Human Digestive System

In the human digestive system, large organic masses are broken down into smaller particles that the body can use as fuel. This is a complex process. The breakdown of the nutrients requires the coordination of several enzymes secreted from specialized cells within the mouth, stomach, intestines, and liver. The major organs or structures that coordinate digestion within the human body include the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and liver.


In the human body, the mouth (oral cavity) is a specialized organ for receiving food and breaking up large organic masses. In the mouth, food is changed mechanically by biting and chewing. Humans have four kinds of teeth: incisors are chisel-shaped teeth in the front of the mouth for biting; canines are pointed teeth for tearing; and premolars and molars are flattened, ridged teeth for grinding, pounding, and crushing food.

In the mouth, food is moistened by saliva, a sticky fluid that binds food particles together into a soft mass. Three pairs of salivary glands—parotid, submaxillary, and sublingual—secrete saliva into the mouth. The saliva contains an enzyme called amylase, which digests starch molecules into smaller molecules of the disaccharide maltose.

During chewing, the tongue moves food about and manipulates it into a mass called a bolus. The bolus is pushed back into the pharynx (throat) and is forced through the opening to the esophagus.


The esophagus is a thick-walled muscular tube located behind the windpipe that extends through the neck and chest to the stomach. The bolus of food moves through the esophagus by peristalsis: a rhythmic series of muscular contractions that propels the bolus along. The contractions are assisted by the pull of gravity.


The esophagus joins the stomach at a point just below the diaphragm. A valvelike ring of muscle called the cardiac sphincter surrounds the opening to the stomach. The sphincter relaxes as the bolus passes through and then quickly closes.

The stomach is an expandable pouch located high in the abdominal cavity. Layers of stomach muscle contract and churn the bolus of food with gastric juices to form a soupy liquid called chyme.

The stomach stores food and prepares it for further digestion. In addition, the stomach plays a role in protein digestion. Gastric glands called chief cells secrete pepsinogen. Pepsinogen is converted to the enzyme pepsin in the presence of hydrochloric acid. Hydrochloric acid is secreted by parietal cells in the stomach lining. The pepsin then digests large proteins into smaller proteins called peptides. To protect the stomach lining from the acid, a third type of cell secretes mucus that lines the stomach cavity. An overabundance of acid due to mucus failure may lead to an ulcer.

Small intestine

The soupy mixture called chyme spurts from the stomach through a sphincter into the small intestine. An adult’s small intestine is about 23 feet long and is divided into three sections: the first 10 to 12 inches form the duodenum; the next 10 feet form the jejunum; and the final 12 feet form the ileum. The inner surface of the small intestine contains numerous fingerlike projections called villi (the singular is villus). Each villus has projections of cells called microvilli to increase the surface area.

Most chemical digestion takes place in the duodenum. In this region, enzymes digest nutrients into simpler forms that can be absorbed. Intestinal enzymes are supplemented by enzymes from the pancreas, a large, glandular organ near the stomach. In addition, bile enters the small intestine from the gallbladder to assist in fat digestion.

The enzymes functioning in carbohydrate digestion include amylase (for starch), maltase (for maltose), sucrase (for sucrose), and lactase (for lactose). For fats, the principal enzyme is lipase. Before lipase can act, the large globules of fat must be broken into smaller droplets by bile. Bile is a mixture of salts, pigments, and cholesterol that is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, a saclike structure underneath the liver.

Protein digestion is accomplished by several enzymes, including two pancreatic enzymes: trypsin and chymotrypsin. Peptides are broken into smaller peptides, and peptidases reduce the enzymes to amino acids. Nucleases digest nucleic acids into nucleotides in the small intestine also.

Most absorption in the small intestine occurs in the jejunum. The products of digestion enter cells of the villi, move across the cells, and enter blood vessels called capillaries. Diffusion accounts for the movement of many nutrients, but facilitated diffusion is responsible for the movement of glucose and amino acids. The products of fat digestion pass as small droplets of fat into lacteals, which are branches of the lymphatic system.

Absorption is completed in the final part of the small intestine, the ileum. Substances that have not been digested or absorbed then pass into the large intestine.

Large intestine

The small intestine joins the large intestine in the lower-right abdomen of the body. The two organs meet at a blind sac called the cecum and a small fingerlike organ called the appendix. Evolutionary biologists believe the cecum and appendix are vestiges of larger organs that may have been functional in human ancestors.

The large intestine is also known as the colon. It is divided into ascending, transverse, and descending portions, each about one foot in length. The colon’s chief functions are to absorb water and to store, process, and eliminate the residue following digestion and absorption. The intestinal matter remaining after water has been reclaimed is known as feces. Feces consist of nondigested food (such as cellulose), billions of mostly harmless bacteria, bile pigments, and other materials. The feces are stored in the rectum and passed out through the anus to complete the digestion process.


The liver has an important function in processing the products of human digestion. For example, cells of the liver remove excess glucose from the bloodstream and convert the glucose to a polymer called glycogen for storage.

The liver also functions in amino acid metabolism. In a process called deamination, it converts some amino acids to compounds that can be used in energy metabolism. In doing so, the liver removes the amino groups from amino acids and uses the amino groups to produce urea. Urea is removed from the body in the urine (see Chapter 26). Fats are processed into two-carbon units that can enter the Krebs cycle for energy metabolism. The liver also stores vitamins and minerals, forms many blood proteins, synthesizes cholesterol, and produces bile for fat digestion.