Overview of the Digestive System

Anatomy of the Digestive System

The human gastrointestinal tract refers to the stomach and intestine, and sometimes to all the structures from the mouth to the anus.

Learning Objectives

Outline the anatomical organization of the digestive system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The major organs of the digestive system are the stomach and intestine.
  • The upper gastrointestinal tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum.
  • The lower gastrointestinal tract includes the small intestine and the large intestine.
  • Digestive juices are produced by the pancreas and the gallbladder.
  • The small intestine includes the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum.
  • The large intestine includes the cecum, colon, rectum, and anus.

Key Terms

  • upper gastrointestinal tract: This tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum.
  • lower gastrointestinal tract: This tract includes most of the small intestine and all of the large intestine.
The major organs of the human gastrointestinal system are identified in this drawing. The upper gastrointestinal tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The lower gastrointestinal tract includes most of the small intestine and all of the large intestine. According to some sources, it also includes the anus.

Upper and lower gastrointestinal tract: The major organs of the human gastrointestinal system.

The human gastrointestinal tract refers to the stomach and intestine, and sometimes to all the structures from the mouth to the anus.

Upper Gastrointestinal Tract

The upper gastrointestinal tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The exact demarcation between upper and lower can vary. Upon gross dissection, the duodenum may appear to be a unified organ, but it is often divided into two parts based upon function, arterial supply, or embryology.

The upper gastrointestinal tract includes the:

  • Esophagus, the fibromuscular tube that food passes through—aided by peristaltic contractions—the pharynx to the stomach.
  • Stomach, which secretes protein -digesting enzymes called proteases and strong acids to aid in food digestion, before sending the partially digested food to the small intestines.
  • Duodenum, the first section of the small intestine that may be the principal site for iron absorption.

Lower Gastrointestinal Tract

The lower gastrointestinal tract includes most of the small intestine and all of the large intestine. According to some sources, it also includes the anus.

The small intestine has three parts:

This drawing shows the position of the small intestine in the gastrointestinal tract. The small intestine is shown surrounded by the colon, on the left, the rectum and anus underneath, the cecum and appendix on its right, and the stomach above it.

Small intestine: This image shows the position of the small intestine in the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Duodenum: Here the digestive juices from the pancreas ( digestive enzymes ) and the gallbladder ( bile ) mix together. The digestive enzymes break down proteins and bile and emulsify fats into micelles. The duodenum contains Brunner’s glands that produce bicarbonate, and pancreatic juice that contains bicarbonate to neutralize hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
  • Jejunum: This is the midsection of the intestine, connecting the duodenum to the ileum. It contains the plicae circulares and villi to increase the surface area of that part of the GI tract.
  • Ileum: This has villi, where all soluble molecules are absorbed into the blood ( through the capillaries and lacteals).

The large intestine has four parts:

  1. Cecum, the vermiform appendix that is attached to the cecum.
  2. Colon, which includes the ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid flexure. The main function of the colon is to absorb water, but it also contains bacteria that produce beneficial vitamins like vitamin K.
  3. Rectum.
  4. Anus.

The ligament of Treitz is sometimes used to divide the upper and lower GI tracts.

Processes and Functions of the Digestive System

Digestion is necessary for absorbing nutrients from food and occurs through two processes: mechanical and chemical digestion.

Learning Objectives

Describe the processes and functions of the digestive system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Two important functions of the digestive system are digestion and absorption.
  • The nutrients that come from food are derived from proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. These complex macromolecules must be broken down and absorbed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
  • Mechanical digestion starts in the mouth, with the physical processing of food by the teeth, and continues in the stomach.
  • Chemical digestion starts with the release of enzymes in saliva, and continues in the stomach and intestines.
  • During absorption, the nutrients that come from food pass through the wall of the small intestine and into the bloodstream.

Key Terms

  • mastication: The process of mechanical breakdown by the teeth; also known as chewing.
  • bolus: Moistened and mechanically manipulated food.
  • mechanical digestion: The breaking down of food into digestible chunks, normally using the teeth.
  • chemical digestion: A process that involves the action of enzymes to break down food into components that can be absorbed by the small intestine.
  • gastrointestinal tract: This tract consists of the stomach and intestine, and sometimes includes all the structures from the mouth to the anus. The digestive system is a broader term that includes other structures, including the accessory organs of digestion, such as the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.

The Digestive System

The proper functioning of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is imperative for our well being and life -long health. A non-functioning or poorly-functioning GI tract can be the source of many chronic health problems that can interfere with your quality of life.

Here is a look at the importance of two main functions of the digestive system: digestion and absorption.

Digestion

The gastrointestinal tract is responsible for the breakdown and absorption of the various foods and liquids needed to sustain life. Many different organs have essential roles in the digestion of food, from the mechanical breakdown of food by the teeth to the creation of bile (an emulsifier) by the liver.

Bile production plays a important role in digestion: it is stored and concentrated in the gallbladder during fasting stages, and discharged to the small intestine. Pancreatic juices are excreted into the digestive system to break down complex molecules such as proteins and fats.

Absorption

Absorption occurs in the small intestines, where nutrients directly enter the bloodstream.

Each component of the digestive system plays a special role in these complimentary processes. The structure of each component highlights the function of that particular organ, providing a seamless anatomy to keep our body fueled and healthy.

Components of the Digestive System

The digestive system is comprised of the alimentary canal, or the digestive tract, and other accessory organs that play a part in digestion—such as the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas. The alimentary canal and the GI tract are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably.

The alimentary canal is the long tube that runs from the mouth (where the food enters) to the anus (where indigestible waste leaves). The organs in the alimentary canal include the mouth (the site of mastication), the esophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestines, the rectum, and the anus. From mouth to anus, the average adult digestive tract is about thirty feet (30′) long.

Processes of Digestion

Food is the body’s source of fuel. The nutrients in food give the body’s cells the energy they need to operate. Before food can be used it has to be mechanically broken down into tiny pieces, then chemically broken down so nutrients can be absorbed.

In humans, proteins need to be broken down into amino acids, starches into sugars, and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. This mechanical and chemical breakdown encompasses the process of digestion.

To recap these twin processes:

  1. Mechanical digestion: Larger pieces of food get broken down into smaller pieces while being prepared for chemical digestion; this process starts in the mouth and continues into the stomach.
  2. Chemical digestion: Several different enzymes break down macromolecules into smaller molecules that can be absorbed. The process starts in the mouth and continues into the intestines.

Moistening and Breakdown of Food

Digestion begins in the mouth. A brain reflex triggers the flow of saliva when we see or even think about food. Enzymes in saliva then begin the chemical breakdown of food; teeth aid in the mechanical breakdown of larger food particles.

Saliva moistens the food, while the teeth masticate the food and make it easier to swallow. To accomplish this moistening goal, the salivary glands produce an estimated three liters of saliva per day.

Amylase, the digestive enzyme found in saliva, starts to break down starch into simple sugars before the food even leaves the mouth. The nervous pathway involved in salivary excretion requires stimulation of receptors in the mouth, sensory impulses to the brain stem, and parasympathetic impulses to salivary glands. Once food is moistened and rolled and ready to swallow, it is known as a bolus.

Swallowing and the Movement of Food

For swallowing to happen correctly a combination of 25 muscles must all work together at the same time. Swallowing occurs when the muscles in your tongue and mouth move the bolus into your pharynx.

The pharynx, which is the passageway for food and air, is about five inches (5″) long—a remarkably small space. A small flap of skin called the epiglottis closes over the pharynx to prevent food from entering the trachea, which would cause choking. Instead, food is pushed into the muscular tube called the esophagus. Waves of muscle movement, called peristalsis, move the bolus down to the stomach.

While in the digestive tract, the food is really passing through the body rather than being in the body. The smooth muscles of the tubular digestive organs move the food efficiently along as it is broken down into easily absorbed ions and molecules.

Large-scale Breakdown in the Stomach

Once the bolus reaches the stomach, gastric juices mix with the partially digested food and continue the breakdown process. The bolus is converted into a slimy material called chyme.

This is a drawing of the digestive system. This shows the five major digestive hormones in the gut of mammals that help process food through chemical digestion in the gall bladder, duodenum, stomach, and pancrease. These hormones are cholecystokinin, gastric inhibitory polypeptide, motilin, secretin, and gastrin.

Major digestive hormones: There are at least five major digestive hormones in the gut of mammals that help process food through chemical digestion in the gall bladder, duodenum, stomach, and pancrease. These hormones are cholecystokinin, gastric inhibitory polypeptide, motilin, secretin, and gastrin.

The stomach is a muscular bag that maneuvers food particles, mixing highly acidic gastric juice and powerful digestive enzymes with the chyme to prepare for nutrient absorption in the small intestine. Stimulatory hormones such as gastrin and motilin help the stomach pump gastric juice and move chyme. The complex network of hormones eventually prepares chyme for entry into the duodenum, the first segment of the small intestine.

Absorption in the Small Intestine

During absorption, the nutrients that come from food (such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals) pass through the wall of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. In this way nutrients can be distributed throughout the rest of the body. The small intestine increases surface area for absorption through tiny interior projections, like small fingers, called villi.

Waste Compaction in the Large Intestine

In the large intestine there is resorption of water and absorption of certain minerals as feces are formed. Feces are the waste parts of the food that the body passes out through the anus.

Organs of the Digestive System

The organs of the digestive system can be divided into upper and lower digestive tracts. The upper digestive tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, and the small intestine; the lower tract includes all of the large intestine, the rectum, and anus.

Learning Objectives

Outline the relationship, structure, and function of the digestive organs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The gastrointestinal tract is made up of upper and lower tracts.
  • Food moves from the mouth to the stomach via the esophagus.
  • The small intestine has three parts: the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum.
  • The large intestine has four parts: the cecum, colon, rectum, and anus.

Key Terms

  • small intestine: A winding, digestive tube and the site of large scale nutrient absorption comprised of the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum.
  • esophagus: An organ in vertebrates that is a muscular tube through which food passes from the pharynx to the stomach.
  • stomach: An organ in animals that stores and breaks down food in the process of digestion.
  • large intestine: The second to last part of the digestive system comprised of the cecum and colon.

The human body uses a variety of mental and physiological cues to initiate the process of digestion. Throughout our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, each organ serves a specific purpose to bring our food from the plate to a digestible substance from which nutrients can be extracted.

The Digestive Tube

This diagram shows the relationship between the various organs of the digestive system. It shows how the oral cavity connects to the esophagus and descends into the stomach and then the small intestine. It then connects to the large intestine, then the rectum, and, finally, the anus.

The organs of the gastrointestinal tract: This diagram shows the relationship between the various organs of the digestive system. It shows how the oral cavity connects to the esophagus and descends into the stomach and then the small intestine. It then connects to the large intestine, then the rectum, and, finally, the anus.

Our digestive system is like a long tube, with different segments doing different jobs. The major organs within our digestive system can be split into two major segments of this tube: the upper gastrointestinal tract, and the lower gastrointestinal tract.

The Upper Gastrointestinal Tract

The upper gastrointestinal, or GI, tract is made up of three main parts:

  1. The esophagus.
  2. The stomach.
  3. The small intestine.

The Lower Gastrointestinal Tract

The lower GI tract contains the remainder of the system:

  1. The large intestine.
  2. The rectum.
  3. The anus.

The exact dividing line between upper and lower tracts can vary, depending on which medical specialist is examining the GI tract.

Food Breakdown and Absorption: The Upper GI Tract

When we take a bite of food, the food material gets chewed up and processed in the mouth, where saliva begins the process of chemical and mechanical breakdown. The chewing process is also known as mastication.

When we mix up food with saliva, the resulting mushy wad is called a bolus. The bolus gets swallowed, and begins its journey through the upper gastrointestinal tract.

The Esophagus

The upper GI tract begins with the esophagus, the long muscular tube that carries food to the stomach. The throat cavity in which our esophagus originates is known as the pharynx. As we swallow, the bolus moves down our esophagus, from the pharynx to the stomach, through waves of muscle movement known as peristalsis. Next the bolus reaches the stomach itself.

The Stomach

The stomach is a muscular, hollow bag that is an important part of the upper GI tract. Many organisms have a variety of stomach types, with many segments or even multiple stomachs. As humans, we have only one stomach.

Here our bolus gets mixed with digestive acids, furthering breakdown of the bolus, and turning the bolus material into a slimy mess called chyme. The chyme moves on into the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed.

The Small Intestine

The small intestine is an impressive digestive tube, spanning an average of 20 feet in length. The twists and turns of the small intestine, along with tiny interior projections known as villi, help to increase the surface area for nutrient absorption.

This snaking tube is made up of three parts, in order from the stomach:

  1. The duodenum.
  2. The jejunum.
  3. The ileum.

As the chyme makes its way through each segment of the small intestine, pancreatic juices from the pancreas start to break down proteins. Soapy bile from the liver, stored in the gallbladder, gets squirted into the small intestine to help emulsify—or break apart—fats.

Now thoroughly digested, with its nutrients absorbed along the path of the small intestine, what remains of our food gets passed into the lower GI tract.

Waste Compaction and Removal: The Lower Gastrointestinal Tract

The Large Intestine (Colon)

Following nutrient absorption, the food waste reaches the large intestine, or colon. The large intestine is responsible for compacting waste material, removing water, and producing feces —our solid-waste product.

Accessory organs like the cecum and appendix, which are remnants of our evolutionary past, serve as special pockets at the beginning of the large intestine. The compacted and dried-out waste passes to the rectum, and out of the body through the anus. Healthy gut bacteria in the large intestine also help to metabolize our waste as it finishes its journey.