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Food as it is consumed is not in a state that is suitable for use as an energy source by the body. First, it must be broken down into molecules small enough to cross the membranes of the cells. The breaking down of larger food particles into molecules small enough to enter body cells is called digestion. The passage of these smaller molecules into the blood and lymph is termed absorption. The organs that collectively perform these functions compose the digestive system. The digestive system is composed of the alimentary canal and accessory digestive organs. The alimentary canal, also known as the gastrointestinal or digestive tract, is a muscular tube that is about five times as long as a person is tall and goes from the lips to the anus. The tube forms a continuous barrier so that material in the digestive tube can be acted on by the digestive juices. It consists of the mouth, pharynx (throat), esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. The accessory organs include the teeth, tongue, salivary glands, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. From the throat to the anus, the walls of the alimentary canal are similar in structure except for specialized modifications that perform particular functions. The wall of the alimentary canal consists of four layers: The mucosa or mucous membrane is made up of epithelial cells, connective tissue, and a variety of digestive glands. This layer protects the underlying tissues and functions to carry on secretion and absorption. 2. The submucosa consists of connective tissue, nerves, and blood and lymph vessels that serve to nourish the surrounding tissues and carry away the absorbed material. 3. The muscular layer has two layers of smooth muscle. The muscle fibers of the inner layer encircle the tube so that when they contract, the diameter of the tube decreases. The outer layer of muscle fibers is arranged longitudinally so that when they contract, the tube shortens. 4. The serous layer is the outer covering of the tube. On the stomach and intestines, this layer is continuous with the peritoneum that lines the abdominal cavity.
The process of digestion changes the food into a nutritious fluid capable of being absorbed by the blood. Digestion is accomplished through physical and chemical means. The physical means involve the teeth, tongue, and involuntary muscles of the alimentary canal. The teeth tear and grind the food into small pieces, the tongue mixes and moves the food, and the involuntary muscles mix the food with digestive juices and propel it through the alimentary canal. Food is acted on chemically by enzymes and a variety of digestive juices to break it down from complex food substances into simple nutritional molecules that can be absorbed into the bloodstream and through the cell membranes.
The Path of Digestion
The mouth, also known as the oral cavity, prepares the food for entrance into the stomach. In the mouth, the food is masticated (chewed) by the teeth and mixed by the tongue with secretions from the salivary glands. Saliva contains enzymes that begin to digest carbohydrates. The action of the teeth, tongue, and saliva prepares the food into a soft ball called a bolus that slides into the throat and is swallowed by voluntary and reflex actions of the muscles of the pharynx. When food passes from the pharynx into the esophagus, the smooth muscles of the alimentary canal are stimulated and begin to produce a rhythmic, wave-like motion that will propel and churn the food throughout the length of the canal. These wave-like muscular contractions are called peristalsis.
After food travels down the esophagus, it passes through the cardiac sphincter and enters the stomach. Sphincters are muscular valves that allow the passage of food substances in only one direction. Inside the stomach, the food is churned with gastric juices secreted from glands in the wall of the stomach that contain hydrochloric acid and protein-digesting enzymes until it is reduced to a thin liquid called chyme. The only protein-digesting enzyme found in the stomach is pepsin. Pepsin breaks the bonds between the amino acids that make proteins. Another enzyme found in the stomach is gastric lipase. Gastric lipase splits large fat molecules into smaller ones. The stomach wall is impermeable to the passage of most materials into the blood; so most substances are not absorbed until they reach the small intestine. However, the stomach does absorb some water, ions, certain drugs, and alcohol. From the stomach, the chyme passes through the pyloric sphincter and into the first portion of the small intestine known as the duodenum. The next organ of the GI tract involved in digestion and absorption of food is the small intestine. Chemical digestion there depends on activities of three accessory structures of the digestive system: the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and is connected, usually by two ducts, to the small intestine. Pancreatic secretions pass from the secreting cells in the pancreas into ducts that convey the secretions into the small intestine. The enzymes in pancreatic juice include a carbohydrate-digesting enzyme called pancreatic amylase, several protein-digesting enzymes including two called trypsin and chymotrypsin, and the principal fat-digesting enzyme called pancreatic lipase. The liver is the heaviest gland in the body and is located below the diaphragm. It is divided into two principal lobes: a large right lobe and a smaller left lobe. Each day, hepatocytes (liver cells) secrete bile, a yellow, brownish, or olive-green liquid. Bile is partially an excretory product and partially a digestive secretion. It plays a role in emulsification, the breakdown of large fat globules into tiny droplets that can be digested more efficiently. The gallbladder is a pear-shaped sac located in a depression on the posterior surface of the liver on the right side. The function of the gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile until it is needed in the small intestine. The small intestine is the longest part of the alimentary canal. It consists of three parts: the duodenum, jejunum, and the ileum. Thousands of glands in the intestinal walls produce intestinal digestive juices. In addition to intestinal juices, secretions of bile from the liver and pancreatic fluids from the pancreas are poured into the duodenum. Bile from the liver and gall bladder is carried through ducts and is essential for the breakdown of fats. Pancreatic fluid enters the duodenum by way of the pancreatic duct and contains enzymes that act to digest proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The small intestine is lined with small, finger-like projections covering the intestinal walls called villi that greatly increase the surface area available for absorption. Each microscopic villus contains a network of blood and lymph vessels. The end products of protein and carbohydrate digestion pass through the intestinal wall and are absorbed into the blood vessels while the end products of lipid digestion are absorbed by lymphatic vessels known as lacteals. Nutrients absorbed into the blood stream are carried to the liver. Nutrients absorbed by the lacteals flow through the lymphatic system and are eventually introduced into the systemic circulation through the thoracic duct which then transports them to the liver. The overall functions of the large intestine are the completion of absorption, the manufacture of certain vitamins, the formation of feces, and the expulsion of feces from the body. Structurally, the large intestine is divided into four principal regions: cecum, colon, rectum, and anal canal. The opening from the ileum into the large intestine is guarded by a fold of mucous membrane called the ilieocecal sphincter. This structure allows materials from the small intestine to pass into the large intestine. Hanging inferior to the ilieocecal valve is the cecum, a blind pouch. Attached to the cecum is a twisted coiled tube called the appendix. The open end
of the cecum merges with a long tube called the colon. The colon is divided into ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid portions. The ascending colon travels up the right side of the abdomen until it reaches the liver. The colon continues across the abdomen to the left side as the transverse colon. It curves beneath the spleen on the left side and passes down to the level of the iliac crest as the descending colon. The sigmoid colon begins near the left iliac crest, projects medially, and terminates as the rectum at about the level of the sacrum. The rectum is a temporary storage area for waste. The end of the rectum is called the anal canal. The opening of the anal canal to the exterior is called the anus, from which fecal material is expelled. The last stage of digestion occurs in the colon through the activity of bacteria that live in the lumen. Mucus is secreted by the glands of the large intestine, but no enzymes are secreted. Chyme is prepared for elimination by the action of bacteria, which ferment any remaining carbohydrates and release hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane gas. Several vitamins needed for normal metabolism are bacterial products that are absorbed in the colon. These include some B vitamins and vitamin K. By the time the chyme has remained in the large intestine 3-10 hours, it has become solid or semisolid as a result of water absorption and is now known as feces. Chemically, feces consist of water, inorganic salts, sloughed off epithelial cells from the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract, bacteria, products of bacterial decomposition, and undigested parts of food. Although most water absorption occurs in the small intestine, the large intestine absorbs enough to make it an important organ in maintaining the body's water balance. The large intestine also absorbs electrolytes, including sodium and chloride, and some vitamins.
Questions for Discussion and Review: “The Digestive System”
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. What is digestion? What is absorption? What are the two major divisions of the digestive system? List the structures that belong to the alimentary canal. List the structures that belong to the accessory organs. List and describe the four layers of the alimentary canal. What are the two types of digestion? Which structures break down food mechanically?
9. Which structures break down food chemically? 10. What is another name for the mouth? 11. Which nutrient is digested chemically in the mouth? 12. What is saliva? 13. What is a bolus? 14. What is the function of the esophagus? 15. What is peristalsis? 16. What are sphincters? 17. What is the cardiac sphincter? 18. What is the pyloric sphincter? 19. What is chyme? 20. What is pepsin? 21. What is gastric lipase? 22. Which enzymes does the pancreas secrete? 23. What is pancreatic amylase? 24. What is trypsin and chymotrypsin? 25. What is pancreatic lipase? 26. Which lobe of the liver is the largest? 27. What is bile? 28. Where is bile stored? 29. What is the function of bile? 30. What is emulsification? 31. What are the three parts of the small intestine? 32. What are the functions of the small intestine? 33. What are villi? 34. What are lacteals? 35. Where are simple carbohydrates and amino acids absorbed? 36. Where are dietary fats absorbed? 37. What are the functions of the large intestine? 38. What is the ilieocecal sphincter? 39. What is the cecum? 40. What is the appendix? 41. What are the four portions of the colon? 42. What is the rectum? 43. What is the anal canal? 44. What is the anus? 45. What are feces?
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