5-2-2. Overview of the Digestive System
The function of the digestive system is to break down the foods you eat, release their nutrients, and absorb those nutrients into the body. Although the small intestine is the workhorse of the system, where the majority of digestion occurs, and where most of the released nutrients are absorbed into the blood or lymph, each of the digestive system organs makes a vital contribution to this process (Figure 1).
Components of the Digestive System
As is the case with all body systems, the digestive system does not work in isolation; it functions cooperatively with the other systems of the body. Consider for example, the interrelationship between the digestive and cardiovascular systems. Arteries supply the digestive organs with oxygen and processed nutrients, and veins drain the digestive tract. These intestinal veins, constituting the hepatic portal system, are unique; they do not return blood directly to the heart. Rather, this blood is diverted to the liver where its nutrients are off-loaded for processing before blood completes its circuit back to the heart. At the same time, the digestive system provides nutrients to the heart muscle and vascular tissue to support their functioning. The interrelationship of the digestive and endocrine systems is also critical. Hormones secreted by several endocrine glands, as well as endocrine cells of the pancreas, the stomach, and the small intestine, contribute to the control of digestion and nutrient metabolism. In turn, the digestive system provides the nutrients to fuel endocrine function. Table 1 gives a quick glimpse at how these other systems contribute to the functioning of the digestive system.
Table 1. Contribution of Other Body Systems to the Digestive System
Digestive System Organs
The easiest way to understand the digestive system is to divide its organs into two main categories. The first group is the organs that make up the alimentary canal. Accessory digestive organs comprise the second group and are critical for orchestrating the breakdown of food and the assimilation of its nutrients into the body. Accessory digestive organs, despite their name, are critical to the function of the digestive system.
Alimentary Canal Organs
Also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or gut, the
Histology of the Alimentary Canal
Throughout its length, the alimentary tract is composed of the same four tissue layers; the details of their structural arrangements vary to fit their specific functions. Starting from the lumen and moving outwards, these layers are the mucosa, submucosa, muscularis, and serosa, which is continuous with the mesentery (see Figure 2).
Layers of the Alimentary Canal
Epithelium—In the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, and anal canal, the epithelium is primarily a non-keratinized, stratified squamous epithelium. In the stomach and intestines, it is a simple columnar epithelium. Notice that the epithelium is in direct contact with the lumen, the space inside the alimentary canal. Interspersed among its epithelial cells are goblet cells, which secrete mucus and fluid into the lumen, and enteroendocrine cells, which secrete hormones into the interstitial spaces between cells. Epithelial cells have a very brief lifespan, averaging from only a couple of days (in the mouth) to about a week (in the gut). This process of rapid renewal helps preserve the health of the alimentary canal, despite the wear and tear resulting from continued contact with foodstuffs.
Lamina propria—In addition to loose connective tissue, the lamina propria contains numerous blood and lymphatic vessels that transport nutrients absorbed through the alimentary canal to other parts of the body. The lamina propria also serves an immune function by housing clusters of lymphocytes, making up the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). These lymphocyte clusters are particularly substantial in the distal ileum where they are known as Peyer’s patches. When you consider that the alimentary canal is exposed to foodborne bacteria and other foreign matter, it is not hard to appreciate why the immune system has evolved a means of defending against the pathogens encountered within it.
Muscularis mucosa—This thin layer of smooth muscle is in a constant state of tension, pulling the mucosa of the stomach and small intestine into undulating folds. These folds dramatically increase the surface area available for digestion and absorption.
As its name implies, the
The third layer of the alimentary canal is the
As soon as food enters the mouth, it is detected by receptors that send impulses along the sensory neurons of cranial nerves. Without these nerves, not only would your food be without taste, but you would also be unable to feel either the food or the structures of your mouth, and you would be unable to avoid biting yourself as you chew, an action enabled by the motor branches of cranial nerves.
Intrinsic innervation of much of the alimentary canal is provided by the enteric nervous system, which runs from the esophagus to the anus, and contains approximately 100 million motor, sensory, and interneurons (unique to this system compared to all other parts of the peripheral nervous system). These enteric neurons are grouped into two plexuses. The
Extrinsic innervations of the alimentary canal are provided by the autonomic nervous system, which includes both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. In general, sympathetic activation (the fight-or-flight response) restricts the activity of enteric neurons, thereby decreasing GI secretion and motility. In contrast, parasympathetic activation (the rest-and-digest response) increases GI secretion and motility by stimulating neurons of the enteric nervous system.
The blood vessels serving the digestive system have two functions. They transport the protein and carbohydrate nutrients absorbed by mucosal cells after food is digested in the lumen. Lipids are absorbed via lacteals, tiny structures of the lymphatic system. The blood vessels’ second function is to supply the organs of the alimentary canal with the nutrients and oxygen needed to drive their cellular processes.
Specifically, the more anterior parts of the alimentary canal are supplied with blood by arteries branching off the aortic arch and thoracic aorta. Below this point, the alimentary canal is supplied with blood by arteries branching from the abdominal aorta. The celiac trunk services the liver, stomach, and duodenum, whereas the superior and inferior mesenteric arteries supply blood to the remaining small and large intestines.
The veins that collect nutrient-rich blood from the small intestine (where most absorption occurs) empty into the hepatic portal system. This venous network takes the blood into the liver where the nutrients are either processed or stored for later use. Only then does the blood drained from the alimentary canal viscera circulate back to the heart. To appreciate just how demanding the digestive process is on the cardiovascular system, consider that while you are “resting and digesting,” about one-fourth of the blood pumped with each heartbeat enters arteries serving the intestines.
The digestive organs within the abdominal cavity are held in place by the peritoneum, a broad serous membranous sac made up of squamous epithelial tissue surrounded by connective tissue. It is composed of two different regions: the parietal peritoneum, which lines the abdominal wall, and the visceral peritoneum, which envelopes the abdominal organs (Figure 3). The peritoneal cavity is the space bounded by the visceral and parietal peritoneal surfaces. A few milliliters of watery fluid act as a lubricant to minimize friction between the serosal surfaces of the peritoneum.
Disorders of the…
Digestive System: Peritonitis
Inflammation of the peritoneum is called peritonitis. Chemical peritonitis can develop any time the wall of the alimentary canal is breached, allowing the contents of the lumen entry into the peritoneal cavity. For example, when an ulcer perforates the stomach wall, gastric juices spill into the peritoneal cavity. Hemorrhagic peritonitis occurs after a ruptured tubal pregnancy or traumatic injury to the liver or spleen fills the peritoneal cavity with blood. Even more severe peritonitis is associated with bacterial infections seen with appendicitis, colonic diverticulitis, and pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of uterine tubes, usually by sexually transmitted bacteria). Peritonitis is life threatening and often results in emergency surgery to correct the underlying problem and intensive antibiotic therapy. When your great grandparents and even your parents were young, the mortality from peritonitis was high. Aggressive surgery, improvements in anesthesia safety, the advance of critical care expertise, and antibiotics have greatly improved the mortality rate from this condition. Even so, the mortality rate still ranges from 30 to 40 percent.
The visceral peritoneum includes multiple large folds that envelope various abdominal organs, holding them to the dorsal surface of the body wall. Within these folds are blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves that innervate the organs with which they are in contact, supplying their adjacent organs. The five major peritoneal folds are described in Table 2. Note that during fetal development, certain digestive structures, including the first portion of the small intestine (called the duodenum), the pancreas, and portions of the large intestine (the ascending and descending colon, and the rectum) remain completely or partially posterior to the peritoneum. Thus, the location of these organs is described as
Table 2. The Five Major Peritoneal Folds
By clicking on this link you can watch a short video of what happens to the food you eat, as it passes from your mouth to your intestine. Along the way, note how the food changes consistency and form. How does this change in consistency facilitate your gaining nutrients from food?
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.
Interactive Link Questions
By clicking on this link, you can watch a short video of what happens to the food you eat as it passes from your mouth to your intestine. Along the way, note how the food changes consistency and form. How does this change in consistency facilitate your gaining nutrients from food?
Answers may vary.
Which of these organs is not considered an accessory digestive structure?
Which of the following organs is supported by a layer of adventitia rather than serosa?
Which of the following membranes covers the stomach?
Critical Thinking Questions
Explain how the enteric nervous system supports the digestive system. What might occur that could result in the autonomic nervous system having a negative impact on digestion?
The enteric nervous system helps regulate alimentary canal motility and the secretion of digestive juices, thus facilitating digestion. If a person becomes overly anxious, sympathetic innervation of the alimentary canal is stimulated, which can result in a slowing of digestive activity.
What layer of the alimentary canal tissue is capable of helping to protect the body against disease, and through what mechanism?
The lamina propria of the mucosa contains lymphoid tissue that makes up the MALT and responds to pathogens encountered in the alimentary canal.
accessory digestive organ