intestinal digestion


[dih-jes-chuhn, dahy-]
Digestion is the breaking down of chemicals in the body, into a form that can be absorbed. It is also the process by which the body breaks down chemicals into smaller components that can be absorbed by the blood stream. In mammals, preparation for digestion begins with the cephalic phase in which saliva is produced in the mouth and digestive enzymes are produced in the stomach. Mechanical and chemical digestion begin in the mouth where food is chewed, and mixed with saliva to break down starches. The stomach continues to break food down mechanically and chemically through the churning of the stomach and mixing with enzymes. Absorption occurs in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, and the process finishes with excretion.


In most vertebrates, digestion is a multi-stage process in the digestive system, following ingestion of the raw materials, most often other organisms. The process of ingestion usually inolves some type of mechanical and chemical processing. Digestion is separated into four separate steps:

  1. Ingestion: placing food into the mouth
  2. Mechanical and chemical breakdown: mastication and the mixing of the resulting food bolus with water, acids, bile and enzymes in the stomach and intestine to break down complex molecules into simple structures
  3. Absorption: movement of nutrients from the digestive system to the circulatory and lymphatic capillaries through osmosis, active transport, and diffusion
  4. Egestion: Removal of undigested materials from the digestive tract through defecation

Underlying the process is muscle movement throughout the system through swallowing and peristalsis.

Human digestion process

Phases of gastric secretion

  • Cephalic phase - This phase occurs before food enters the stomach and involves preparation of the body for eating and digestion. Sight and thought stimulate the cerebral cortex. Taste and smell stimulus is sent to the hypothalamus and medulla oblongata. After this it is routed through the vagus nerve and release of acetylcholine. Gastric secretion at this phase rises to 40% of maximum rate. Acidity in the stomach is not buffered by food at this point and thus acts to inhibit parietal (secretes acid) and G cell (secretes gastrin) activity via D cell secretion of somatostatin.
  • Gastric phase - This phase takes 3 to 4 hours. It is stimulated by distention of the stomach, presence of food in stomach and increase in pH. Distention activates long and myentric reflexes. This activates the release of acetylcholine which stimulates the release of more gastric juices. As protein enters the stomach, it binds to hydrogen ions, which raises the pH of the stomach to around pH 6. Inhibition of gastrin and HCl secretion is lifted. This triggers G cells to release gastrin, which in turn stimulates parietal cells to secrete HCl. HCl release is also triggered by acetylcholine and histamine.
  • Intestinal phase - This phase has 2 parts, the excitatory and the inhibitory. Partially-digested food fills the duodenum. This triggers intestinal gastrin to be released. Enterogastric reflex inhibits vagal nuclei, activating sympathetic fibers causing the pyloric sphincter to tighten to prevent more food from entering, and inhibits local reflexes.

Oral cavity

In humans, digestion begins in the oral cavity where food is chewed. Saliva is secreted in large amounts (1-1.5 litre/day) by three pairs of exocrine salivary glands (parotid, submandibular, and sublingual) in the oral cavity, and is mixed with the chewed food by the tongue. There are two types of saliva. One is a thin, watery secretion, and its purpose is to wet the food. The other is a thick, mucous secretion, and it acts as a lubricant and causes food particles to stick together and form a bolus. The saliva serves to clean the oral cavity and moisten the food, and contains digestive enzymes such as salivary amylase, which aids in the chemical breakdown of polysaccharides such as starch into disaccharides such as maltose. It also contains mucin, a glycoprotein which helps soften the food into a bolus.

Swallowing transports the chewed food into the esophagus, passing through the oropharynx and hypopharynx. The mechanism for swallowing is coordinated by the swallowing center in the medulla oblongata and pons. The reflex is initiated by touch receptors in the pharynx as the bolus of food is pushed to the back of the mouth.


The esophagus is a narrow muscular tube about 25 centimeters long which starts at pharynx at the back of the mouth, passes through the thorax and thoracic diaphragm, and ends at the cardiac orifice of the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of two layers of smooth muscles, which form a continuous layer from the esophagus to the oten and contract slowly, over long periods of time. The inner layer of muscles is arranged circularly in a series of descending rings, while the outer layer is arranged longitudinally. At the top of the esophagus, is a flap of tissue called the epiglottis that closes during swallowing to prevent food from entering the trachea (windpipe). The chewed food is pushed down the esophagus to the stomach through peristaltic contraction of these muscles. It takes only seconds for food to pass through the esophagus and no digestion takes place.


The stomach is a small, pear-shaped pouch with walls made of thick, elastic muscles. Food enters the stomach through the cardiac orifice where it is further broken apart and thoroughly mixed with gastric acid and pepsin and other digestive enzymes to break down proteins. The acid itself does not break down food molecules, rather it provides an optimum pH for the reaction of the enzyme pepsin and kills many bacteria that are ingested with the food. The parietal cells of the stomach also secrete a glycoprotein called intrinsic factor which enables the absorption of vitamin B-12. Other small molecules such as alcohol are absorbed in the stomach, passing through the membrane of the stomach and entering the circulatory system directly. Food in the stomach is in semi-liquid form.

The transverse section of the alimentary canal reveals four distinct and well developed layers within the stomach:

  • Serous membrane, a thin layer of mesothelial cells that is the outermost wall of the stomach.
  • Muscular coat, a well-developed layer of muscles used to mix ingested food, comprised of three sets running in three different alignments. The outermost layer runs parallel to the vertical axis of the stomach (from top to bottom), the middle is concentric to the axis (horizontally circling the stomach cavity) and the innermost oblique layer, which is responsible for mixing and breaking down ingested food, runs diagonal to the longitudinal axis. The inner layer is unique to the stomach, all other parts of the digestive tract have only the first two layers.
  • Submucosa, comprised of connective tissue that links the inner muscular layer to the mucosa and contains the nerves, blood and lymph vessels.
  • Mucosa is the extensively folded innermost layer filled with connective tissue and covered in gastric glands that may be simple or branched tubular, and secret mucus, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen and renin. The mucus lubricates the food and stomach, as well as preventing the acids secreted from damaging the stomach walls.

Small intestine

After being processed in the stomach, food is passed to the small intestine via the pyloric sphincter. The majority of digestion and absorption occurs here after the milky chyme enters the duodenum. Here it is further mixed with three different liquids:

As the acid level changes in the small intestines, more enzymes are activated further that chemically break down various nutrients into smaller molecules to allow absorbtion into the circulatory or lymphatic systems. Small, finger-like structures called villi, each of which is covered with even smaller hair-like structures called microvilli improve the absorbtion of nutrients by increasing the surface area of the intestine and enhancing speed at which nutrients are absorbed. Blood containing the absorbed nutrients is carried away from the small intestine via the hepatic portal vein and goes to the liver for filtering, removal of toxins, and nutrient processing.

The small intestine and remainder of the digestive tract undergoes peristalsis to transport food from the stomach to the rectum and allow food to be mixed with the digestive juices and absorbed. The circular muscles and longitudinal muscles are antagonistic muscles, with one contracting as the other relaxes. When the circular muscles contract, the lumen becomes narrower and longer and the food is squeezed and pushed forward. When the longitudinal muscles contract, the circular muscles relax and the gut dilates to become wider and shorter to allow food to enter.

Large intestine

After the food has been passed through the small intestine, the food enters the large intestine. The large intestine is roughly 1.5 meters long, with three parts: the cecum at the junction with the small intestine, the colon, and the rectum. The colon itself has four parts: the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon, and the sigmoid colon. The large intestine absorbs water from the bolus and stores feces until it can be egested. Food products that cannot go through the villi, such as cellulose (dietary fiber), are mixed with other waste products from the body and become hard and concentrated feces. The feces is stored in the rectum for a certain period and then the stored feces is egested due to the contraction and relaxation through the anus. The exit of this waste material is regulated by the anal sphincter.

Fat digestion

The presence of fat in the small intestine produces hormones which stimulate the release of lipase from the pancreas and bile from the gallbladder. The lipase (activated by acid) breaks down the fat into monoglycerides and fatty acids. The bile emulsifies the fatty acids so they may be easily absorbed.

Short- and medium chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the blood via intestine capillaries and travel through the portal vein just as other absorbed nutrients do. However, long chain fatty acids are too large to be directly released into the tiny intestinal capillaries. Instead they are absorbed into the fatty walls of the intestine villi and reassembled again into triglycerides. The triglycerides are coated with cholesterol and protein (protein coat) into a compound called a chylomicron.

Within the villi, the chylomicron enters a lymphatic capillary called a lacteal, which merges into larger lymphatic vessels. It is transported via the lymphatic system and the thoracic duct up to a location near the heart (where the arteries and veins are larger). The thoracic duct empties the chylomicrons into the bloodstream via the left subclavian vein. At this point the chylomicrons can transport the triglycerides to where they are needed.

Digestive hormones

There are at least four hormones that aid and regulate the digestive system:

  • Gastrin - is in the stomach and stimulates the gastric glands to secrete pepsinogen(an inactive form of the enzyme pepsin) and hydrochloric acid. Secretion of gastrin is stimulated by food arriving in stomach. The secretion is inhibited by low pH .
  • Secretin - is in the duodenum and signals the secretion of sodium bicarbonate in the pancreas and it stimulates the bile secretion in the liver. This hormone responds to the acidity of the chyme.
  • Cholecystokinin (CCK) - is in the duodenum and stimulates the release of digestive enzymes in the pancreas and stimulates the emptying of bile in the gall bladder. This hormone is secreted in response to fat in chyme.
  • Gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP) - is in the duodenum and decreases the stomach churning in turn slowing the emptying in the stomach. Another function is to induce insulin secretion.

Significance of pH in digestion

Digestion is a complex process which is controlled by several factors. pH plays a crucial role in a normally functioning digestive tract. In the mouth, pharynx, and esophagus, pH is typically about 6.8, very weakly acidic. Saliva controls pH in this region of the digestive tract. Salivary amylase is contained in saliva and starts the breakdown of carbohydrates into monosaccharides. Most digestive enzymes are sensitive to pH and will not function in a low-pH environment like the stomach. Low pH (below 5) indicates a strong acid, while a high pH (above 8) indicates a strong base; the concentration of the acid or base, however, does also play a role.

pH in the stomach is very acidic and inhibits the breakdown of carbohydrates while there. The strong acid content of the stomach provides two benefits, both serving to denature proteins for further digestion in the small intestines, as well as providing non-specific immunity, retarding or eliminating various pathogens.

In the small intestines, the duodenum provides critical pH balancing to activate digestive enzymes. The liver secretes bile into the duodenum to neutralise the acidic conditions from the stomach. Also the pancreatic duct empties into the duodenum, adding bicarbonate to neutralize the acidic chyme, thus creating a neutral environment. The mucosal tissue of the small intestines is alkaline, creating a pH of about 8.5, thus enabling absorption in a mild alkaline in the environment.

Specialized organs in non-human animals

Organisms have evolved specialized organs to aid in the digestion of their food, modifying tongues, teeth, and other organs to assist in digestion. Certain insects may have a crop or enlarged esophagus, while birds and cockroaches have developed gizzards to assist in the digestion of tough materials. Herbivores have evolved cecums (or an abomasum in the case of ruminants) to break down cellulose in plants.

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