The digestive system is a group of organs working together to convert food into energy and basic nutrients to feed the entire body. Food passes through a long tube inside the body known as the alimentary canal or the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). The alimentary canal is made up of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestines, and large intestines. In addition to the alimentary canal, there are several important accessory organs that help your body to digest food but do not have food pass through them. Accessory organs of the digestive system include the teeth, tongue, salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. To achieve the goal of providing energy and nutrients to the body, six major functions take place in the digestive system:
- Mixing and movement
Digestive System Anatomy
Food begins its journey through the digestive system in the mouth, also known as the oral cavity. Inside the mouth are many accessory organs that aid in the digestion of food—the tongue, teeth, and salivary glands. Teeth chop food into small pieces, which are moistened by saliva before the tongue and other muscles push the food into the pharynx.
- Teeth. The teeth are 32 small, hard organs found along the anterior and lateral edges of the mouth. Each tooth is made of a bone-like substance called dentin and covered in a layer of enamel—the hardest substance in the body. Teeth are living organs and contain blood vessels and nerves under the dentin in a soft region known as the pulp. The teeth are designed for cutting and grinding food into smaller pieces.
- Tongue. The tongue is located on the inferior portion of the mouth just posterior and medial to the teeth. It is a small organ made up of several pairs of muscles covered in a thin, bumpy, skin-like layer. The outside of the tongue contains many rough papillae for gripping food as it is moved by the tongue’s muscles. The taste buds on the surface of the tongue detect taste molecules in food and connect to nerves in the tongue to send taste information to the brain. The tongue also helps to push food toward the posterior part of the mouth for swallowing.
- Salivary Glands. Surrounding the mouth are 3 sets of salivary glands. The salivary glands are accessory organs that produce a watery secretion known as saliva. Saliva helps to moisten food and begins the digestion of carbohydrates. The body also uses saliva to lubricate food as it passes through the mouth, pharynx, and esophagus.
The pharynx, or throat, is a funnel-shaped tube connected to the posterior end of the mouth. The pharynx is responsible for the passing of masses of chewed food from the mouth to the esophagus. The pharynx also plays an important role in the respiratory system, as air from the nasal cavity passes through the pharynx on its way to the larynx and eventually the lungs. Because the pharynx serves two different functions, it contains a flap of tissue known as the epiglottis that acts as a switch to route food to the esophagus and air to the larynx.
The esophagus is a muscular tube connecting the pharynx to the stomach that is part of the upper gastrointestinal tract. It carries swallowed masses of chewed food along its length. At the inferior end of the esophagus is a muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter or cardiac sphincter. The function of this sphincter is to close of the end of the esophagus and trap food in the stomach.
The stomach is a muscular sac that is located on the left side of the abdominal cavity, just inferior to the diaphragm. In an average person, the stomach is about the size of their two fists placed next to each other. This major organ acts as a storage tank for food so that the body has time to digest large meals properly. The stomach also contains hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that continue the digestion of food that began in the mouth.
The small intestine is a long, thin tube about 1 inch in diameter and about 10 feet long that is part of the lower gastrointestinal tract. It is located just inferior to the stomach and takes up most of the space in the abdominal cavity. The entire small intestine is coiled like a hose and the inside surface is full of many ridges and folds. These folds are used to maximize the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. By the time food leaves the small intestine, around 90% of all nutrients have been extracted from the food that entered it.
Liver and Gallbladder
The liver is a roughly triangular accessory organ of the digestive system located to the right of the stomach, just inferior to the diaphragm and superior to the small intestine. The liver weighs about 3 pounds and is the second largest organ in the body. The liver has many different functions in the body, but the main function of the liver in digestion is the production of bile and its secretion into the small intestine. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located just posterior to the liver. The gallbladder is used to store and recycle excess bile from the small intestine so that it can be reused for the digestion of subsequent meals.
The pancreas is a large gland located just inferior and posterior to the stomach. It is about 6 inches long and shaped like short, lumpy snake with its “head” connected to the duodenum and its “tail” pointing to the left wall of the abdominal cavity. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to complete the chemical digestion of foods.
The large intestine is a long, thick tube about 2.5 inches in diameter and about 5 feet long. It is located just inferior to the stomach and wraps around the superior and lateral border of the small intestine. The large intestine absorbs water and contains many symbiotic bacteria that aid in the breaking down of wastes to extract some small amounts of nutrients. Feces in the large intestine exit the body through the anal canal.
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.
Many diseases and health conditions - such as ulcers, GERD, IBD and celiac disease, just to name a few - lead to dysfunction in our digestive system. Learn about them by visiting our section on digestive diseases and conditions. (Also, now you can test for your genetic risk of acquiring celiac disease - learn more about DNA health testing.)