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The Digestive System

The digestive system (gut) is a series of organs and glands that processes food. Humans are
heterotrophic organisms, and as such, take in food that is too complex to be absorbed directly.
Thus, the digestive system through mechanical and chemical digestion breaks down food into
simpler substances that can be absorbed by the body.

Some food particles are already small enough and are in the right form, so they don’t need to
be digested. These include vitamins, minerals simple sugars and water.

The gut is basically a tube, which is adapted to perform different functions along its length.
E.g the duodenum is a tube where food is mixed with enzymes from organs like the liver and
pancreas while the illeum is the site where absorption of most substances takes place.

The Human Gut

The human digestive system is a coiled, muscular tube (6-9 meters long when fully extended)
extending from the mouth to the anus. Several specialized compartments occur along this
length: mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus.
Accessory digestive organs are connected to the main system by a series of ducts: salivary
glands, parts of the pancreas, and the liver and gall bladder.
At one end, food is put into the mouth and ingested. At the other end, the undigested
remains of a meal are removed through the anus (egested).

Parts of the Human Gut

Different parts of the gut perform different tasks in processing food as it passes through.

1 - The Mouth

Ingestion is the act of taking food into the mouth. Here food is mixed with saliva. Chewing
(mechanical breakdown) breaks the food into pieces which can be swallowed and also
increases the surface area for enzymes to work upon.

2 - The Stomach

The stomach has elastic walls which stretch as food collects in it. The food stays in the
stomach for between 1 and 2 hours. Here, proteins are broken down to polypeptides. The
enzyme at work is called pepsin. It requires acidic conditions (pH 2–3). This acts on proteins
and breaks them down into peptides.
There are various specialised cells in the lining of the stomach which
secrete pepsin, mucus and hydrochloric acid which makes a weak
solution with the gastric juice. The acid kills off many of the bacteria and
neutralises alkali, as well as providing the right pH for pepsin to work.

Eventually (after about 2 hours), a sphincter at the bottom of the


stomach opens up and the chyme (partly digested food) flows down to
the small intestine. The rest of the chemical digestion takes place in the small intestine.

Alcohol and aspirin are absorbed through the stomach lining into the blood.

3 - The Small Intestine

The small intestine is very long – about 5 metres. This provides plenty of time for digestion
and absorption. It has two sections: the first part nearest the stomach is the duodenum. This
is where food is mixed with intestinal juice, pancreatic juice and bile. The lower part, nearest
to the colon, is called the ileum. This is where digested food is absorbed into the blood.

The structure of the small intestine is very specialised. It is covered in finger-like protections
called villi. Each villus is about 1 mm long and is covered with microscopic hair-like structures
called microvilli.

Final digestion of proteins and carbohydrates takes place in the small intestine. Fats have not
yet been digested. Villi have cells that produce intestinal enzymes which complete the
digestion of peptides and sugars. The absorption process also occurs in the small intestine.
Food has been broken down into particles small enough to pass into the small intestine.

4 - The Pancreas

The pancreas is a digestive gland lying beneath the stomach. It makes a number of enzymes
which act on all classes of food.

The pancreas secretes enzymes into the duodenum.

1. Pancreatic amylase attacks starch converting it to maltose.


2. Lipase digests fats to fatty acids and glycerol.

The enzymes are contained in the pancreatic juice, which travels into the duodenum via the
pancreatic duct. Apart from enzymes, the pancreatic juice also contains sodium
hydrogencarbonate (NaHCO3). This neutralises the hydrochloric acid in the chyme and
provides an alkaline pH for the enzymes.
5 - The Liver

The liver secretes bile which is stored in the gall bladder behind the liver, and passes into the
duodenum via the bile duct.

Bile is a yellowish-green colour. It does not contain any enzymes, but it does contain bile
salts. These emulsify fats: they turn large droplets into small droplets.

6 - Caecum and Appendix

The caecum and appendix, have no obvious function in the human digestive system.

7 - The Large Intestine

The food that is not digested and absorbed in the small intestine is passed on into the colon,
also known as the large intestine. What arrives here is mainly water, undigested matter,
mucus and dead cells from the lining of the alimentary canal.

The colon reabsorbs water into the body, and also reabsorbs salt. If food remains in the colon
for too long, too much water is absorbed, causing constipation. If food does not stay in for
long enough, the opposite occurs: diarrhoea.

The semi solid waste called faeces is passed into the rectum by peristalsis and expelled at
intervals through the anus.
Digestion in herbivores

In cattle and sheep, instead of opening directly into a glandular stomach where digestion
begins , the esophagus leads to a series of three extra compartments, the rumen, the
reticulum and the omasum.

The rumen and reticulum contain countless microorganisms whose metabolic activity greatly
enhances the nutritive value of typical ruminant feed. The rumen is the main fermentation vat
where billions of microorganisms attack and break down the relatively indigestible feed
components of the ruminant's diet. This segment of the digestive system is one of the most
important parts when considering the feeding of beef, sheep, dairy and goats.

Steps in digestion
1. A sheep or cow uses its long flexible tongue to place a tuft of grass between
the lower incisors and horny pad of the upper jaw. The food is not chewed
immediately but swallowed whole and stored in the rumen.
2. At the next stage, grass is moved from the rumen to the retuculum, the
second chamber of the stomach where it is moulded into round balls of ‘cud’
which are returned to the mouth for chewing.
3. Continuous and prolonged side to side movements of the jaws draws the
animal’s ridged teeth closely across each other grinding up the cellulose walls
of plant cells into a fine consistency.
4. The food is swallowed for a second time and goes into the rest of the
digestive system for digestion and absorption to be completed.