about one-fourth of the blood pumped with each heartbeat enters arteries serving the intestines.