When we eat, our body has to digest the food so we can get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are in food. We digest our food in the “gastro-intestinal system”. Digestion occurs in three main ways:
- We chew our food, and our teeth break down the food into smaller pieces. Also, the liquid in our mouths (saliva) causes a chemical reaction that starts to digest the food.
- In our stomach, chemicals called enzymes change the food into smaller molecules that the body can use.
- After the food is changed into small molecules, the blood carries the molecules to other parts of the body.
Now let’s follow the food all through the body:
- We chew the food, and it changes into smaller pieces.
- The saliva in our mouths contains molecules called enzymes that also start to break down the food into smaller pieces.
- We swallow the food and it goes to the stomach.
- In the stomach, chemical reactions change the food into liquid (like thick soup) for one or two hours, and this liquid flows into the small intestine.
- In the small intestine, our bodies take (absorb) the nutrients from our food, so they can travel around the body. The small intestines are about 6 meters long, so nutrients are absorbed for a long time. The things that are not absorbed are called “solid waste material”; this waste material goes to the large intestine.
- The large intestine mixes the solid waste material with water so we can easily eliminate it from our bodies.
- The solid waste material stays in the rectum until we go to the toilet. Then, this material leaves our bodies through the anus.
Digestive systems take many forms. There is a distinction between internal and external digestion. External digestion developed earlier in evolutionary history, and most fungi still rely on it. In this process, enzymes are secreted into the environment surrounding the organism, where they break down an organic material, and some of the products diffuse back to the organism. Animals have a tube (gastrointestinal tract) in which internal digestion occurs, which is more efficient because more of the broken down products can be captured, and the internal chemical environment can be more efficiently controlled.
Some organisms, including nearly all spiders, simply secrete biotoxins and digestive chemicals (e.g., enzymes) into the extracellular environment prior to ingestion of the consequent "soup". In others, once potential nutrients or food is inside the organism, digestion can be conducted to a vesicle or a sac-like structure, through a tube, or through several specialized organs aimed at making the absorption of nutrients more efficient.
The gastrovascular cavity functions as a stomach in both digestion and the distribution of nutrients to all parts of the body.
In a plant such as the Venus Flytrap that can make its own food through photosynthesis, it does not eat and digest its prey for the traditional objectives of harvesting energy and carbon, but mines prey primarily for essential nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus in particular) that are in short supply in its boggy, acidic habitat.
Specialised organs and behaviours
To aid in the digestion of their food animals evolved organs such as beaks, tongues, teeth, a crop, gizzard, and others.
Birds have bony beaks. For example, macaws primarily eat seeds, nuts, and fruit, using their impressive beaks to open even the toughest seed. First they scratch a thin line with the sharp point of the beak, then they shear the seed open with the sides of the beak.
The mouth of the squid is equipped with a sharp horny beak mainly made of cross-linked proteins. It is used to kill and tear prey into manageable pieces. The beak is very robust, but does not contain any minerals, unlike the teeth and jaws of many other organisms, including marine species. The beak is the only indigestible part of the squid.
The underside of the tongue is covered with a smooth mucous membrane. The tongue also has a touch sense for locating and positioning food particles that require further chewing.
Teeth (singular tooth) are small whitish structures found in the jaws (or mouths) of many vertebrates that are used to tear, scrape, milk and chew food. Teeth are not made of bone, but rather of tissues of varying density and hardness, such as enamel, dentine and cementum.
Human teeth have a blood and nerve supply which enables proprioception. This is the ability of sensation when chewing, for example if we were to bite into something too hard for our teeth, such as a chipped plate mixed in food, our teeth send a message to our brain and we realise that it cannot be chewed, so we stop trying.
The shapes, sizes and numbers of types of animals' teeth are related to their diets. For example, herbivores have a number of molars which are used to grind plant matter, which is difficult to digest. Carnivores have canine teeth which are used to kill and tear meat.
A crop, or croup, is a thin-walled expanded portion of the alimentary tract used for the storage of food prior to digestion. In some birds it is an expanded, muscular pouch near the gullet or throat. In adult doves and pigeons, the crop can produce crop milk to feed newly hatched birds.
In the first two chambers, the rumen and the reticulum, the food is mixed with saliva and separates into layers of solid and liquid material. Solids clump together to form the cud (or bolus). The cud is then regurgitated, chewed slowly to completely mix it with saliva and to break down the particle size.
Fibre, especially cellulose and hemi-cellulose, is primarily broken down into the volatile fatty acids, acetic acid, propionic acid and butyric acid in these chambers (the reticulo-rumen) by microbes: (bacteria, protozoa, and fungi). In the omasum, water and many of the inorganic mineral elements are absorbed into the blood stream.
The abomasum is the fourth and final stomach compartment in ruminants. It is a close equivalent of a monogastric stomach (e.g., those in humans or pigs), and digesta is processed here in much the same way. It serves primarily as a site for acid hydrolysis of microbial and dietary protein, preparing these protein sources for further digestion and absorption in the small intestine. Digesta is finally moved into the small intestine, where the digestion and absorption of nutrients occurs. Microbes produced in the reticulo-rumen are also digested in the small intestine.
Regurgitation has been mentioned above under abomasum and crop, referring to crop milk, a secretion from the lining of the crop of pigeons and doves with which the parents feed their young by regurgitation.
Many sharks have the ability to turn their stomachs inside out and evert it out of their mouths in order to get rid of unwanted contents (perhaps developed as a way to reduce exposure to toxins).
Other animals, such as rabbits and rodents, practise coprophagia behaviours – eating specialised faeces in order to re-digest food, especially in the case of roughage. Capybara, rabbits, hamsters and other related species do not have a complex digestive system as do, for example, ruminants. Instead they extract more nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. Soft faecal pellets of partially digested food are excreted and generally consumed immediately. They also produce normal droppings, which are not eaten.
Young elephants, pandas, koalas, and hippos eat the faeces of their mother, probably to obtain the bacteria required to properly digest vegetation. When they are born, their intestines do not contain these bacteria (they are completely sterile). Without them, they would be unable to get any nutritional value from many plant components.
An earthworm's digestive system consists of a mouth, pharynx, esophagus, crop, gizzard, and intestine. The mouth is surrounded by strong lips, which act like a hand to grab pieces of dead grass, leaves, and weeds, with bits of soil to help chew.
The lips break the food down into smaller pieces. In the pharynx, the food is lubricated by mucus secretions for easier passage. The esophagus adds calcium carbonate to neutralize the acids formed by food matter decay.
Temporary storage occurs in the crop where food and calcium carbonate are mixed. The powerful muscles of the gizzard churn and mix the mass of food and dirt. When the churning is complete, the glands in the walls of the gizzard add enzymes to the thick paste, which helps chemically breakdown the organic matter.
By peristalsis, the mixture is sent to the intestine where friendly bacteria continue chemical breakdown. This releases carbohydrates, protein, fat, and various vitamins and minerals for absorption into the body.
Overview of vertebrate digestion
In most vertebrates, digestion is a multistage process in the digestive system, starting from ingestion of raw materials, most often other organisms. Ingestion usually involves some type of mechanical and chemical processing. Digestion is separated into four steps:
- Ingestion: placing food into the mouth (entry of food in the digestive system),
- Mechanical and chemical breakdown: mastication and the mixing of the resulting bolus with water, acids, bile and enzymes in the stomach and intestine to break down complex molecules into simple structures,
- Absorption: of nutrients from the digestive system to the circulatory and lymphatic capillaries through osmosis, active transport, and diffusion, and
- Egestion (Excretion): Removal of undigested materials from the digestive tract through defecation.
Underlying the process is muscle movement throughout the system through swallowing and peristalsis. Each step in digestion requires energy, and thus imposes an "overhead charge" on the energy made available from absorbed substances. Differences in that overhead cost are important influences on lifestyle, behavior, and even physical structures. Examples may be seen in humans, who differ considerably from other hominids (lack of hair, smaller jaws and musculature, different dentition, length of intestines, cooking, etc.).
The major part of digestion takes place in the small intestine. The large intestine primarily serves as a site for fermentation of indigestible matter by gut bacteria and for resorption of water from digests before excretion.
In mammals, preparation for digestion begins with the cephalic phase in which saliva is produced in the mouth and digestive enzymes are produced in the stomach. Mechanical and chemical digestion begin in the mouth where food is chewed, and mixed with saliva to begin enzymatic processing of starches. The stomach continues to break food down mechanically and chemically through churning and mixing with both acids and enzymes. Absorption occurs in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, and the process finishes with defecation.
Human digestion process
The human gastrointestinal tract is around 9 meters long. Food digestion physiology varies between individuals and upon other factors such as the characteristics of the food and size of the meal, and the process of digestion normally takes between 24 and 72 hours.
Digestion begins in the mouth with the secretion of saliva and its digestive enzymes. Food is formed into a bolus by the mechanical mastication and swallowed into the esophagus from where it enters the stomach through the action of peristalsis. Gastric juice contains hydrochloric acid and pepsin which would damage the walls of the stomach and mucus is secreted for protection. In the stomach further release of enzymes break down the food further and this is combined with the churning action of the stomach. The partially digested food enters the duodenum as a thick semi-liquid chyme. In the small intestine, the larger part of digestion takes place and this is helped by the secretions of bile, pancreatic juice and intestinal juice. The intestinal walls are lined with villi, and their epithelial cells is covered with numerous microvilli to improve the absorption of nutrients by increasing the surface area of the intestine.
In the large intestine the passage of food is slower to enable fermentation by the gut flora to take place. Here water is absorbed and waste material stored as feces to be removed by defecation via the anal canal and anus.
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