Your Digestive System and How It Works The digestive system is responsible for the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of fluids, macro and micro–nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and the elimination of waste from the gastrointestinal tract. Food and drink that we ingest is broken down by our digestive system into smaller simple particles (molecules) before it is absorbed by the small intestine and transported into the blood stream that carries the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to cells throughout the body. In the cells the molecules provide energy and nourishment to the body. Anatomy The digestive system is a series of hollow organs joined in a long twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. It starts from the Mouth then the Esophagus, the Stomach, small intestine (the duodenum, ileum and jejunum), the large intestine (comprising of Caecum, the Ascending colon, the Transverse colon, the Descending colon, the Sigmoid colon) and the Rectum. Inside this tube is a lining called the mucosa. In the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, the mucosa contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest the food. The liver and the pancreas are solid organs that produce digestive juices that flow through small tubes (ducts) into the upper small intestine. They also play a vital role in controlling the metabolic functions of the body. In a healthy person a large volume of food and fluid flows through the hollow tubes of the digestive system. The small intestinal mucosal cells have many special systems that ensure the absorption of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, water, and salt . In the colon (also called the large intestine), the cells are arranged to absorb water from the intestinal contents, so that fecal elimination can occur at a convenient time and in a convenient form. The Digestive Process Digestion involves the mixing of food, its movement through the digestive tract, and chemical breakdown of the large molecules of food into smaller molecules. Digestion begins in the mouth, when we chew and swallow, and is completed in the small intestine. The chemical process varies somewhat for different kinds of food. Movement of Food Through the System The large, hollow organs of the digestive system contain muscle that enables their walls to move. The movement of organ walls can propel food and liquid and also can mix the contents within each organ. Typical movement of the esophagus, stomach, and intestine is called peristalsis. The action of peristalsis looks like an ocean wave moving through the muscle. The muscle of the organ produces a narrowing and then propels the narrowed portion slowly down the length of the organ. These waves of narrowing, push the food and fluid in front of them through each low organ. The first major muscle movement occurs when food or liquid is swallowed. Although we are able to start swallowing by choice, once the swallow begins, it becomes involuntary and proceeds under the control of the nerves. The esophagus is the organ into which the swallowed food is pushed. It connects the throat above with the stomach below. At the junction of the esophagus and stomach, there is a ring like valve closing the passage between the two organs. However, as the food approaches the closed ring, the surrounding muscles relax and allow the food to pass. The food then enters the stomach, which has three mechanical tasks to do. First, the stomach must store the swallowed food and liquid. This requires the muscle of the upper part of the stomach to relax and accept large volumes of swallowed material. The second job is to mix up the food, liquid, and digestive juice produced by the stomach. The lower part of the stomach mixes these materials by its muscle action. The third task of the stomach is to empty its contents slowly into the small intestine. Several factors affect emptying of the stomach, including the nature of the food (mainly its fat and protein content) and the degree of muscle action of the emptying stomach and the next organ to receive the stomach contents (the small intestine). As the food is digested in the small intestine and dissolved into the juices from the pancreas, liver, and intestine, the contents of the intestine are mixed and pushed forward to allow further digestion. Finally, all of the digested nutrients are absorbed through the intestinal walls. The waste products of this process include undigested parts of the food, known as fiber, and older cells that have been shed from the mucosa. These materials are propelled into the colon, where they remain, usually for a day or two, until the feces are expelled by a bowel movement. Regulation and Coordination While the anatomy of the digestive system is simple, its function and interaction with other systems is complex and life sustaining. The walls of the hollow organs are composed of muscles arranged in layers that propel the contents by peristalsis in waves away from the mouth, out of the stomach, through the small intestine and colon. This propulsion of food and liquid by peristalsis is regulated and coordinated with the secretion of digestive juices from the salivary glands, stomach, liver, pancreas, and small intestine by hormones 1 and nervous system input. Importance of Digestion The food that we eat cannot be used directly by the body. The complex and intricate process of digestion breaks down food so that its nutrients can be easily absorbed. The digestive system is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus (see figure). Inside this tube is a lining called the mucosa. In the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, the mucosa contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest food. There are also two solid digestive organs, the liver and the pancreas, which produce juices that reach the intestine through small tubes. In addition, parts of other organ systems (for instance, nerves and blood) play a major role in the digestive system. When we eat such things as bread, meat, and vegetables, they are not in a form that the body can use as nourishment. Our food and drink must be changed into smaller molecules of nutrients before they can be absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body. Digestion is the process by which food and drink are broken down into their smallest parts so that the body can use them to build and nourish cells and to provide energy.