Digestive System Physiology
The digestive system is responsible for taking whole foods and turning them into energy and nutrients to allow the body to function, grow, and repair itself. The six primary processes of the digestive system include:
Ingestion of food
Secretion of fluids and digestive enzymes
Mixing and movement of food and wastes through the body
Digestion of food into smaller pieces
Absorption of nutrients
Excretion of wastes
The first function of the digestive system is ingestion, or the intake of food. The mouth is responsible for this function, as it is the orifice through which all food enters the body. The mouth and stomach are also responsible for the storage of food as it is waiting to be digested. This storage capacity allows the body to eat only a few times each day and to ingest more food than it can process at one time.
In the course of a day, the digestive system secretes around 7 liters of fluids. These fluids include saliva, mucus, hydrochloric acid, enzymes, and bile. Saliva moistens dry food and contains salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme that begins the digestion of carbohydrates. Mucus serves as a protective barrier and lubricant inside of the GI tract. Hydrochloric acid helps to digest food chemically and protects the body by killing bacteria present in our food. Enzymes are like tiny biochemical machines that disassemble large macromolecules like proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids into their smaller components. Finally, bile is used to emulsify large masses of lipids into tiny globules for easy digestion.
Mixing and Movement
The digestive system uses 3 main processes to move and mix food:
Swallowing. Swallowing is the process of using smooth and skeletal muscles in the mouth, tongue, and pharynx to push food out of the mouth, through the pharynx, and into the esophagus.
Peristalsis. Peristalsis is a muscular wave that travels the length of the GI tract, moving partially digested food a short distance down the tract. It takes many waves of peristalsis for food to travel from the esophagus, through the stomach and intestines, and reach the end of the GI tract.
Segmentation. Segmentation occurs only in the small intestine as short segments of intestine contract like hands squeezing a toothpaste tube. Segmentation helps to increase the absorption of nutrients by mixing food and increasing its contact with the walls of the intestine.
Digestion is the process of turning large pieces of food into its component chemicals. Mechanical digestion is the physical breakdown of large pieces of food into smaller pieces. This mode of digestion begins with the chewing of food by the teeth and is continued through the muscular mixing of food by the stomach and intestines. Bile produced by the liver is also used to mechanically break fats into smaller globules. While food is being mechanically digested it is also being chemically digested as larger and more complex molecules are being broken down into smaller molecules that are easier to absorb. Chemical digestion begins in the mouth with salivary amylase in saliva splitting complex carbohydrates into simple carbohydrates. The enzymes and acid in the stomach continue chemical digestion, but the bulk of chemical digestion takes place in the small intestine thanks to the action of the pancreas. The pancreas secretes an incredibly strong digestive cocktail known as pancreatic juice, which is capable of digesting lipids, carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids. By the time food has left the duodenum, it has been reduced to its chemical building blocks—fatty acids, amino acids, monosaccharides, and nucleotides.
Once food has been reduced to its building blocks, it is ready for the body to absorb. Absorption begins in the stomach with simple molecules like water and alcohol being absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Most absorption takes place in the walls of the small intestine, which are densely folded to maximize the surface area in contact with digested food. Small blood and lymphatic vessels in the intestinal wall pick up the molecules and carry them to the rest of the body. The large intestine is also involved in the absorption of water and vitamins B and K before feces leave the body.
The final function of the digestive system is the excretion of waste in a process known as defecation. Defecation removes indigestible substances from the body so that they do not accumulate inside the gut. The timing of defecation is controlled voluntarily by the conscious part of the brain, but must be accomplished on a regular basis to prevent a backup of indigestible materials.