Science & Engineering

Human Digestion Process



The whole digestive system is around 9 meters long. In a healthy human adult this process can take between 24 and 72 hours. Food digestion physiology varies between individuals and upon other factors such as the characteristics of the food and size of the meal.[16]

[edit] 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 distension of the stomach, presence of food in stomach and decrease in pH. Distention activates long and myenteric 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. Inhibition of gastrin and gastric acid secretion is lifted. This triggers G cells to release gastrin, which in turn stimulates parietal cells to secrete gastric acid. Gastric acid is about 0.5% hydrochloric acid (HCl), which lowers the pH to the desired pH of 1-3. Acid 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.
[edit] Oral cavity

Main article: Mouth (human)

In humans, digestion begins in the oral cavity, otherwise known as the “Buccal Cavity”, where food is chewed. Saliva is secreted in large amounts (1-1.5 litres/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. Saliva cleans the oral cavity, moistens 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 mucus, a glycoprotein that helps soften the food and form it into a bolus. An additional enzyme, lingual lipase, hydrolyzes long-chain triglycerides into partial glycerides and free fatty acids.

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.

[edit] Pharynx

Main article: Human pharynx

The pharynx is the part of the neck and throat situated immediately behind the mouth and nasal cavity, and cranial, or superior, to the esophagus. It is part of the digestive system and respiratory system. Because both food and air pass through the pharynx, a flap of connective tissue, the epiglottis closes over the trachea when food is swallowed to prevent choking or asphyxiation.

The oropharynx is that part of the pharynx behind the oral cavity. It is lined with stratified squamous epithelium. The nasopharynx lies behind the nasal cavity and like the nasal passages is lined with ciliated columnar pseudostratified epithelium.

Like the oropharynx above it the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx) serves as a passageway for food and air and is lined with a stratified squamous epithelium. It lies inferior to the upright epiglottis and extends to the larynx, where the respiratory and digestive pathways diverge. At that point, the laryngopharynx is continuous with the esophagus. During swallowing, food has the “right of way”, and air passage temporarily stops.

[edit] Esophagus

Main article: esophagus

The esophagus is a narrow muscular tube about 20-30 centimeters long, which starts at the pharynx at the back of the mouth, passes through the 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 colon 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 about seven seconds for food to pass through the esophagus and now digestion takes place.

[edit] Stomach

Main article: Stomach

The stomach is a small, ‘J’-shaped pouch with walls made of thick, elastic muscles, which stores and helps break down food. Food reduced to very small particles is more likely to be fully digested in the small intestine, and stomach churning has the effect of assisting the physical disassembly begun in the mouth. Ruminants, who are able to digest fibrous material (primarily cellulose), use fore-stomachs and repeated chewing to further the disassembly. Rabbits and some other animals pass some material through their entire digestive systems twice. Most birds ingest small stones to assist in mechanical processing in gizzards.

Food enters the stomach through the cardiac orifice where it is further broken apart and thoroughly mixed with gastric acid, pepsin and other digestive enzymes to break down proteins. The enzymes in the stomach also have an optimum, meaning that they work at a specific pH and temperature better than any others. 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 microorganisms that are ingested with the food. It can also denature proteins. This is the process of reducing polypeptide bonds and disrupting salt bridges, which in turn causes a loss of secondary, tertiary, or quaternary protein structure. The parietal cells of the stomach also secrete a glycoprotein called intrinsic factor, which enables the absorption of vitamin B-12. Mucus neck cells are present in the gastric glands of the stomach. They secrete mucus, which along with gastric juice plays and important role in lubrication and protection of the mucosal epithelium from excoriation by the highly concentrated hydrochloric acid. 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, which upon completion is known as chyme.

After consumption of food, digestive “tonic” and peristaltic contractions begin, which helps break down the food and move it through.[16] When the chyme reaches the opening to the duodenum known as the pylorus, contractions “squirt” the food back into the stomach through a process called retropulsion, which exerts additional force and further grinds down food into smaller particles.[16] Gastric emptying is the release of food from the stomach into the duodenum; the process is tightly controlled with liquids being emptied much more quickly than solids.[16] Gastric emptying has attracted medical interest as rapid gastric emptying is related to obesity and delayed gastric emptying syndrome is associated with diabetes mellitus, aging, and gastroesophageal reflux.[16]

The transverse section of the alimentary canal reveals four (or five, see description under mucosa) 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, composed 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, composed 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. It can be divided into the epithelium, lamina propria, and the muscularis mucosae, though some consider the outermost muscularis mucosae to be a distinct layer, as it develops from the mesoderm rather than the endoderm (thus making a total of five layers). The epithelium and lamina are filled with connective tissue and covered in gastric glands that may be simple or branched tubular, and secrete mucus, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen and rennin. The mucus lubricates the food and also prevents hydrochloric acid from acting on the walls of the stomach.
[edit] Small intestine

Main article: Small intestine

It has three parts Duodenum, Jejunum, and Ileum.

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:

The pH level increases in the small intestine. A more basic environment causes more helpful enzymes to activate and begin to help in the breakdown of molecules such as fat globules. Small, finger-like structures called villi, each of which is covered with even smaller hair-like structures called microvilli improve the absorption 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.

[edit] Large intestine

Main article: Large intestine

After the food has been passed through the small intestine, the food enters the large intestine. Within it, digestion is retained long enough to allow fermentation due to the action of gut bacteria, which breaks down some of the substances that remain after processing in the small intestine; some of the breakdown products are absorbed. The bacteria in the gut is incredibly important. An imbalanced amount of gut bacteria can lead to a number of health problems, so it’s important that people consider taking some probiotics to promote gut health. To learn about finding the best probiotics, it might be worth visiting to make sure the most beneficial probiotics are chosen. Hopefully, this will aid the digestive system. In humans, these include most complex saccharides (at most three disaccharides are digestible in humans). In addition, in many vertebrates, the large intestine reabsorbs fluid; in a few, with desert lifestyles, this reabsorbtion makes continued existence possible.

In humans, 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 eliminated from the body due to the contraction and relaxation through the anus. The exit of this waste material is regulated by the anal sphincter.


Source: Human Digestion Process


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