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Major content provider: U.S. National Cancer Institute

Digestive System

Unit Goal

Users will gain a basic knowledge of the digestive system in terms of its structure, functions, and major components.


  1. list a series of functions that are performed by the digestive system in preparing nutrias for utilization by body cells;
  2. name the three types of processes that food undergoes in the body;
  3. describe the general structure of the digestive system and name the four layers of the wall of the digestive tract; and
  4. name the two main parts of the digestive system and list the organs that belong to them, and then briefly describe their structure and functions.


Functions of the Digestive System

The digestive system includes the digestive tract and its accessory organs, which process food into molecules that can be absorbed and utilized by the cells of the body. Food is broken down, bit by bit, until the molecules are small enough to be absorbed and the waste products are eliminated. The digestive tract, also called the alimentary canal or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, consists of a long continuous tube that extends from the mouth to the anus. It includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. The tongue and teeth are accessory structures located in the mouth. The salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are major accessory organs that have a role in digestion. These organs secrete fluids into the digestive tract.

Food undergoes three types of processes in the body:

  • Digestion
  • Absorption
  • Elimination

Digestion and absorption occur in the digestive tract. After the nutrients are absorbed, they are available to all cells in the body and are utilized by the body cells in metabolism.

The digestive system prepares nutrients for utilization by body cells through six activities, or functions.

Ingestion. The first activity of the digestive system is to take in food through the mouth. This process, called ingestion, has to take place before anything else can happen.

Mechanical Digestion. The large pieces of food that are ingested have to be broken into smaller particles that can be acted upon by various enzymes. This is mechanical digestion, which begins in the mouth with chewing or mastication and continues with churning and mixing actions in the stomach.

Chemical Digestion The complex molecules of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are transformed by chemical digestion into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and utilized by the cells. Chemical digestion, through a process called hydrolysis, uses water and digestive enzymes to break down the complex molecules. Digestive enzymes speed up the hydrolysis process, which is otherwise very slow.

Movements. After ingestion and mastication, the food particles move from the mouth into the pharynx, then into the esophagus. This movement is deglutition, or swallowing. Mixing movements occur in the stomach as a result of smooth muscle contraction. These repetitive contractions usually occur in small segments of the digestive tract and mix the food particles with enzymes and other fluids. The movements that propel the food particles through the digestive tract are called peristalsis. These are rhythmic waves of contractions that move the food particles through the various regions in which mechanical and chemical digestion takes place.

Absorption. The simple molecules that result from chemical digestion pass through cell membranes of the lining in the small intestine into the blood or lymph capillaries. This process is called absorption.

Elimination. The food molecules that cannot be digested or absorbed need to be eliminated from the body. The removal of indigestible wastes through the anus, in the form of feces, is defecation or elimination.


General Structure of the Digestive System

The long continuous tube that is the digestive tract is about 9 meters in length. It opens to the outside at both ends, through the mouth at one end and through the anus at the other. Although there are variations in each region, the basic structure of the wall is the same throughout the entire length of the tube.

The wall of the digestive tract has four layers or tunics:

  • Mucosa
  • Submucosa
  • Muscular layer
  • Serous layer or serosa

The mucosa, or mucous membrane layer, is the innermost tunic of the wall. It lines the lumen of the digestive tract. The mucosa consists of epithelium, an underlying loose connective tissue layer called lamina propria, and a thin layer of smooth muscle called the muscularis mucosa. In certain regions, the mucosa develops folds that increase the surface area. Certain cells in the mucosa secrete mucus, digestive enzymes, and hormones. Ducts from other glands pass through the mucosa to the lumen. In the mouth and anus, where thickness for protection against abrasion is needed, the epithelium is stratified squamous tissue. The stomach and intestines have a thin simple columnar epithelial layer for secretion and absorption.

The submucosa is a thick layer of loose connective tissue that surrounds the mucosa. This layer also contains blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves. Glands may be embedded in this layer.

The smooth muscle responsible for movements of the digestive tract is arranged in two layers, an inner circular layer and an outer longitudinal layer. The myenteric plexus is between the two muscle layers.

Above the diaphragm, the outermost layer of the digestive tract is a connective tissue called adventitia. Below the diaphragm, it is called serosa.


Organs of the Digestive System

At its simplest, the digestive system is a tube running from mouth to anus. Its chief goal is to break down huge macromolecules (proteins, fats and starch), which cannot be absorbed intact, into smaller molecules (amino acids, fatty acids and glucose) that can be absorbed across the wall of the tube, and into the circulatory system for dissemination throughout the body.

Regions of the digestive system can be divided into two main parts: the alimentary tract and accessory organs. The alimentary tract of the digestive system is composed of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum and anus. Associated with the alimentary tract are the following accessory organs: salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.



The mouth, or oral cavity, is the first part of the digestive tract. It is adapted to receive food by ingestion, break it into small particles by mastication, and mix it with saliva. The lips, cheeks, and palate form the boundaries. The oral cavity contains the teeth and tongue and receives the secretions from the salivary glands.

Lips and Cheeks

The lips and cheeks help hold food in the mouth and keep it in place for chewing. They are also used in the formation of words for speech. The lips contain numerous sensory receptors that are useful for judging the temperature and texture of foods.


The palate is the roof of the oral cavity. It separates the oral cavity from the nasal cavity. The anterior portion, the hard palate, is supported by bone. The posterior portion, the soft palate, is skeletal muscle and connective tissue. Posteriorly, the soft palate ends in a projection called the uvula. During swallowing, the soft palate and uvula move upward to direct food away from the nasal cavity and into the oropharynx.


The tongue manipulates food in the mouth and is used in speech. The surface is covered with papillae that provide friction and contain the taste buds.


A complete set of deciduous (primary) teeth contains 20 teeth. There are 32 teeth in a complete permanent (secondary) set. The shape of each tooth type corresponds to the way it handles food.


Pharynx and Esophagus


The pharynx is a fibromuscular passageway that connects the nasal and oral cavities to the larynx and esophagus. It serves both the respiratory and digestive systems as a channel for air and food. The upper region, the nasopharynx, is posterior to the nasal cavity. It contains the pharyngeal tonsils, or adenoids, functions as a passageway for air, and has no function in the digestive system. The middle region posterior to the oral cavity is the oropharynx. This is the first region food enters when it is swallowed. The opening from the oral cavity into the oropharynx is called the fauces. Masses of lymphoid tissue, the palatine tonsils, are near the fauces. The lower region, posterior to the larynx, is the laryngopharynx, or hypopharynx. The laryngopharynx opens into both the esophagus and the larynx.

Food is forced into the pharynx by the tongue. When food reaches the opening, sensory receptors around the fauces respond and initiate an involuntary swallowing reflex. This reflex action has several parts. The uvula is elevated to prevent food from entering the nasopharynx. The epiglottis drops downward to prevent food from entering the larynx and trachea in order to direct the food into the esophagus. Peristaltic movements propel the food from the pharynx into the esophagus.


The esophagus is a collapsible muscular tube that serves as a passageway between the pharynx and stomach. As it descends, it is posterior to the trachea and anterior to the vertebral column. It passes through an opening in the diaphragm, called the esophageal hiatus, and then empties into the stomach. The mucosa has glands that secrete mucus to keep the lining moist and well lubricated to ease the passage of food. Upper and lower esophageal sphincters control the movement of food into and out of the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter is sometimes called the cardiac sphincter and resides at the esophagogastric junction.



The stomach, which receives food from the esophagus, is located in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen. The stomach is divided into the fundic, cardiac, body, and pyloric regions. The lesser and greater curvatures are on the right and left sides, respectively, of the stomach.

Gastric Secretions

The mucosal lining of the stomach is simple columnar epithelium with numerous tubular gastric glands. The gastric glands open to the surface of the mucosa through tiny holes called gastric pits. Four different types of cells make up the gastric glands:

  • Mucous cells
  • Parietal cells
  • Chief cells
  • Endocrine cells

The secretions of the exocrine gastric glands - composed of the mucous, parietal, and chief cells - make up the gastric juice. The products of the endocrine cells are secreted directly into the bloodstream and are not a part of the gastric juice. The endocrine cells secrete the hormone gastrin, which functions in the regulation of gastric activity.

Regulation of Gastric Secretions

The regulation of gastric secretion is accomplished through neural and hormonal mechanisms. Gastric juice is produced all the time but the amount varies subject to the regulatory factors. Regulation of gastric secretions may be divided into cephalic, gastric, and intestinal phases. Thoughts and smells of food start the cephalic phase of gastric secretion; the presence of food in the stomach initiates the gastric phase; and the presence of acid chyme in the small intestine begins the intestinal phase.

Stomach Emptying

Relaxation of the pyloric sphincter allows chyme to pass from the stomach into the small intestine. The rate of which this occurs depends on the nature of the chyme and the receptivity of the small intestine.


Small and Large Intestine

Small Intestine

The small intestine extends from the pyloric sphincter to the ileocecal valve, where it empties into the large intestine. The small intestine finishes the process of digestion, absorbs the nutrients, and passes the residue on to the large intestine. The liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are accessory organs of the digestive system that are closely associated with the small intestine.

The small intestine is divided into the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. The small intestine follows the general structure of the digestive tract in that the wall has a mucosa with simple columnar epithelium, submucosa, smooth muscle with inner circular and outer longitudinal layers, and serosa. The absorptive surface area of the small intestine is increased by plicae circulares, villi, and microvilli.

Exocrine cells in the mucosa of the small intestine secrete mucus, peptidase, sucrase, maltase, lactase, lipase, and enterokinase. Endocrine cells secrete cholecystokinin and secretin.

The most important factor for regulating secretions in the small intestine is the presence of chyme. This is largely a local reflex action in response to chemical and mechanical irritation from the chyme and in response to distention of the intestinal wall. This is a direct reflex action, thus the greater the amount of chyme, the greater the secretion.

Large Intestine

The large intestine is larger in diameter than the small intestine. It begins at the ileocecal junction, where the ileum enters the large intestine, and ends at the anus. The large intestine consists of the colon, rectum, and anal canal.

The wall of the large intestine has the same types of tissue that are found in other parts of the digestive tract but there are some distinguishing characteristics. The mucosa has a large number of goblet cells but does not have any villi. The longitudinal muscle layer, although present, is incomplete. The longitudinal muscle is limited to three distinct bands, called teniae coli, that run the entire length of the colon. Contraction of the teniae coli exerts pressure on the wall and creates a series of pouches, called haustra, along the colon. Epiploic appendages, pieces of fat-filled connective tissue, are attached to the outer surface of the colon.

Unlike the small intestine, the large intestine produces no digestive enzymes. Chemical digestion is completed in the small intestine before the chyme reaches the large intestine. Functions of the large intestine include the absorption of water and electrolytes and the elimination of feces.

Rectum and Anus

The rectum continues from the signoid colon to the anal canal and has a thick muscular layer. It follows the curvature of the sacrum and is firmly attached to it by connective tissue. The rectum and ends about 5 cm below the tip of the coccyx, at the beginning of the anal canal.

The last 2 to 3 cm of the digestive tract is the anal canal, which continues from the rectum and opens to the outside at the anus. The mucosa of the rectum is folded to form longitudinal anal columns. The smooth muscle layer is thick and forms the internal anal sphincter at the superior end of the anal canal. This sphincter is under involuntary control. There is an external anal sphincter at the inferior end of the anal canal. This sphincter is composed of skeletal muscle and is under voluntary control.


Accessory Organs

The salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are not part of the digestive tract, but they have a role in digestive activities and are considered accessory organs.

Salivary Glands

Three pairs of major salivary glands (parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands) and numerous smaller ones secrete saliva into the oral cavity, where it is mixed with food during mastication. Saliva contains water, mucus, and enzyme amylase. Functions of saliva include the following:

    • It has a cleansing action on the teeth.
    • It moistens and lubricates food during mastication and swallowing.
    • It dissolves certain molecules so that food can be tasted.
    • It begins the chemical digestion of starches through the action of amylase, which breaks down polysaccharides into disaccharides.


The liver is located primarily in the right hypochondriac and epigastric regions of the abdomen, just beneath the diaphragm. It is the largest gland in the body. On the surface, the liver is divided into two major lobes and two smaller lobes. The functional units of the liver are lobules with sinusoids that carry blood from the periphery to the central vein of the lobule.

The liver receives blood from two sources. Freshly oxygenated blood is brought to the liver by the common hepatic artery, a branch of the celiac trunk from the abdominal aorta. Blood that is rich in nutrients from the digestive tract is carried to the liver by the hepatic portal vein.

The liver has a wide variety of functions and many of these are vital to life. Hepatocytes perform most of the functions attributed to the liver, but the phagocytic Kupffer cells that line the sinusoids are responsible for cleansing the blood.

Liver functions include the following:

  • secretion
  • synthesis of bile salts
  • synthesis of plasma protein
  • storage
  • detoxification
  • excretion
  • carbohyrate metabolism
  • lipid metabolism
  • protein metabolism
  • filtering


The gallbladder is a pear-shaped sac that is attached to the visceral surface of the liver by the cystic duct. The principal function of the gallbladder is to serve as a storage reservoir for bile. Bile is a yellowish-green fluid produced by liver cells. The main components of bile are water, bile salts, bile pigments, and cholesterol.

Bile salts act as emulsifying agents in the digestion and absorption of fats. Cholesterol and bile pigments from the breakdown of hemoglobin are excreted from the body in the bile.


The pancreas has both endocrine and exocrine functions. The endocrine portion consists of the scattered islets of Langerhans, which secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon into the blood. The exocrine portion is the major part of the gland. It consists of pancreatic acinar cells that secrete digestive enzymes into tiny ducts interwoven between the cells. Pancreatic enzymes include anylase, trypsin, peptidase, and lipase. Pancreatic secretions are controlled by the hormones secretin and cholecystokinin.


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Digestive System: Unit Review


Here is what you have learned from this unit:

  • The digestive tract includes the digestive tract and its accessory organs, which process food into molecules that can be absorbed and utilized by the cells of the body.
  • Food undergoes three types of processes in the body: digestion, absorption, and elimination.
  • The digestive system prepares nutrients for utilization by body cells through six activities, or functions: ingestion, mechanical digestion, chemical digestion, movements, absorption, and elimination.
  • The wall of the digestive tract has four layers or tunics: mucosa, submucosa, muscular layer, and serous layer or serosa.
  • Regions of the digestive system can be divided into two main parts: alimentary tract and accessory organs.
  • The alimentary tract of the digestive system is composed of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum and anus.
  • Associated with the alimentary tract are the following accessory organs: salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

Copyright   SweetHaven Publishing Services
All Rights Reserved

Revised: June 06, 2015