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Gastrointestinal: Disorders, Facts & Information

In order to use the food we eat, our body has to break the food down into smaller molecules that it can process; it also has to excrete waste.

The digestive process begins in the mouth.

Food is partly broken down by the process of chewing and by the chemical action of salivary enzymes (these enzymes are produced by the salivary glands and break down starches into smaller molecules).

The digestive system is made up of the digestive tract, a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus, and other organs that help the body break down and absorb food.

Organs that make up the digestive tract are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, also called the colon, rectum, and anus. Inside these hollow organs is a lining called the mucosa. In the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, the mucosa contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest food. The digestive tract also contains a layer of smooth muscle that helps break down food and move it along the tract.

Two solid digestive organs, the liver and the pancreas, produce digestive juices that reach the intestine through small tubes called ducts. The gallbladder stores the liver's digestive juices until they are needed in the intestine. Parts of the nervous and circulatory systems also play major roles in the digestive system.

Mechanical and chemical digestion begin in the mouth where food is chewed, and mixed with saliva to break down starches. The stomach continues to break food down mechanically and chemically through the churning of the stomach and mixing with enzymes. Absorption occurs in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, and the process finishes with excretion.

The stomach is a small,'C'-shaped pouch with walls made of thick, elastic muscles, which stores and helps break down food. Food enters the stomach through the cardiac orifice where it is further broken apart and thoroughly mixed with gastric acid, pepsin and other digestive enzymes to break down proteins.

The enzymes in the stomach also have an optimum, meaning that they work at a specific pH and temperature better than any others. The acid itself does not break down food molecules, rather it provides an optimum pH for the reaction of the enzyme pepsin and kills many microorganisms that are ingested with the food. It can also denature proteins. This is the process of reducing polypeptide bonds and disrupting salt bridges which in turn causes a loss of secondary, tertiary or quaternary protein structure. The parietal cells of the stomach also secrete a glycoprotein called intrinsic factor which enables the absorption of vitamin B-12. Other small molecules such as alcohol are absorbed in the stomach, passing through the membrane of the stomach and entering the circulatory system directly. Food in the stomach is in semi-liquid form, which upon completion is known as chyme.


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