The digestive system is a group of organs and tissues responsible for the conversion of food into absorbable chemicals that are then used to provide energy for growth and 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 digestive system consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines, along with several glands, such as the salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
The glands in the digestive system 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 relaxation of 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.
The sight of the food also stimulates the salivary glands. Altogether, the sensations of sight, taste, and smell cause the salivary glands, located in the mouth, 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 esophagus does not take part in digestion. Its job is to get the bolus into the stomach. The esophageal sphincter, a powerful muscle at the junction of the esophagus and stomach, 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, pouch-shaped muscular organ, is shaped like a lima bean. When empty, the stomach becomes 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 lining of the stomach walls, along with mucus, to help protect the stomach lining from the acid. The three layers of powerful stomach muscles churn the food into a fine semiliquid paste called chyme. The chyme is periodically passed through the pyloric sphincter, an opening that 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 in the 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 provides for 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 juice for the bun (carbohydrate), but the hamburger (protein) will require a much greater supply of gastric juice. The gastric juice already present will begin the breakdown of the large protein molecules of the hamburger into smaller molecules: polypeptides and peptides. These smaller molecules in turn stimulate the 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 be produced, and the greater the production of gastric juice. The correlation between the amount of protein in the stomach and the amount of gastric juice produced represents the third mechanism of gastric juice secretion.
The small intestine is an important site for both digestion and absorption. Absorption refers to 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, that runs from the stomach to the large intestine. The small intestine occupies the area of 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 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 fluid food 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. Enzymes in pancreatic juice digest carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. Amylase (the enzyme found in saliva) breaks down starch into simple sugars such as maltose. The enzyme maltase in intestinal juice completes the breakdown of maltose into glucose.
Lipases in pancreatic juice break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol, while proteinases continue the breakdown of proteins into amino acids. The gallbladder, located next to the liver, secretes bile into the duodenum. While bile does not contain enzymes, it contains bile salts and other substances that help to emulsify (dissolve) fats, which are otherwise insoluble in water. Breaking the fat down into small globules allows the lipase enzymes a greater surface area for their action.
There are two transport systems that pick up the nutrients from the small intestine. Simple sugars, amino acids, glycerol, and some vitamins and salts are conveyed to the liver in the bloodstream. Fatty acids and vitamins are absorbed and then transported through the lymphatic system, the network of vessels that carries lymph and white blood cells throughout the body. Lymph eventually drains back into the bloodstream and 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 transverse colon), descends (the descending colon), forms an s-shape (the sigmoid colon), reaches the rectum, and then reaches the 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 muscular sphincter 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 the vitamins needed by the body. These vitamins find their way to the bloodstream along with the water absorbed from the colon, while excess fluids are passed out with the feces.
The liver is the largest organ in the body and plays a number of vital roles, including metabolizing the broken-down products of digestion and detoxifying substances that are harmful to the body. The liver also provides a quick source of energy when the need arises and produces new proteins. Along with the regulation of stored fats, the liver also stores vitamins, minerals, and sugars. The liver controls the excretion and production of cholesterol and metabolizes alcohol into a mild toxin. The liver also stores iron, maintains the hormone balance, produces immune factors to fight infections, regulates blood clotting, and produces bile.
The gallbladder lies under the liver and is connected by various ducts to the liver and the duodenum. The gallbladder is a small hollow organ; its main function is to store bile until it is concentrated enough to be used by the small intestine. The gallbladder can store about 2 oz. of bile. Bile consists of bile salts, bile acids, and bile pigments. In addition, bile contains cholesterol dissolved in the bile acids.
The appendix is a hollow finger-like projection that hangs from the cecum at the junction between the small intestine and the large intestine. The appendix does not function in humans; however, in some animals, such as rabbits, the appendix is rather large and helps in the digestion of cellulose from bark and wood, which rabbits eat. The appendix in humans is therefore a vestigial organ, which may have had uses for earlier types of ancestral human digestive processes before the evolution of Homo sapiens.
When food reaches the small intestine, the pancreas secretes pancreatic juices. When there is no food in the small intestine, the pancreas does not secrete its juices.
Insulin is another important hormone secreted by a group of cells within the pancreas called the islets of Langerhans, which are part of the endocrine system, rather than the digestive system. Insulin released into the bloodstream targets liver and muscle cells and allows them to take excess sugar from the blood and store it in the form of glycogen.
Disorders of the esophagus are esophagitis, esophageal spasm, and esophageal cancer. Esophagitis (heartburn) is an inflammation of the esophagus usually caused by the reflux of gastric acids into the esophagus and is treated with antacid (alkalis). Esophageal spasm is also caused by acid reflux. Esophageal cancer can be caused by smoking and is generally fatal.
The most common liver disorder in the United States and other developed countries is cirrhosis of the liver. The main cause for this disease is alcoholism. Cirrhosis is characterized by the replacement of healthy liver cells by fibrous tissue. The replacement process is gradual and takes a period of 2–10 years to complete. There is no cure for the disease. Symptoms may not be noticed in its early development, but in its advanced stages there are a number of symptoms and the condition can lead to coma. Close medical attention is required to treat the disease.
Another common liver disorder is hepatitis. It is an inflammation of the liver caused by viruses. The most noticeable symptom of this disease is jaundice, which causes the skin, eyes, and urine to turn yellow. The nine viruses known to cause hepatitis include hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E; the recently discovered F and G viruses; and two herpes viruses (Epstein-Barr and cytomegalovirus).
Gallstones may form in the gallbladder. If the amount of cholesterol in the bile acids increases or the amount of acid decreases, then some of the cholesterol will settle out of the acid to form gallstones that accumulate and block the ducts to the gallbladder. Infection in the gallbladder may lead to gallstones. Gallstones may be in the gallbladder for years without giving any signs of the condition, but when they obstruct the bile duct they cause considerable pain and inflammation. Infection and blockage of the bile flow may follow. Surgical removal of the gallbladder may be necessary to treat this condition. Since the liver both produces and stores sufficient amounts of bile, the loss of the gallbladder does not interfere with the digestive process as long as fat intake in the diet is regulated. If the gallstones contain mainly cholesterol, drug treatment for stones may be possible, but if there is too much other material in the stones, surgery may be necessary. Even after being treated successfully by drugs and diet, the condition can return. The drug treatment takes years to dissolve gallstones.
If food gets trapped in the appendix, it can irritate the membranes and cause swelling and inflammation, a condition known as appendicitis. If the condition becomes serious, removal of the appendix is necessary to avoid a life-threatening condition if it were to rupture.
When the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin to store dietary sugar, the blood and urine levels of sugar reach dangerous levels. Diabetes mellitus is the resultant disease. Mild cases can be controlled by a properly regulated diet, but severe cases require the regular injection of insulin.
Digestion is a process that allows and facilitates ingested material to be broken down into nutrients. As such, it is important to maintain a healthy, wellbalanced eating regimen so that the body can optimally absorb and utilize the carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, water, electrolytes, and minerals that are needed for good health and fitness.
The mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into smaller components associated with digestion requires that food be chewed well and slowly in order to allow the digestive enzymes to be effective. In our busy society, people tend to “eat and run”; however, individuals who chew well and slowly will benefit from better nutrient absorption, feel more satiated, and more thoroughly enjoy their eating experience.
Many people suffer from indigestion, bloating, heartburn, and gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and constipation. Regular exercise and good nutrition can aid in all of these areas pertaining to the digestive system. Staying active and fit increases metabolism and aids in allowing food to move effectively through our bodies so that we can absorb essential nutrients and get the most out of our food. In addition, exercise strengthens the muscles of the abdomen and allows food to move through the gastrointestinal tract through motion in the small and large intestine (called peristalsis) so that nutrients may be absorbed properly and individuals can avoid diarrhea, cramping, or constipation.
Some herbs such as ginger, fennel, and peppermint are well known to facilitate good digestion and keep the gastrointestinal tract active and moving effectively.
Integrating optimal fitness and nutrition helps maintain a healthy digestive system and is an important component in sustaining good health and overall well-being.
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Crystal Heather Kaczkowski, MSc
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD