Download Our Android App

Google Play

UPSC Biology Digestion and Absorption Digestion and Absorption

Digestion and Absorption

Category : UPSC

 Digestion and Absorption


1.           Need of Food


  • Food is one of the basic requirements of all living organisms. The major components of our food are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Vitamins and minerals are also required in small quantities.
  • Food provides energy and organic materials for growth and repair of tissues. The water we take in, plays an important role in metabolic processes and also prevents dehydration of the body.
  • Biomacromolecules in food cannot be utilised by our body in their original form. They have to be broken down and converted into simple substances in the digestive system.
  • This process of conversion of complex food substances to simple absorbable forms is called digestion and is carried out by our digestive system by mechanical and biochemical methods.


2.           Human Digestive System


  • The human digestive system consists of the alimentary canal and the associated glands.
  • The alimentary canal begins with an anterior opening - the mouth, and it opens out posteriorly through the anus.
  • The mouth leads to the buccal cavity or oral cavity. The oral cavity has a number of teeth and a muscular tongue. Each tooth is embedded in a socket of jaw bone. This type of attachment is called thecodont.
  • Majority of mammals including human being forms two sets of teeth during their life, a set of temporary milk or deciduous teeth replaced by a set of permanent or adult teeth. This type of dentition is called diphyodont.
  • An adult human has 32 permanent teeth which are of four different types (Heterodont dentition), namely, incisors (I), canine (C), premolars (PM) and molars (M). Arrangement of teeth in each half of the upper and lower jaw in the order I, C, PM, M is represented by a dental formula which in human is\[2123/2123\].
  • The hard chewing surface of the teeth, made up of enamel, helps in the mastication of food.
  • The tongue is a freely movable muscular organ attached to the floor of the oral cavity by the frenulum. The upper surface of the tongue has small projections called papillae, some of which bear taste buds,
  • The oral cavity leads into a short pharynx which serves as a common passage for food and air. The oesophagus and the trachea (wind pipe) open into the pharynx. A cartilaginous flap called epiglottis prevents the entry of food into the glottis - opening of the wind pipe - during swallowing.
  • The oesophagus is a thin, long tube which extends posteriorly passing through the neck, thorax and diaphragm and leads to a T shaped bag like structure called stomach. A muscular sphincter (gastro-oesophageal) regulates the opening of oesophagus into the stomach.
  • The stomach, located in the upper left portion of the abdominal cavity, has three major parts - a cardiac portion into which the oesophagus opens, a fundic region and a pyloric portion which opens into the first part of small intestine.
  • Small intestine is distinguishable into three regions, a 'C’ shaped duodenum, a long coiled middle portion jejunum and a highly coiled ileum. The opening of the stomach into the duodenum is guarded by the pyloric sphincter. Ileum opens into the large intestine. It consists of caecum, colon and rectum.
  • Caecum is a small blind sac which hosts some symbiotic micro-organisms. A narrow finger-like tubular projection, the vermiform appendix which is a vestigial organ, arises from the caecum. The caecum opens into the colon.
  • The colon is divided into three parts " an ascending, a transverse and a descending part. The descending part opens into the rectum which opens out through the anus.
  • The innermost layer lining the lumen of the alimentary canal is the mucosa. This layer forms irregular folds (rugae) in the stomach and small finger-like foldings called villi in the small intestine.


3.           Digestive Glands


  • The digestive glands associated with the alimentary canal include the salivary glands, the liver and the pancreas.
  • Saliva is mainly produced by three pairs of salivary glands, the parotids (cheek), the sub-maxillary/sub-mandibular (lower jaw) and the sublinguals (below the tongue). These glands situated just outside the buccal cavity secrete salivary juice into the buccal cavity.
  • Liver is the largest gland of the body weighing about \[1.2\]lo \[1.5\]kg in an adult human.
  • The bile secreted by the hepatic cells passes through the hepatic ducts and is stored and concentrated in a thin muscular sac called the gall bladder. The duct of gall bladder (cystic duct) along with the hepatic duct from the liver forms the common bile duct.
  • The pancreas is a compound (both exocrine and endocrini) elongated organ situated between the limbs of the "U’ shaped duodenum. The exocrine portion secretes an alkaline pancreatic juice containing enzymes and the endocrine portion secretes hormones, insulin and glucagon.


4.           Process of Digestion


  • The process of digestion is accomplished by mechanical and chemical processes.
  • The buccal cavity performs two major functions, mastication of food and facilitation of swallowing. The teeth and the tongue with the help of saliva masticate and mix up the food thoroughly.
  • Mucus in saliva helps in lubricating and adhering the masticated food particles into a bolus. The bolus is then conveyed into the pharynx and then into the oesophagus by swallowing or deglutition. The bolus further passes down through the oesophagus by successive waves of muscular contractions called peristalsis.
  • The gastro-oesophageal sphincter controls the passage of food into the stomach. The saliva secreted into the oral cavity contains electrolytes (\[N{{A}^{+}},\,\,{{K}^{+}},\,C{{I}^{-}},\,HC{{O}_{3}}^{-}\,\]) and enzymes, salivary amylase and lysozyme,
  • The chemical process of digestion is initiated in the oral cavity by the hydrolytic action of the carbohydrate splitting enzyme, the salivary amylase. About 30 per cent of starch is hydrolysed here by this enzyme (optimum pH\[6.8\]) into a disaccharide - maltose. Lysozyme present in saliva acts as an antibacterial agent that prevents infections.
  • The mucosa of stomach has gastric glands. Gastric glands have three major types of cells namely - mucus neck cells which secrete mucus, peptic or chief cells which secrete the proenzyme pepsinogen and parietal or oxyntic cells which secrete HC1 and intrinsic factor (factor essential for absorption of vitamin \[{{B}_{12}}\]).
  • The stomach stores the food for \[4-5\]hours. The food mixes thoroughly with the acidic gastric juice of the stomach by the churning movements of its muscular wall and is called the chyme.
  • The proenzyme pepsinogen, on exposure to hydrochloric acid gets converted into the active enzyme pepsin, the proteolytic enzyme of the stomach.
  • Pepsin converts proteins into proteoses and peptones (peptides). The mucus and bicarbonates present in the gastric juice play an important role in lubrication and protection of the mucosal epithelium from excoriation by the highly concentrated hydrochloric acid.
  • HC1 provides the acidic pH (pH 1.8) optimal for pepsins. Rennin is a proteolytic enzyme found in gastric juice of infants which helps in the digestion of milk proteins. Small amounts of lipases are also secreted by gastric glands.
  • Various types of movements are generated by the muscularis layer of the small intestine. These movements help in a thorough mixing up of the food with various secretions in the intestine and thereby facilitate digestion.
  • The bile, pancreatic juice and the intestinal juice are the secretions released into the small intestine. Pancreatic juice and bile are released through the hepato-pancreatic duct. The pancreatic juice contains inactive enzymes - trypsinogen, chymotrypsinogen, procarboxy- peptidases, amylases, lipases and nucleases. Trypsinogen is activated by an enzyme, enterokinase, secreted by the intestinal mucosa into active trypsin, which in turn activates the other enzymes in the pancreatic juice. The bile released into the duodenum contains bile pigments (bilimbin and bili-verdin), bile salts, cholesterol and phospholipids but no enzymes.
  • Bile helps in emulsification of fats, i.e., breaking down of the fats into very small micelles. Bile also activates lipases.
  • The intestinal mucosal epithelium has goblet cells which secrete mucus. The secretions of the brush border cells of the mucosa alongwith the secretions of the goblet cells constitute the intestinal juice or succus entericus. This juice contains a variety of enzymes like disaccharidases (e.g., maltase), dipeptidases, lipases, nucleosidases, etc. The mucus alongwith the bicarbonates from the pancreas protects the intestinal mucosa from acid as well as provide an alkaline medium (pH 7.8) for enzymatic activities. Sub-mucosal glands (Brurmer's glands) also help in this.
  • Proteins, proteoses and peptones (partially hydrolysed proteins) in the chyme reaching the intestine are acted upon by the proteolytic enzymes of pancreatic juice.
  • No significant digestive activity occurs in the large intestine. The functions of large intestine are - absorption of some water, minerals and certain drugs, secretion of mucus which helps in adhering the waste (undigested) particles together and lubricating it for an easy passage.
  • The undigested, unabsorbed substances called faeces enters into the caecum of the large intestine through ileo-caecal valve, which prevents the back flow of the faecal matter. It is temporarily stored in the rectum till defaecation.


5.           Absorption


  • Absorption is the process by which the end products of digestion pass through the intestinal mucosa into the blood or lymph. It is carried out by passive, active or facilitated transport mechanisms.
  • Small amounts of monosaccharides like glucose, amino acids and some electrolytes like chloride ions are generally absorbed by simple diffusion.
  • The passage of these substances into the blood depends upon the concentration gradients. However, some substances like glucose and amino acids are absorbed with the help of carrier proteins. This mechanism is called the facilitated transport.
  • Transport of water depends upon the osmotic gradient. Active transport occurs against the concentration gradient and hence requires energy. Various nutrients like amino acids, monosaccharides like glucose, electrolytes like \[N{{a}^{+}}\] are absorbed into the blood by this mechanism.
  • Absorption of substances takes place in different parts of the alimentary canal, like mouth, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. However, maximum absorption occurs in the small intestine.
  • The absorbed substances finally reach the tissues which utilise them for their activities. This process is called assimilation. The digestive wastes, solidified into coherent faeces in the rectum initiate a neural reflex causing an urge or desire for its removal. The egestion of faeces to the outside through the anal opening (defaecation) is a voluntary process and is carried out by a mass peristaltic movement.


6.           Important Facts


  • When we eat something we like, our fnouth 'waters'. This is actually not only water, but a fluid called saliva secreted by the salivary glands.
  • Another aspect of the food we ingest is its complex nature. If it is to be absorbed from the alimentary canal, it has to be broken into smaller molecules. This is done with the help of biological catalysts called enzymes.
  • The saliva contains an enzyme called salivary amylase that breaks down starch which is a complex molecule to give sugar. The food is mixed thoroughly with saliva and moved around the mouth while chewing by the muscular tongue.
  • It is necessary to move the food in a regulated manner along the digestive tube so that it can be processed properly in each part. The lining of canal has muscles that contract rhythmically in order to push the food forward. These peristaltic movements occur all along the gut.
  • From the mouth, the food is taken to the stomach through the food-pipe or oesophagus. The stomach is a large organ which expands when food enters it. The muscular walls of the stomach help in mixing the food thoroughly with more digestive juices.
  • The exit of food from the stomach is regulated by a sphincter muscle which releases it in small amounts into the small intestine. From the stomach, the food now enters the small intestine.
  • This is the longest part of the alimentary canal which is fitted into a compact space because of extensive coiling.
  • The length of the small intestine differs in various animals depending on the food they eat. Herbivores eating grass need a longer small intestine to allow the cellulose to be digested. Meat is easier to digest, hence carnivores like tigers have a shorter small intestine.
  • The small intestine is the site of the complete digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It receives the secretions of the liver and pancreas for this purpose.
  • The food coming from the stomach is acidic and has to be made alkaline for the pancreatic enzymes to act. Bile juice from the liver accomplishes this in addition to acting on fats.
  • Fats are present in the intestine in the form of large globules which makes it difficult for enzymes to act on them. Bile salts break them down into smaller globules increasing the efficiency of enzyme action.
  • The pancreas secretes pancreatic juice which contains enzymes like trypsin for digesting proteins and lipase for breaking down emulsified fats. The walls of the small intestine contain glands which secrete intestinal juice. The enzymes present in it finally convert the proteins to amino acids, complex carbohydrates into glucose and fats into fatty acids and glycerol.
  • The inner lining of the small intestine has numerous finger-like projections called villi which increase the surface area for absorption. The villi are richly supplied with blood vessels which take the absorbed food to each and every cell of the body, where it is utilised for obtaining energy, building up new tissues and the repair of old tissues.
  • Dental caries or tooth decay causes gradual softening of enamel and dentine. It begins when bacteria acting on sugars produce acids that softens or demineralises the enamel. Masses of bacterial cells together with food particles stick to the teeth to form dental plaque. Saliva cannot reach the tooth surface to neutralise the acid as plaque covers the teeth. Brushing the teeth after eating removes the plaque before the bacteria produce acids. If untreated, microorganisms may invade the pulp, causing inflammation and infection.


Other Topics


You need to login to perform this action.
You will be redirected in 3 sec spinner