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The Digestive System

Food's Journey Through the Digestive System continued...

Stop 3: The Stomach and Small Intestine

The stomach is a sac-like organ with strong muscular walls. In addition to holding food, it serves as the mixer and grinder of food. The stomach secretes acid and powerful enzymes that continue the process of breaking the food down and changing it to a consistency of liquid or paste. From there, food moves to the small intestine. Between meals, the non-liquefiable remnants are released from the stomach and ushered through the rest of the intestines to be eliminated.

Made up of three segments -- the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum -- the small intestine also breaks down food using enzymes released by the pancreas and bile from the liver. The small intestine is the 'work horse' of digestion, as this is where most nutrients are absorbed. Peristalsis is also at work in this organ, moving food through and mixing it up with the digestive secretions from the pancreas and liver, including bile. The duodenum is largely responsible for the continuing breakdown process, with the jejunum and ileum being mainly responsible for absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.

A more technical name for this part of the process is "motility," because it involves moving or emptying food particles from one part to the next. This process is highly dependent on the activity of a large network of nerves, hormones, and muscles. Problems with any of these components can cause a variety of conditions.

While food is in the small intestine, nutrients are absorbed through the walls and into the bloodstream. What's leftover (the waste) moves into the large intestine (large bowel or colon).

Everything above the large intestine is called the upper GI tract. Everything below is the lower GI tract

Stop 4: The Colon, Rectum, and Anus

The colon (large intestine) is a five- to seven -foot -long muscular tube that connects the small intestine to the rectum. It is made up of the ascending (right) colon, the transverse (across) colon, the descending (left) colon and the sigmoid colon, which connects to the rectum. The appendix is a small tube attached to the ascending colon. The large intestine is a highly specialized organ that is responsible for processing waste so that defecation (excretion of waste) is easy and convenient.

Stool, or waste left over from the digestive process, passes through the colon by means of peristalsis, first in a liquid state and ultimately in solid form. As stool passes through the colon, any remaining water is absorbed. Stool is stored in the sigmoid (S-shaped) colon until a "mass movement" empties it into the rectum, usually once or twice a day.

It normally takes about 36 hours for stool to get through the colon. The stool itself is mostly food debris and bacteria. These bacteria perform several useful functions, such as synthesizing various vitamins, processing waste products and food particles, and protecting against harmful bacteria. When the descending colon becomes full of stool, it empties its contents into the rectum to begin the process of elimination.

WebMD Medical Reference

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