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Digestive System

Digestion And Absorption In The Small Intestine

While digestion continues in the small intestine, it also becomes a major site for the process of absorption, that is, the passage of digested food into the bloodstream, and its transport to the rest of the body.

The small intestine is a long, narrow tube, about 20 ft (6 m) long, running from the stomach to the large intestine. The digestive process. Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group. The small intestine occupies the area of the abdomen between the diaphragm and hips, and is greatly coiled and twisted. The small intestine is lined with muscles that move the chyme toward the large intestine. The mucosa, which lines the entire small intestine, contains millions of glands that aid in the digestive and absorptive processes of the digestive system.

The small intestine, or small bowel, is sub-divided by anatomists into three sections, the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. The duodenum is about 1 ft (0.3 m) long and connects with the lower portion of the stomach. When fluid food reaches the duodenum it undergoes further enzymatic digestion and is subjected to pancreatic juice, intestinal juice, and bile.

The pancreas is a large gland located below the stomach that secretes pancreatic juice into the duodenum via the pancreatic duct. There are three enzymes in pancreatic juice which digest carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. Amylase, (the enzyme found in saliva) breaks down starch into simple sugars such as maltose. The enzyme maltase in intestinal juice completes the break down of maltose into glucose.

Lipases in pancreatic juice break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol, while proteinases continue the break down of proteins into amino acids. The gall bladder, located next to the liver, secretes bile into the duodenum. While bile does not contain enzymes; it contains bile salts and other substances that help to emulsify (dissolve) fats, which are otherwise insoluble in water. Breaking the fat down into small globules allows the lipase enzymes a greater surface area for their action.

Chyme passing from the duodenum next reaches the jejunum of the small intestine, which is about 3 ft (0.91 m) long. Here, in the jejunum, the digested breakdown products of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and most of the vitamins, minerals, and iron are absorbed. The inner lining of the small intestine is composed of up to five million tiny, finger-like projections called villi. The villi increase the rate of absorption of the nutrients into the bloodstream by extending the surface of the small intestine to about five times that of the surface area of the skin.

There are two transport systems that pick up the nutrients from the small intestine. Simple sugars, amino acids, glycerol, and some vitamins and salts are conveyed to the liver in the bloodstream. Fatty acids and vitamins are absorbed and then transported through the lymphatic system, the network of vessels that carry lymph and white blood cells throughout the body. Lymph eventually drains back into the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body.

The last section of the small intestine is the ileum. It is smaller and thinner-walled than the jejunum, and it is the preferred site for vitamin B12 absorption and bile acids derived from the bile juice.

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