DEAR DOCTOR K: Can you describe how food makes its way through our body, from the mouth to the other end?
DEAR READER: This question is fun to answer, because the gut is a marvel of nature’s engineering. First, it works as a food processor, breaking down food and liquids into chemical components that the body can absorb as nutrients. Then, what’s left – the garbage – is expelled by an efficient disposal system.
The food you eat is of no value to you unless it is broken up into microscopically small pieces, and those pieces get absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream. Those tiny pieces become the building blocks for everything your body needs to function.
The gastrointestinal, or digestive, tract is a series of hollow organs. They’re linked to form a long tube that runs from mouth to anus. First comes the throat and esophagus, then the stomach, small intestine and colon. The walls of the tube contain muscles that perform different functions.
(1) Digestion begins in the mouth, where food is chewed until it’s small enough to be swallowed. The teeth chop the food up into small pieces – but pieces you can see. Chemicals called enzymes in saliva begin to digest these pieces further.
(2) Once food is swallowed, it enters the throat and then the esophagus. Food does not simply drop down the esophagus; it is pushed by contractions of the esophageal muscles.
(3) Once the food moves into the stomach, muscles mix it into a soft mush. Saliva, hydrochloric acid and the enzyme pepsin help to further break down the food into a thick liquid called chyme. The stomach delivers chyme to the small intestine.
(4) The main work of digestion takes place in the small intestine. That’s where the fats, starches and proteins in your food are turned into the tiniest pieces – fatty acids, simple sugars and amino acids. These nutrients are absorbed by the intestine’s thin lining and then transported in blood to cells throughout the body.
(5) Finally, what’s left of the food arrives in the large intestine, the colon. The walls of this muscular tube soak up most of the remaining water. Bacteria in the colon feast on the little nutrition left in your food. What’s left is propelled further down the colon. It settles in the rectum, until you release it during a bowel movement.