How your digestive system works ?

Across the planet, humans eat on average between 1 and 2.7 kilograms of food a day, and every last scrap makes its way through the digestive system. Comprised of ten organs covering nine meters, this is one of the most complicated systems in the body. Emma Bryce explains how the different parts of the digestive system work to transform your food into the nutrients and energy that keep you alive.

The human digestive system consists of the gastrointestinal tract plus the accessory organs of digestion (the tongue, salivary glands, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder). In this system, the process of digestion has many stages, the first of which starts in the mouth. Digestion involves the breakdown of food into smaller and smaller components, until they can be absorbed and assimilated into the body.

Chewing, in which food is mixed with saliva begins the process of digestion. This produces a bolus which can be swallowed down the esophagus and into the stomach. Here it is mixed with gastric juice until it passes into the duodenum where it is mixed with a number of enzymes produced by the pancreas. Saliva also contains a catalytic enzyme called amylase which starts to act on food in the mouth. Another digestive enzyme called lingual lipase is secreted by some of the lingual papillae on the tongue and also from serous glands in the main salivary glands. Digestion is helped by the mastication of food by the teeth and also by the muscular actions of peristalsis and segmentation contractions. Gastric juice in the stomach is essential for the continuation of digestion as is the production of mucus in the stomach.

Peristalsis is the rhythmic contraction of muscles that begins in the esophagus and continues along the wall of the stomach and the rest of the gastrointestinal tract. This initially results in the production of chyme which when fully broken down in the small intestine is absorbed as chyle into the lymphatic system. Most of the digestion of food takes place in the small intestine. Water and some minerals are reabsorbed back into the blood in the colon of the large intestine. The waste products of digestion (feces) are defecated from the anus via the rectum.


There are several organs and other components involved in the digestion of food. The organs known as the accessory digestive glands are the liver, gall bladder and pancreas. Other components include the mouth, salivary glands, tongue, teeth and epiglottis.

The largest structure of the digestive system is the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). This starts at the mouth and ends at the anus, covering a distance of about nine  metres. The largest part of the GI tract is the colon or large intestine. Water is absorbed here and the remaining waste matter is stored prior to defecation.

Most of the digestion of food takes place in the small intestine.
A major digestive organ is the stomach. Within its mucosa are millions of embedded gastric glands. Their secretions are vital to the functioning of the organ.

There are many specialised cells of the GI tract. These include the various cells of the gastric glands, taste cells, pancreatic duct cells, enterocytes and microfold cells.

Some parts of the digestive system are also part of the excretory system, including the large intestine.

Clinical significance

Each part of the digestive system is subject to a wide range of disorders many of which can be congenital. Mouth diseases can also be caused by pathogenic bacteria, viruses, fungi and as a side effect of some medications. Mouth diseases include tongue diseases and salivary gland diseases. A common gum disease in the mouth is gingivitis which is caused by bacteria in plaque. The most common viral infection of the mouth is gingivostomatitis caused by herpes simplex. A common fungal infection is candidiasis commonly known as thrush which affects the mucous membranes of the mouth.

There are a number of esophageal diseases such as the development of Schatzki rings that can restrict the passageway, causing difficulties in swallowing. They can also completely block the esophagus.

Stomach diseases are often chronic conditions and include gastroparesis, gastritis, and peptic ulcers.

A number of problems including malnutrition and anemia can arise from malabsorption, the abnormal absorption of nutrients in the GI tract. Malabsorption can have many causes ranging from infection, to enzyme deficiencies such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. It can also arise as a result of other gastrointestinal diseases such as coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. This can cause vitamin deficiencies due to the improper absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. The small intestine can also be obstructed by a volvulus, a loop of intestine that becomes twisted enclosing its attached mesentery. This can cause mesenteric ischemia if severe enough.

A common disorder of the bowel is diverticulitis. Diverticula are small pouches that can form inside the bowel wall, which can become inflamed to give diverticulitis. This disease can have complications if an inflamed diverticulum bursts and infection sets in. Any infection can spread further to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum) and cause potentially fatal peritonitis.

Crohn's disease is a common chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which can affect any part of the GI tract, but it mostly starts in the terminal ileum.

Ulcerative colitis an ulcerative form of colitis, is the other major inflammatory bowel disease which is restricted to the colon and rectum. Both of these IBDs can give an increased risk of the development of colorectal cancer. Ulcerative coliltis is the most common of the IBDs

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common of the functional gastrointestinal disorders. These are idiopathic disorders that the Rome process has helped to define.

Thanks to Wikipedia: Human_digestive_system
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