The digestive system is the series of tubelike organs that convert our meals into body fuel. In all there's about 30 feet (9 meters) of these convoluted pipeworks, starting with the mouth and ending with the anus. Along the way, food is broken down, sorted, and reprocessed before being circulated around the body to nourish and replace cells and supply energy to our muscles.
Food on the plate needs to become a mashed-up, gooey liquid for the digestive system to be able to split it up into its constituent parts: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Our teeth start the process by chewing and grinding up each mouthful, while the tongue works it into a ball-shaped bolus for swallowing.
Moistening saliva fed into the mouth from nearby glands starts the process of chemical digestion using specialized proteins called enzymes. Secreted at various points along the digestive tract, enzymes break down large molecules of food into smaller molecules that the body is able to absorb.
Once we swallow, digestion becomes involuntary. Food passes down the throat to the esophagus, the first of a succession of hollow organs that transport their contents through muscular contractions known as peristalsis.
The esophagus empties into the stomach, a large, muscular chamber that mixes food up with digestive juices including the enzymes pepsin, which targets proteins, and lipase, which works on fats. Hydrochloric acid likewise helps to dissolve the stomach contents while killing potentially harmful bacteria. The resulting semifluid paste—chyme—is sealed in the stomach by two ringlike sphincter muscles for several hours and then released in short bursts into the duodenum.
The first of three sections of the small intestine, the duodenum produces large quantities of mucus to protect the intestinal lining from acid in the chyme. Measuring about 20 feet (6 meters) in length, the small intestine is where the major digestion and absorption of nutrients take place. These nutrients are taken into the bloodstream, via millions of tiny, fingerlike projections called villi, and transported to the liver.
What's left in the digestive tract passes into the large intestine, where it's eaten by billions of harmless bacteria and mixed with dead cells to form solid feces. Water is reabsorbed into the body while the feces are moved into the rectum to await expulsion.
Other organs that play a key role in digestion include the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. The pancreas is a gland organ located behind the stomach that manufactures a cocktail of enzymes that are pumped into the duodenum. A duct also connects the duodenum to the gallbladder. This pear-shaped sac squeezes out green-brown bile, a waste product collected from the liver that contains acids for dissolving fatty matter.
The liver itself is the body's main chemical factory, performing hundreds of different functions. It processes nutrients absorbed into the blood by the small intestine, creating energy-giving glycogen from sugary carbohydrates and converting dietary proteins into new proteins needed for our blood. These are then stored or released as needed, as are essential vitamins and minerals. The liver also breaks down unwanted chemicals, such as any alcohol consumed, which is detoxified and passed from the body as waste.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
A National Geographic researcher is startled to see a Greenland shark where none has ever been seen before: off Russia's Franz Josef Land. Video
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.