Digestive System (for Parents) (2024)

What Is the Digestive System?

The digestive system breaks down the food we eat into tiny parts to give us fuel and the nutrients we need to live. As food breaks down, we get amino acids from protein, simple sugars from starches, and fatty acids and glycerol from fats.

What Are the Parts of the Digestive System?

The digestive system is made up of:

  • the alimentary canal(also called thedigestive tract). This long tube of organs makes a pathway for food to travel through the body. It runs from the mouth to the anus (where poop comes out) and includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. An adult's digestive tract is about 30 feet (about 9 meters) long.
  • other organsthat help the process by adding enzymes and chemicals to break down the food. Important organs that help with digestion include the salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.

How Does the Digestion System Work?

Here’s how digestion happens:

The mouth: Digestion begins even before we taste food. When we see, smell, taste, or even imagine a tasty meal, our salivary glands (located in front of the ears, under the tongue, and near the lower jaw) begin making saliva (spit).

Teeth tear and chop the food. Spit moistens it for easy swallowing. A digestive enzyme in saliva called amylase (AH-meh-lace) starts to break down some carbohydrates (starches and sugars) in the food.

Muscles in the tongue and mouth work together to swallow the food and move it into the throat (pharynx). The pharynx (FAIR-inks) is a passageway for food and air. A soft flap of tissue called the epiglottis (ep-ih-GLAH-tus) closes over the windpipe when we swallow to keep food and liquid out of the lungs.

The esophagus: Food travels down a muscular tube in the chest called the esophagus (ih-SAH-fuh-gus). Waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis (per-uh-STALL-sus) force food down through the esophagus to the stomach. A person usually isn't aware of the muscle movements that push food through the digestive tract.

The stomach: At the end of the esophagus is a muscular ring or valve called a sphincter (SFINK-ter). The sphincter lets food enter the stomach, then squeezes shut to keep food and liquids from flowing back up into the esophagus. The stomach muscles churn and mix the food with digestive juices that have acids and enzymes. These juices help break up food into much smaller pieces.

By the time food is ready to leave the stomach, it has been turned into a thick liquid called chyme (kime). A small muscular valve called the pylorus (pie-LOR-is) controls when chyme is released into the small intestine.

The small intestine: The small intestine is where many nutrients (like protein, carbohydrates, and fats) get absorbed into the bloodstream. It has three parts:

  • The duodenum (due-uh-DEE-num). This C-shaped first part is where enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver are added to the chyme.
  • The jejunum (jih-JU-num). This coiled middle part further digests the chyme and absorbs nutrients.
  • The ileum (IH-lee-um). The final section that leads into the large intestine absorbs nutrients, vitamin B12, and bile acids.

Millions of microscopic, finger-like projections called villi (VIH-lie) line the inside of the small intestine. The villi make lots of surface area for nutrients to get absorbed into the blood. Then blood brings the nutrients to the rest of the body.

While food works its way through the small intestine, three organs that are not part of the alimentary canal help the digestion process:

  • The liver makes bile, which helps the body absorb fat. It’s located in the top right of the belly.
  • The gallbladder stores bile until it is needed. It’s hidden just below the liver.
  • The pancreas makes enzymes that help digest proteins, fats, and carbs. It’s found below the stomach.

Enzymes and bile travel through small pathways (called ducts) into the small intestine, where they help to break down food.

Undigested food and some water travels to the large intestine through a muscular ring called the ileocecal (ill-ee-oh-SEE-kul) valve. This valve prevents food from returning to the small intestine. By the time food reaches the large intestine, the work of absorbing nutrients is nearly finished.

The large intestine: The large intestine's main job is to remove water from the undigested matter and form solid waste (poop) to be excreted. The large intestine includes three parts:

  • The cecum (SEE-kum) is the beginning of the large intestine. The appendix isa small, hollow, finger-like pouch that hangs off the end of the cecum. Doctors believe the appendix is left over from an earlier time in human evolution. Today it’s no longer needed to help with digestion.
  • The colon extends from the cecum up the right side of the abdomen (the ascending colon), across the upper abdomen (transverse colon), and down the left side of the abdomen (descending colon). Then it connects to the rectum.
  • The rectum is where poop is stored until it leaves the digestive system through the anus as a bowel movement.

It can take days for food to fully pass through the digestive system.

Digestive System (for Parents) (2024)


Digestive System (for Parents)? ›

It runs from the mouth to the anus (where poop comes out) and includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. An adult's digestive tract is about 30 feet (about 9 meters) long. other organs that help the process by adding enzymes and chemicals to break down the food.

How do I get my digestive system back to normal? ›

Good foods to help your digestion
  1. Fill up on fibre to prevent constipation. ...
  2. Drink plenty of fluids to aid digestion. ...
  3. Cut down on fat for a healthy gut. ...
  4. Go easy on spice to avoid tummy troubles. ...
  5. Beware gut symptom triggers. ...
  6. Choose the right drinks to ease digestion. ...
  7. Probiotics.

Does your digestive system change as you get older? ›

As you age, the muscles in your digestive system tend to become stiffer, weaker, and less efficient, which can result in digestive problems such as: Constipation. Diarrhea. Abdominal pain.

What foods help repair the digestive system? ›

There's evidence that certain foods can benefit our digestive health. Some examples are ginger, sprouts, and whole grains. Foods rich in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics can help promote a healthy gut microbiome and support good digestion.

How to do a gut flush? ›

The healthiest way to flush your colon is to drink more water, increase your fiber intake, and make regular time for physical exercise. Try to have three or more bowel movements a week. Talk with a doctor about other ways to prevent constipation and avoid the overuse of laxatives.

What foods reset your gut? ›

Mutha recommends a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet for optimal gut health. “A WFPB diet primarily focuses on consuming plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, while minimizing or avoiding animal products, processed foods, and refined sugars and oils,” Mutha said.

What are the hardest foods to digest? ›

The Worst Foods for Your Gastrointestinal System
  1. Deep-fried foods. Deep-fried foods absorb copious amounts of fats — oil, shortening, or lard — during the cooking process. ...
  2. Processed foods. ...
  3. High-fat foods. ...
  4. Coffee. ...
  5. Spicy foods. ...
  6. Alcohol. ...
  7. Citrus fruits. ...
  8. Chocolate.

What foods should I avoid after 60? ›

Focus on Health: 7 Foods to Avoid After 60
  • High Sodium Foods. Eating foods with high sodium can cause health issues like raising your blood pressure and fluid retention – which can lead to leg and foot swelling. ...
  • Fried Foods. ...
  • Grapefruit. ...
  • Empty Calorie Foods. ...
  • Caffeine. ...
  • Sugar-Free Foods and Drinks. ...
  • Raw or Undercooked Foods.
Sep 11, 2023

Do probiotics help with slow digestion? ›

Take probiotic supplements — Foods that are full of good bacteria are always a great way to speed up digestion by maintaining gut health, but if you don't get enough probiotics through your food intake, it might be a good idea to try a probiotic supplement.

What to drink at night to help digestion? ›

Peppermint tea: relaxes stomach muscles, alleviating indigestion and bloating. Chamomile tea: another herbal tea that can help soothe the digestive system and reduce inflammation. Ginger tea: can help digestion by accelerating the movement of food through the stomach. Decaf tea: ensures that sleep won't be compromised.

What are the three super foods for your gut? ›

Three superfoods for the gut are fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, prebiotic-rich foods like garlic and onions, and probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kefir. These foods contain beneficial bacteria that support the growth of healthy gut flora and promote digestion and nutrient absorption.

What foods heal the colon? ›

Eating a high-fiber diet is good for overall intestinal and colon health. The American Institute for Cancer Research and ACS recommend aiming for at least 30 grams of fiber from food sources each day. Focus on incorporating a variety of whole grains, colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans into your diet.

Are bananas good for digestion? ›

Bananas contain water and fiber, both of which promote regularity and encourage digestive health. One medium banana provides approximately 10% of a person's fiber needs for a day. Bananas are also part of an approach known as the BRAT diet , which some doctors recommend for treating diarrhea.

How long does it take to reset the digestive system? ›

Generally a few hours to a few days of fasting is sufficient. When you fast you give your digestive system a break and help it reset. Intermittent fasting has been associated with various digestive benefits including improved gut bacteria, reduced bloating and better digestive function.

How to repair a damaged digestive system? ›

Diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference:
  1. Cut back on fatty foods.
  2. Avoid fizzy drinks.
  3. Eat and drink slowly.
  4. Quit smoking.
  5. Don't chew gum.
  6. Exercise more.
  7. Avoid foods that cause gas.
  8. Avoid sweeteners that cause gas such as fructose and sorbitol.
Mar 24, 2023

What are the symptoms of a bad digestive system? ›

The first sign of problems in the digestive tract often includes one or more of the following symptoms:
  • Bleeding.
  • Bloating.
  • Constipation.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Heartburn.
  • Incontinence.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Pain in the belly.
Oct 27, 2021

How long does it take for digestion to return to normal? ›

Takeaway. The time it takes to digest food varies between 24 and 72 hours and depends on several factors. To enjoy optimal digestion, eat a balanced, high-fiber diet, engage in regular exercise, reduce stress, and manage any digestive conditions that may be present.

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