The digestive system includes the organs of the alimentary canal and accessory structures. The alimentary canal forms a continuous tube that is open to the outside environment at both ends. The organs of the alimentary canal are the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. The accessory digestive structures include the teeth, tongue, salivary glands, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. The wall of the alimentary canal is composed of four basic tissue layers: mucosa, submucosa, muscularis, and serosa. The enteric nervous system provides intrinsic innervation, and the autonomic nervous system provides extrinsic innervation.
The digestive system ingests and digests food, absorbs released nutrients, and excretes food components that are indigestible. The six activities involved in this process are ingestion, motility, mechanical digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and defecation. These processes are regulated by neural and hormonal mechanisms.
In the mouth, the tongue and the teeth begin mechanical digestion, and saliva begins chemical digestion. The pharynx, which plays roles in breathing and vocalization as well as digestion, runs from the nasal and oral cavities superiorly to the esophagus inferiorly (for digestion) and to the larynx anteriorly (for respiration). During deglutition (swallowing), the soft palate rises to close off the nasopharynx, the larynx elevates, and the epiglottis folds over the glottis. The esophagus includes an upper esophageal sphincter made of skeletal muscle, which regulates the movement of food from the pharynx to the esophagus. It also has a lower esophageal sphincter, made of smooth muscle, which controls the passage of food from the esophagus to the stomach. Cells in the esophageal wall secrete mucus that eases the passage of the food bolus.
The stomach participates in all digestive activities except ingestion and defecation. It vigorously churns food. It secretes gastric juices that break down food and absorbs certain drugs, including aspirin and some alcohol. The stomach begins the digestion of protein and continues the digestion of carbohydrates and fats. It stores food as an acidic liquid called chyme, and releases it gradually into the small intestine through the pyloric sphincter.
The three main regions of the small intestine are the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. The small intestine is where digestion is completed and virtually all absorption occurs. These two activities are facilitated by structural adaptations that increase the mucosal surface area by 600-fold, including circular folds, villi, and microvilli. There are around 200 million microvilli per square millimeter of small intestine, which contain brush border enzymes that complete the digestion of carbohydrates and proteins. Combined with pancreatic juice, intestinal juice provides the liquid medium needed to further digest and absorb substances from chyme. The small intestine is also the site of unique mechanical digestive movements. Segmentation moves the chyme back and forth, increasing mixing and opportunities for absorption. Migrating motility complexes propel the residual chyme toward the large intestine.
The main regions of the large intestine are the cecum, the colon, and the rectum. The large intestine absorbs water and forms feces, and is responsible for defecation. Bacterial flora break down additional carbohydrate residue, and synthesize certain vitamins. The mucosa of the large intestinal wall is generously endowed with goblet cells, which secrete mucus that eases the passage of feces. The entry of feces into the rectum activates the defecation reflex.
Chemical digestion in the small intestine cannot occur without the help of the liver and pancreas. The liver produces bile and delivers it to the common hepatic duct. Bile contains bile salts and phospholipids, which emulsify large lipid globules into tiny lipid droplets, a necessary step in lipid digestion and absorption. The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile, releasing it when it is needed by the small intestine.
The pancreas produces the enzyme- and bicarbonate-rich pancreatic juice and delivers it to the small intestine through ducts. Pancreatic juice buffers the acidic gastric juice in chyme, inactivates pepsin from the stomach, and enables the optimal functioning of digestive enzymes in the small intestine.
The small intestine is the site of most chemical digestion and almost all absorption. Chemical digestion breaks large food molecules down into their chemical building blocks, which can then be absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the general circulation. Intestinal brush border enzymes and pancreatic enzymes are responsible for the majority of chemical digestion. The breakdown of fat also requires bile.
Most nutrients are absorbed by transport mechanisms at the apical surface of enterocytes. Exceptions include lipids, fat-soluble vitamins, and most water-soluble vitamins. With the help of bile salts and lecithin, the dietary fats are emulsified to form micelles, which can carry the fat particles to the surface of the enterocytes. There, the micelles release their fats to diffuse across the cell membrane. The fats are then reassembled into triglycerides and mixed with other lipids and proteins into chylomicrons that can pass into lacteals. Other absorbed monomers travel from blood capillaries in the villus to the hepatic portal vein and then to the liver.