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 transverse section of the alimentary canal reveals four distinct and well developed layers within the stomach:
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.
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.
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.
There are at least four hormones that aid and regulate the digestive system:
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.
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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