Function of the Digestive System

The function of the digestive system is digestion and absorption. Digestion is the breakdown of food into small molecules, which are then absorbed into the body. The digestive system is divided into two major parts:

  • The digestive tract (alimentary canal) is a continuous tube with two openings: the mouth and the anus. It includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Food passing through the internal cavity, or lumen, of the digestive tract does not technically enter the body until it is absorbed through the walls of the digestive tract and passes into blood or lymphatic vessels.
  • Accessory organs include the teeth and tongue, salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.

The treatment of food in the digestive system involves the following seven processes:

  1. Ingestion is the process of eating.

  2. Propulsion is the movement of food along the digestive tract. The major means of propulsion is peristalsis, a series of alternating contractions and relaxations of smooth muscle that lines the walls of the digestive organs and that forces food to move forward.

  3. Secretion of digestive enzymes and other substances liquefies, adjusts the pH of, and chemically breaks down the food.

  4. Mechanical digestion is the process of physically breaking down food into smaller pieces. This process begins with the chewing of food and continues with the muscular churning of the stomach. Additional churning occurs in the small intestine through muscular constriction of the intestinal wall. This process, called segmentation, is similar to peristalsis, except that the rhythmic timing of the muscle constrictions forces the food backward and forward rather than forward only.

  5. Chemical digestion is the process of chemically breaking down food into simpler molecules. The process is carried out by enzymes in the stomach and small intestines.

  6. Absorption is the movement of molecules (by passive diffusion or active transport) from the digestive tract to adjacent blood and lymphatic vessels. Absorption is the entrance of the digested food (now called nutrients) into the body.

  7. Defecation is the process of eliminating undigested material through the anus.