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16.2: Digestive System

All living organisms need nutrients to survive. While plants can obtain nutrients from their roots and the energy molecules required for cellular function through the process of photosynthesis, animals obtain their nutrients by the consumption of other organisms. At the cellular level, the biological molecules necessary for animal function are amino acids, lipid molecules, nucleotides, and simple sugars. However, the food consumed consists of protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates. Animals must convert these macromolecules into the simple molecules required for maintaining cellular function. The conversion of the food consumed to the nutrients required is a multistep process involving digestion and absorption. During digestion, food particles are broken down to smaller components, which are later absorbed by the body. This happens by both physical means, such as chewing, and by chemical means.

One of the challenges in human nutrition is maintaining a balance between food intake, storage, and energy expenditure. Taking in more food energy than is used in activity leads to storage of the excess in the form of fat deposits. The rise in obesity and the resulting diseases like type 2 diabetes makes understanding the role of diet and nutrition in maintaining good health all the more important.

The Human Digestive System

The process of digestion begins in the mouth with the intake of food (Figure 16.2.1). The teeth play an important role in masticating (chewing) or physically breaking food into smaller particles. The enzymes present in saliva also begin to chemically break down food. The food is then swallowed and enters the esophagus—a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Using peristalsis, or wave-like smooth-muscle contractions, the muscles of the esophagus push the food toward the stomach. The stomach contents are extremely acidic, with a pH between 1.5 and 2.5. This acidity kills microorganisms, breaks down food tissues, and activates digestive enzymes. Further breakdown of food takes place in the small intestine where bile produced by the liver, and enzymes produced by the small intestine and the pancreas, continue the process of digestion. The smaller molecules are absorbed into the blood stream through the epithelial cells lining the walls of the small intestine. The waste material travels on to the large intestine where water is absorbed and the drier waste material is compacted into feces; it is stored until it is excreted through the anus.

Figure 16.2.1: The components of the human digestive system are shown.

Oral Cavity

Both physical and chemical digestion begin in the mouth or oral cavity, which is the point of entry of food into the digestive system. The food is broken into smaller particles by mastication, the chewing action of the teeth. All mammals have teeth and can chew their food to begin the process of physically breaking it down into smaller particles.

The chemical process of digestion begins during chewing as food mixes with saliva, produced by the salivary glands (Figure 16.2.2). Saliva contains mucus that moistens food and buffers the pH of the food. Saliva also contains lysozyme, which has antibacterial action. It also contains an enzyme called salivary amylase that begins the process of converting starches in the food into a disaccharide called maltose. Another enzyme called lipase is produced by cells in the tongue to break down fats. The chewing and wetting action provided by the teeth and saliva prepare the food into a mass called the bolus for swallowing. The tongue helps in swallowing—moving the bolus from the mouth into the pharynx. The pharynx opens to two passageways: the esophagus and the trachea. The esophagus leads to the stomach and the trachea leads to the lungs. The epiglottis is a flap of tissue that covers the tracheal opening during swallowing to prevent food from entering the lungs.

Figure 16.2.2: (a) Digestion of food begins in the mouth. (b) Food is masticated by teeth and moistened by saliva secreted from the salivary glands. Enzymes in the saliva begin to digest starches and fats. With the help of the tongue, the resulting bolus is moved into the esophagus by swallowing. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)


The esophagus is a tubular organ that connects the mouth to the stomach. The chewed and softened food passes through the esophagus after being swallowed. The smooth muscles of the esophagus undergo peristalsis that pushes the food toward the stomach. The peristaltic wave is unidirectional—it moves food from the mouth the stomach, and reverse movement is not possible, except in the case of the vomit reflex. The peristaltic movement of the esophagus is an involuntary reflex; it takes place in response to the act of swallowing.

Ring-like muscles called sphincters form valves in the digestive system. The gastro-esophageal sphincter (or cardiac sphincter) is located at the stomach end of the esophagus. In response to swallowing and the pressure exerted by the bolus of food, this sphincter opens, and the bolus enters the stomach. When there is no swallowing action, this sphincter is shut and prevents the contents of the stomach from traveling up the esophagus. Acid reflux or “heartburn” occurs when the acidic digestive juices escape into the esophagus.


A large part of protein digestion occurs in the stomach (Figure 16.2.4). The stomach is a saclike organ that secretes gastric digestive juices.

Protein digestion is carried out by an enzyme called pepsin in the stomach chamber. The highly acidic environment kills many microorganisms in the food and, combined with the action of the enzyme pepsin, results in the catabolism of protein in the food. Chemical digestion is facilitated by the churning action of the stomach caused by contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles. The partially digested food and gastric juice mixture is called chyme. Gastric emptying occurs within two to six hours after a meal. Only a small amount of chyme is released into the small intestine at a time. The movement of chyme from the stomach into the small intestine is regulated by hormones, stomach distension and muscular reflexes that influence the pyloric sphincter.

The stomach lining is unaffected by pepsin and the acidity because pepsin is released in an inactive form and the stomach has a thick mucus lining that protects the underlying tissue.

Small Intestine

Chyme moves from the stomach to the small intestine. The small intestine is the organ where the digestion of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is completed. The small intestine is a long tube-like organ with a highly folded surface containing finger-like projections called the villi. The top surface of each villus has many microscopic projections called microvilli. The epithelial cells of these structures absorb nutrients from the digested food and release them to the bloodstream on the other side. The villi and microvilli, with their many folds, increase the surface area of the small intestine and increase absorption efficiency of the nutrients.

The human small intestine is over 6 m (19.6 ft) long and is divided into three parts: the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. The duodenum is separated from the stomach by the pyloric sphincter. The chyme is mixed with pancreatic juices, an alkaline solution rich in bicarbonate that neutralizes the acidity of chyme from the stomach. Pancreatic juices contain several digestive enzymes that break down starches, disaccharides, proteins, and fats. Bile is produced in the liver and stored and concentrated in the gallbladder; it enters the duodenum through the bile duct. Bile contains bile salts, which make lipids accessible to the water-soluble enzymes. The monosaccharides, amino acids, bile salts, vitamins, and other nutrients are absorbed by the cells of the intestinal lining.

The undigested food is sent to the colon from the ileum via peristaltic movements. The ileum ends and the large intestine begins at the ileocecal valve. The vermiform, “worm-like,” appendix is located at the ileocecal valve. The appendix of humans has a minor role in immunity.

Large Intestine

The large intestine reabsorbs the water from indigestible food material and processes the waste material (Figure 16.2.3). The human large intestine is much smaller in length compared to the small intestine but larger in diameter. It has three parts: the cecum, the colon, and the rectum. The cecum joins the ileum to the colon and is the receiving pouch for the waste matter. The colon is home to many bacteria or “intestinal flora” that aid in the digestive processes. The colon has four regions, the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon and the sigmoid colon. The main functions of the colon are to extract the water and mineral salts from undigested food, and to store waste material.

Figure 16.2.3: The large intestine reabsorbs water from undigested food and stores waste until it is eliminated. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

The rectum (Figure 16.2.3) stores feces until defecation. The feces are propelled using peristaltic movements during elimination. The anus is an opening at the far-end of the digestive tract and is the exit point for the waste material. Two sphincters regulate the exit of feces, the inner sphincter is involuntary and the outer sphincter is voluntary.

Accessory Organs

The organs discussed above are the organs of the digestive tract through which food passes. Accessory organs add secretions and enzymes that break down food into nutrients. Accessory organs include the salivary glands, the liver, the pancreas, and the gall bladder. The secretions of the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are regulated by hormones in response to food consumption.

The liver is the largest internal organ in humans and it plays an important role in digestion of fats and detoxifying blood. The liver produces bile, a digestive juice that is required for the breakdown of fats in the duodenum. The liver also processes the absorbed vitamins and fatty acids and synthesizes many plasma proteins. The gallbladder is a small organ that aids the liver by storing bile and concentrating bile salts.

The pancreas secretes bicarbonate that neutralizes the acidic chyme and a variety of enzymes for the digestion of protein and carbohydrates.


Figure 16.2.4: The stomach has an extremely acidic environment where most of the protein gets digested. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Which of the following statements about the digestive system is false?

  1. Chyme is a mixture of food and digestive juices that is produced in the stomach.
  2. Food enters the large intestine before the small intestine.
  3. In the small intestine, chyme mixes with bile, which emulsifies fats.
  4. The stomach is separated from the small intestine by the pyloric sphincter.

The human diet should be well balanced to provide nutrients required for bodily function and the minerals and vitamins required for maintaining structure and regulation necessary for good health and reproductive capability (Figure 16.2.5).

Figure 16.2.5: For humans, a balanced diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. (credit: USDA)


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Explore this interactive United States Department of Agriculture website to learn more about each food group and the recommended daily amounts.

The organic molecules required for building cellular material and tissues must come from food. During digestion, digestible carbohydrates are ultimately broken down into glucose and used to provide energy within the cells of the body. Complex carbohydrates, including polysaccharides, can be broken down into glucose through biochemical modification; however, humans do not produce the enzyme necessary to digest cellulose (fiber). The intestinal flora in the human gut are able to extract some nutrition from these plant fibers. These plant fibers are known as dietary fiber and are an important component of the diet. The excess sugars in the body are converted into glycogen and stored for later use in the liver and muscle tissue. Glycogen stores are used to fuel prolonged exertions, such as long-distance running, and to provide energy during food shortage. Fats are stored under the skin of mammals for insulation and energy reserves.

Proteins in food are broken down during digestion and the resulting amino acids are absorbed. All of the proteins in the body must be formed from these amino-acid constituents; no proteins are obtained directly from food.

Fats add flavor to food and promote a sense of satiety or fullness. Fatty foods are also significant sources of energy, and fatty acids are required for the construction of lipid membranes. Fats are also required in the diet to aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the production of fat-soluble hormones.

While the animal body can synthesize many of the molecules required for function from precursors, there are some nutrients that must be obtained from food. These nutrients are termed essential nutrients, meaning they must be eaten, because the body cannot produce them.

The fatty acids omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid and omega-6 linoleic acid are essential fatty acids needed to make some membrane phospholipids. Vitamins are another class of essential organic molecules that are required in small quantities. Many of these assist enzymes in their function and, for this reason, are called coenzymes. Absence or low levels of vitamins can have a dramatic effect on health. Minerals are another set of inorganic essential nutrients that must be obtained from food. Minerals perform many functions, from muscle and nerve function, to acting as enzyme cofactors. Certain amino acids also must be procured from food and cannot be synthesized by the body. These amino acids are the “essential” amino acids. The human body can synthesize only 11 of the 20 required amino acids; the rest must be obtained from food.


With obesity at high rates in the United States, there is a public health focus on reducing obesity and associated health risks, which include diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease. How does the food consumed contribute to obesity?

Fatty foods are calorie-dense, meaning that they have more calories per unit mass than carbohydrates or proteins. One gram of carbohydrates has four calories, one gram of protein has four calories, and one gram of fat has nine calories. Animals tend to seek lipid-rich food for their higher energy content. Greater amounts of food energy taken in than the body’s requirements will result in storage of the excess in fat deposits.

Excess carbohydrate is used by the liver to synthesize glycogen. When glycogen stores are full, additional glucose is converted into fatty acids. These fatty acids are stored in adipose tissue cells—the fat cells in the mammalian body whose primary role is to store fat for later use.

The rate of obesity among children is rapidly rising in the United States. To combat childhood obesity and ensure that children get a healthy start in life, in 2010 First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! campaign. The goal of this campaign is to educate parents and caregivers on providing healthy nutrition and encouraging active lifestyles in future generations. This program aims to involve the entire community, including parents, teachers, and healthcare providers to ensure that children have access to healthy foods—more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—and consume fewer calories from processed foods. Another goal is to ensure that children get physical activity. With the increase in television viewing and stationary pursuits such as video games, sedentary lifestyles have become the norm. Visit to learn more.

Section Summary

There are many organs that work together to digest food and absorb nutrients. The mouth is the point of ingestion and the location where both mechanical and chemical breakdown of food begins. Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase that breaks down carbohydrates. The food bolus travels through the esophagus by peristaltic movements to the stomach. The stomach has an extremely acidic environment. The enzyme pepsin digests protein in the stomach. Further digestion and absorption take place in the small intestine. The large intestine reabsorbs water from the undigested food and stores waste until elimination.

Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are the primary components of food. Some essential nutrients are required for cellular function but cannot be produced by the animal body. These include vitamins, minerals, some fatty acids, and some amino acids. Food intake in more than necessary amounts is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle cells, and in adipose tissue. Excess adipose storage can lead to obesity and serious health problems.

Art Connections

Figure 16.2.4 Which of the following statements about the digestive system is false?

A. Chyme is a mixture of food and digestive juices that is produced in the stomach.
B. Food enters the large intestine before the small intestine.
C. In the small intestine, chyme mixes with bile, which emulsifies fats.
D. The stomach is separated from the small intestine by the pyloric sphincter.

Figure 16.2.4 B

Review Questions

Where does the majority of fat digestion take place?

A. mouth
B. stomach
C. small intestine
D. large intestine


The bile from the liver is delivered to the ________.

A. stomach
B. liver
C. small intestine
D. colon


Which of the following statements is not true?

A. Essential nutrients can be synthesized by the body.
B. Vitamins are required in small quantities for bodily function.
C. Some amino acids can be synthesized by the body, while others need to be obtained from diet.
D. Vitamins come in two categories: fat-soluble and water-soluble.


Free Response

What is the role of the accessory organs in digestion?

Accessory organs play an important role in producing and delivering digestive juices to the intestine during digestion and absorption. Specifically, the salivary glands, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder play important roles. Malfunction of any of these organs can lead to disease states.

What is the role of minerals in maintaining good health?

Minerals—such as potassium, sodium, and calcium—are required for the functioning of many cellular processes. While minerals are required in trace amounts, not having minerals in the diet can be potentially harmful.

Discuss why obesity is a growing epidemic.

In the United States, obesity, particularly childhood obesity, is a growing concern. Some of the contributors to this situation include sedentary lifestyles and consuming more processed foods and less fruits and vegetables. As a result, even young children who are obese can face health concerns.


an enzyme found in saliva and secreted by the pancreas that converts carbohydrates to maltose
the exit point of the digestive system for waste material
a digestive juice produced by the liver; important for digestion of lipids
a mass of food resulting from chewing action and wetting by saliva
the largest portion of the large intestine consisting of the ascending colon, transverse colon, and descending colon
a mixture of partially digested food and stomach juices
a tubular organ that connects the mouth to the stomach
essential nutrient
a nutrient that cannot be synthesized by the body; it must be obtained from food
the organ that stores and concentrates bile
large intestine
a digestive system organ that reabsorbs water from undigested material and processes waste matter
an organ that produces bile for digestion and processes vitamins and lipids
an inorganic, elemental molecule that carries out important roles in the body
oral cavity
the point of entry of food into the digestive system
a gland that secretes digestive juices
an enzyme found in the stomach whose main role is protein digestion
wave-like movements of muscle tissue
the area of the body where feces is stored until elimination
salivary gland
one of three pairs of exocrine glands in the mammalian mouth that secretes saliva, a mix of watery mucus and enzymes
small intestine
the organ where digestion of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is completed
a saclike organ containing acidic digestive juices
an organic substance necessary in small amounts to sustain life