2.3.7. Digestion process

digestive_system_functionsDigestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into smaller components that are more easily absorbed into a blood stream, for instance. Digestion is a form of catabolism: a breakdown of large food molecules to smaller ones.

The whole digestive system is around 9 meters long. In a healthy human adult this process can take between 24 and 72 hours. Food digestion physiology varies between individuals and upon other factors such as the characteristics of the food and size of the meal.

Digesting food is a two-part process that’s half mechanical, half chemical.

  • Mechanical digestion begins in your mouth as your teeth tear and grind food into small bits and pieces you can swallow without choking. The muscular walls of your esophagus, stomach, and intestines continue mechanical digestion, pushing the food along, churning and breaking it into smaller particles.
  • Chemical digestion occurs at every point in the digestive system, beginning when you see or smell food. These sensory events set off nerve impulses from your eyes and nose that trigger the release of enzymes and other substances that will eventually break down food to release the nutrients inside. The body then burns these nutrients for energy or uses them to build new tissues and body parts.

Phases of gastric secretion

  • Cephalic phase – This phase occurs before food enters the stomach and involves preparation of the body for eating and digestion. Sight and thought stimulate thecerebral cortex. Taste and smell stimulus is sent to the hypothalamus and medulla oblongata. After this it is routed through the vagus nerve and release of acetylcholine. Gastric secretion at this phase rises to 40% of maximum rate. Acidity in the stomach is not buffered by food at this point and thus acts to inhibit parietal (secretes acid) and G cell (secretes gastrin) activity via D cell secretion of somatostatin.
  • Gastric phase – This phase takes 3 to 4 hours. It is stimulated by distension of the stomach, presence of food in stomach and decrease in pH. Distention activates long and myenteric reflexes. This activates the release of acetylcholine, which stimulates the release of more gastric juices. As protein enters the stomach, it binds tohydrogen ions, which raises the pH of the stomach. Inhibition of gastrin and gastric acid secretion is lifted. This triggers G cells to release gastrin, which in turn stimulates parietal cells to secrete gastric acid. Gastric acid is about 0.5% hydrochloric acid (HCl), which lowers the pH to the desired pH of 1-3. Acid release is also triggered by acetylcholine and histamine.
  • Intestinal phase – This phase has 2 parts, the excitatory and the inhibitory. Partially digested food fills the duodenum. This triggers intestinal gastrin to be released. Enterogastric reflex inhibits vagal nuclei, activating sympathetic fibers causing the pyloric sphincter to tighten to prevent more food from entering, and inhibits local reflexes.


Digested carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and most of the vitamins, minerals, and iron in food are absorbed in the jejunum, which is about 1.2 m long. Aiding this absorption are up to five million tiny finger-like projections called villi, which greatly increase the surface area of the small intestine, thus accelerating the rate at which nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. The remainder of the small intestine is taken up by the ileum, which is smaller in diameter and has thinner walls than the jejunum. It is the final site for absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients, which enter the circulatory system in plasma, a watery liquid in which red blood cells also are suspended.

As it moves through the circulatory system, plasma takes with it amino acids, enzymes, glycerol (a form of alcohol found in fats), and fatty acids, which it directs to the body’s tissues for energy and growth. Plasma also contains waste products from the breakdown of proteins, including creatinine, uric acid, and ammonium salts. These constituents are moved to the kidneys, where they are filtered from the blood and excreted in the urine. But, of course, urine is not the only waste product excreted by the body; there is also the solid waste, processed through the large intestine, or colon.

Elimination of Waste

In addition to its function of pumping solid waste, the large intestine removes water from the waste products—water that, when purified, will be returned to the bloodstream. In addition, millions of bacteria in the large intestine help produce certain B vitamins and vitamin K, which are absorbed into the bloodstream along with the water.

After leaving the sigmoid colon, waste passes through the muscular rectum and then the anus, the last point along the alimentary canal. In all, the movement of food through the entire length of the alimentary tract takes from 15 to 30 hours, with the majority of that time being taken up by activity in the colon. Food generally spends about three to five hours in the stomach, another four to five hours in the small intestine, and between five and 25 hours in the large intestine.


  Digestive juice Enzymes in the juice Substance acted on Substances produced Notes
Mouth Saliva Salivary amylase Starch Maltose Slightly alkaline or neutral. Saliva helps lubricate food.
Stomach Gastric juice PepsinRenin Proteins Peptides 0.5% hydrochloric acid conditions for pepsin and kills most bacteria. Absorption of alcohol and some water soluble vitamins.
Small intestine Pancreatic juice from the pancreas Trypsin Proteins Peptides and Amino acids
Chymotrypsin Proteins Peptides and Amino acids
Amylase Starch Maltose
Lipase Fats Fatty acids and Glycerol
Bile from liver NONE Fats NONE Bile emulsifies fats and aids its digestion.
Intestinal Juice Peptidase Peptides Amino acids Intestinal juice is secreted by cells in the duodenum and ileum.Most absorption of sugars, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals occurs in the ileum.
Lipase Fats Fatty acids and Glycerol
Maltase Maltose Glucose
Sucrase Sucrose Glucose and Fructose
Lactase Lactose Glucose and Galactose
Colon None Dietary fibre Free fatty acidsGases Breakdown of dietary fibre by bacteria. Production of B12 and vitamin K by bacteria. Some absorption of water takes place in the colon.

Significance of pH in digestion

Digestion is a complex process controlled by several factors. pH plays a crucial role in a normally functioning digestive tract. In the mouth, pharynx, and esophagus, pH is typically about 6.8, very weakly acidic. Saliva controls pH in this region of the digestive tract. Salivary amylase is contained in saliva and starts the breakdown of carbohydrates into monosaccharides. Most digestive enzymes are sensitive to pH and will denature in a high or low pH environment.

The stomach’s high acidity inhibits the breakdown of carbohydrates within it. This acidity confers two benefits: it denatures proteins for further digestion in the small intestines, and provides non-specific immunity, damaging or eliminating various pathogens.

In the small intestines, the duodenum provides critical pH balancing to activate digestive enzymes. The liver secretes bile into the duodenum to neutralize the acidic conditions from the stomach, and the pancreatic duct empties into the duodenum, adding bicarbonate to neutralize the acidic chyme, thus creating a neutral environment. The mucosal tissue of the small intestines is alkaline with a pH of about 8.5.

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