Chemical digestion in the small intestine relies on the activities of three accessory digestive organs: the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder (Figure 23.24). The digestive role of the liver is to produce bile and export it to the duodenum. The gallbladder primarily stores, concentrates, and releases bile. The pancreas produces pancreatic juice, which contains digestive enzymes and bicarbonate ions, and delivers it to the duodenum.

This diagram shows the accessory organs of the digestive system. The liver, spleen, pancreas, gallbladder and their major parts are shown.
Figure 23.24 Accessory Organs The liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are considered accessory digestive organs, but their roles in the digestive system are vital.

The Liver

The liver is the largest gland in the body, weighing about three pounds in an adult. It is also one of the most important organs. In addition to being an accessory digestive organ, it plays a number of roles in metabolism and regulation. The liver lies inferior to the diaphragm in the right upper quadrant of the abdominal cavity and receives protection from the surrounding ribs.

The liver is divided into two primary lobes: a large right lobe and a much smaller left lobe. In the right lobe, some anatomists also identify an inferior quadrate lobe and a posterior caudate lobe, which are defined by internal features. The liver is connected to the abdominal wall and diaphragm by five peritoneal folds referred to as ligaments. These are the falciform ligament, the coronary ligament, two lateral ligaments, and the ligamentum teres hepatis. The falciform ligament and ligamentum teres hepatis are actually remnants of the umbilical vein, and separate the right and left lobes anteriorly. The lesser omentum tethers the liver to the lesser curvature of the stomach.

The porta hepatis (“gate to the liver”) is where the hepatic artery and hepatic portal vein enter the liver. These two vessels, along with the common hepatic duct, run behind the lateral border of the lesser omentum on the way to their destinations. As shown in Figure 23.25, the hepatic artery delivers oxygenated blood from the heart to the liver. The hepatic portal vein delivers partially deoxygenated blood containing nutrients absorbed from the small intestine and actually supplies more oxygen to the liver than do the much smaller hepatic arteries. In addition to nutrients, drugs and toxins are also absorbed. After processing the bloodborne nutrients and toxins, the liver releases nutrients needed by other cells back into the blood, which drains into the central vein and then through the hepatic vein to the inferior vena cava. With this hepatic portal circulation, all blood from the alimentary canal passes through the liver. This largely explains why the liver is the most common site for the metastasis of cancers that originate in the alimentary canal.

This image shows the microscopic anatomy of the liver. The top panel shows the liver; the center panel shows a magnified view of the connective tissue and the lobules. The bottom panel shows a further magnified view of a lobule, identifying the veins, bile duct and the sinusoids.
Figure 23.25 Microscopic Anatomy of the Liver The liver receives oxygenated blood from the hepatic artery and nutrient-rich deoxygenated blood from the hepatic portal vein.


The liver has three main components: hepatocytes, bile canaliculi, and hepatic sinusoids. A hepatocyte is the liver’s main cell type, accounting for around 80 percent of the liver’s volume. These cells play a role in a wide variety of secretory, metabolic, and endocrine functions. Plates of hepatocytes called hepatic laminae radiate outward from the portal vein in each hepatic lobule.

Between adjacent hepatocytes, grooves in the cell membranes provide room for each bile canaliculus (plural = canaliculi). These small ducts accumulate the bile produced by hepatocytes. From here, bile flows first into bile ductules and then into bile ducts. The bile ducts unite to form the larger right and left hepatic ducts, which themselves merge and exit the liver as the common hepatic duct. This duct then joins with the cystic duct from the gallbladder, forming the common bile duct through which bile flows into the small intestine.

hepatic sinusoid is an open, porous blood space formed by fenestrated capillaries from nutrient-rich hepatic portal veins and oxygen-rich hepatic arteries. Hepatocytes are tightly packed around the fenestrated endothelium of these spaces, giving them easy access to the blood. From their central position, hepatocytes process the nutrients, toxins, and waste materials carried by the blood. Materials such as bilirubin are processed and excreted into the bile canaliculi. Other materials including proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates are processed and secreted into the sinusoids or just stored in the cells until called upon. The hepatic sinusoids combine and send blood to a central vein. Blood then flows through a hepatic vein into the inferior vena cava. This means that blood and bile flow in opposite directions. The hepatic sinusoids also contain star-shaped reticuloendothelial cells (Kupffer cells), phagocytes that remove dead red and white blood cells, bacteria, and other foreign material that enter the sinusoids. The portal triad is a distinctive arrangement around the perimeter of hepatic lobules, consisting of three basic structures: a bile duct, a hepatic artery branch, and a hepatic portal vein branch.


Recall that lipids are hydrophobic, that is, they do not dissolve in water. Thus, before they can be digested in the watery environment of the small intestine, large lipid globules must be broken down into smaller lipid globules, a process called emulsification. Bile is a mixture secreted by the liver to accomplish the emulsification of lipids in the small intestine.

Hepatocytes secrete about one liter of bile each day. A yellow-brown or yellow-green alkaline solution (pH 7.6 to 8.6), bile is a mixture of water, bile salts, bile pigments, phospholipids (such as lecithin), electrolytes, cholesterol, and triglycerides. The components most critical to emulsification are bile salts and phospholipids, which have a nonpolar (hydrophobic) region as well as a polar (hydrophilic) region. The hydrophobic region interacts with the large lipid molecules, whereas the hydrophilic region interacts with the watery chyme in the intestine. This results in the large lipid globules being pulled apart into many tiny lipid fragments of about 1 µm in diameter. This change dramatically increases the surface area available for lipid-digesting enzyme activity. This is the same way dish soap works on fats mixed with water.

Bile salts act as emulsifying agents, so they are also important for the absorption of digested lipids. While most constituents of bile are eliminated in feces, bile salts are reclaimed by the enterohepatic circulation. Once bile salts reach the ileum, they are absorbed and returned to the liver in the hepatic portal blood. The hepatocytes then excrete the bile salts into newly formed bile. Thus, this precious resource is recycled.

Bilirubin, the main bile pigment, is a waste product produced when the spleen removes old or damaged red blood cells from the circulation. These breakdown products, including proteins, iron, and toxic bilirubin, are transported to the liver via the splenic vein of the hepatic portal system. In the liver, proteins and iron are recycled, whereas bilirubin is excreted in the bile. It accounts for the green color of bile. Bilirubin is eventually transformed by intestinal bacteria into stercobilin, a brown pigment that gives your stool its characteristic color! In some disease states, bile does not enter the intestine, resulting in white (‘acholic’) stool with a high fat content, since virtually no fats are broken down or absorbed.

Hepatocytes work non-stop, but bile production increases when fatty chyme enters the duodenum and stimulates the secretion of the gut hormone secretin. Between meals, bile is produced but conserved. The valve-like hepatopancreatic ampulla closes, allowing bile to divert to the gallbladder, where it is concentrated and stored until the next meal.

The Pancreas

The soft, oblong, glandular pancreas lies transversely in the retroperitoneum behind the stomach. Its head is nestled into the “c-shaped” curvature of the duodenum with the body extending to the left about 15.2 cm (6 in) and ending as a tapering tail in the hilum of the spleen. It is a curious mix of exocrine (secreting digestive enzymes) and endocrine (releasing hormones into the blood) functions (Figure 23.26).

This figure shows the pancreas and its major parts. A magnified view of a small region of the pancreas shows the pancreatic islet cells, the acinar cells and the pancreatic duct.
Figure 23.26 Exocrine and Endocrine Pancreas The pancreas has a head, a body, and a tail. It delivers pancreatic juice to the duodenum through the pancreatic duct.

The exocrine part of the pancreas arises as little grape-like cell clusters, each called an acinus (plural = acini), located at the terminal ends of pancreatic ducts. These acinar cells secrete enzyme-rich pancreatic juice into tiny merging ducts that form two dominant ducts. The larger duct fuses with the common bile duct (carrying bile from the liver and gallbladder) just before entering the duodenum via a common opening (the hepatopancreatic ampulla). The smooth muscle sphincter of the hepatopancreatic ampulla controls the release of pancreatic juice and bile into the small intestine. The second and smaller pancreatic duct, the accessory duct (duct of Santorini), runs from the pancreas directly into the duodenum, approximately 1 inch above the hepatopancreatic ampulla. When present, it is a persistent remnant of pancreatic development.

Scattered through the sea of exocrine acini are small islands of endocrine cells, the islets of Langerhans. These vital cells produce the hormones pancreatic polypeptide, insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin.

Pancreatic Juice

The pancreas produces over a liter of pancreatic juice each day. Unlike bile, it is clear and composed mostly of water along with some salts, sodium bicarbonate, and several digestive enzymes. Sodium bicarbonate is responsible for the slight alkalinity of pancreatic juice (pH 7.1 to 8.2), which serves to buffer the acidic gastric juice in chyme, inactivate pepsin from the stomach, and create an optimal environment for the activity of pH-sensitive digestive enzymes in the small intestine. Pancreatic enzymes are active in the digestion of sugars, proteins, and fats.

The pancreas produces protein-digesting enzymes in their inactive forms. These enzymes are activated in the duodenum. If produced in an active form, they would digest the pancreas (which is exactly what occurs in the disease, pancreatitis). The intestinal brush border enzyme enteropeptidase stimulates the activation of trypsin from trypsinogen of the pancreas, which in turn changes the pancreatic enzymes procarboxypeptidase and chymotrypsinogen into their active forms, carboxypeptidase and chymotrypsin.

The enzymes that digest starch (amylase), fat (lipase), and nucleic acids (nuclease) are secreted in their active forms, since they do not attack the pancreas as do the protein-digesting enzymes.

Pancreatic Secretion

Regulation of pancreatic secretion is the job of hormones and the parasympathetic nervous system. The entry of acidic chyme into the duodenum stimulates the release of secretin, which in turn causes the duct cells to release bicarbonate-rich pancreatic juice. The presence of proteins and fats in the duodenum stimulates the secretion of CCK, which then stimulates the acini to secrete enzyme-rich pancreatic juice and enhances the activity of secretin. Parasympathetic regulation occurs mainly during the cephalic and gastric phases of gastric secretion, when vagal stimulation prompts the secretion of pancreatic juice.

Usually, the pancreas secretes just enough bicarbonate to counterbalance the amount of HCl produced in the stomach. Hydrogen ions enter the blood when bicarbonate is secreted by the pancreas. Thus, the acidic blood draining from the pancreas neutralizes the alkaline blood draining from the stomach, maintaining the pH of the venous blood that flows to the liver.

The Gallbladder

The gallbladder is 8–10 cm (~3–4 in) long and is nested in a shallow area on the posterior aspect of the right lobe of the liver. This muscular sac stores, concentrates, and, when stimulated, propels the bile into the duodenum via the common bile duct. It is divided into three regions. The fundus is the widest portion and tapers medially into the body, which in turn narrows to become the neck. The neck angles slightly superiorly as it approaches the hepatic duct. The cystic duct is 1–2 cm (less than 1 in) long and turns inferiorly as it bridges the neck and hepatic duct.

The simple columnar epithelium of the gallbladder mucosa is organized in rugae, similar to those of the stomach. There is no submucosa in the gallbladder wall. The wall’s middle, muscular coat is made of smooth muscle fibers. When these fibers contract, the gallbladder’s contents are ejected through the cystic duct and into the bile duct (Figure 23.27). Visceral peritoneum reflected from the liver capsule holds the gallbladder against the liver and forms the outer coat of the gallbladder. The gallbladder’s mucosa absorbs water and ions from bile, concentrating it by up to 10-fold.

This figure shows the gallbladder and its major parts are labeled.
Figure 23.27 Gallbladder The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile, and releases it into the two-way cystic duct when it is needed by the small intestine.

Chemical Digestion and Absorption

As you have learned, the process of mechanical digestion is relatively simple. It involves the physical breakdown of food but does not alter its chemical makeup. Chemical digestion, on the other hand, is a complex process that reduces food into its chemical building blocks, which are then absorbed to nourish the cells of the body (Figure 23.28). In this section, you will look more closely at the processes of chemical digestion and absorption.

This diagram identifies the functions of mechanical and chemical digestion and absorption at each organ. Next to each organ, a callout identifies which steps of digestion take place in that particular organ.
Figure 23.28 Digestion and Absorption Digestion begins in the mouth and continues as food travels through the small intestine. Most absorption occurs in the small intestine.

Chemical Digestion

Large food molecules (for example, proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and starches) must be broken down into subunits that are small enough to be absorbed by the lining of the alimentary canal. This is accomplished by enzymes through hydrolysis. The many enzymes involved in chemical digestion are summarized in Table 23.8.

The Digestive Enzymes
Enzyme Category Enzyme Name Source Substrate Product
Salivary Enzymes Lingual lipase Lingual glands Triglycerides Free fatty acids, and mono- and diglycerides
Salivary Enzymes Salivary amylase Salivary glands Polysaccharides Disaccharides and trisaccharides
Gastric enzymes Gastric lipase Chief cells Triglycerides Fatty acids and monoacylglycerides
Gastric enzymes Pepsin* Chief cells Proteins Peptides
Brush border enzymes α-Dextrinase Small intestine α-Dextrins Glucose
Brush border enzymes Enteropeptidase Small intestine Trypsinogen Trypsin
Brush border enzymes Lactase Small intestine Lactose Glucose and galactose
Brush border enzymes Maltase Small intestine Maltose Glucose
Brush border enzymes Nucleosidases and phosphatases Small intestine Nucleotides Phosphates, nitrogenous bases, and pentoses
Brush border enzymes Peptidases Small intestine
  • Aminopeptidase: amino acids at the amino end of peptides
  • Dipeptidase: dipeptides
  • Aminopeptidase: amino acids and peptides
  • Dipeptidase: amino acids
Brush border enzymes Sucrase Small intestine Sucrose Glucose and fructose
Pancreatic enzymes Carboxy-peptidase* Pancreatic acinar cells Amino acids at the carboxyl end of peptides Amino acids and peptides
Pancreatic enzymes Chymotrypsin* Pancreatic acinar cells Proteins Peptides
Pancreatic enzymes Elastase* Pancreatic acinar cells Proteins Peptides
Pancreatic enzymes Nucleases Pancreatic acinar cells
  • Ribonuclease: ribonucleic acids
  • Deoxyribonuclease: deoxyribonucleic acids
Pancreatic enzymes Pancreatic amylase Pancreatic acinar cells Polysaccharides (starches) α-Dextrins, disaccharides (maltose), trisaccharides (maltotriose)
Pancreatic enzymes Pancreatic lipase Pancreatic acinar cells Triglycerides that have been emulsified by bile salts Fatty acids and monoacylglycerides
Pancreatic enzymes Trypsin* Pancreatic acinar cells Proteins Peptides
Table 23.8 *These enzymes have been activated by other substances.

Carbohydrate Digestion

The average American diet is about 50 percent carbohydrates, which may be classified according to the number of monomers they contain of simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) and/or complex sugars (polysaccharides). Glucose, galactose, and fructose are the three monosaccharides that are commonly consumed and are readily absorbed. Your digestive system is also able to break down the disaccharide sucrose (regular table sugar: glucose + fructose), lactose (milk sugar: glucose + galactose), and maltose (grain sugar: glucose + glucose), and the polysaccharides glycogen and starch (chains of monosaccharides). Your bodies do not produce enzymes that can break down most fibrous polysaccharides, such as cellulose. While indigestible polysaccharides do not provide any nutritional value, they do provide dietary fiber, which helps propel food through the alimentary canal.

The chemical digestion of starches begins in the mouth and has been reviewed above.

In the small intestine, pancreatic amylase does the ‘heavy lifting’ for starch and carbohydrate digestion (Figure 23.29). After amylases break down starch into smaller fragments, the brush border enzyme α-dextrinase starts working on α-dextrin, breaking off one glucose unit at a time. Three brush border enzymes hydrolyze sucrose, lactose, and maltose into monosaccharides. Sucrase splits sucrose into one molecule of fructose and one molecule of glucose; maltase breaks down maltose and maltotriose into two and three glucose molecules, respectively; and lactase breaks down lactose into one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose. Insufficient lactase can lead to lactose intolerance.

This flow chart shows the steps in digestion of carbohydrates. The different levels shown are starch and glycogen, disaccharides and monosaccharides. Under each type of sugar, examples and the enzymes responsible for digestion are listed.
Figure 23.29 Carbohydrate Digestion Flow Chart Carbohydrates are broken down into their monomers in a series of steps.

Protein Digestion

Proteins are polymers composed of amino acids linked by peptide bonds to form long chains. Digestion reduces them to their constituent amino acids. You usually consume about 15 to 20 percent of your total calorie intake as protein.

The digestion of protein starts in the stomach, where HCl and pepsin break proteins into smaller polypeptides, which then travel to the small intestine (Figure 23.30). Chemical digestion in the small intestine is continued by pancreatic enzymes, including chymotrypsin and trypsin, each of which act on specific bonds in amino acid sequences. At the same time, the cells of the brush border secrete enzymes such as aminopeptidase and dipeptidase, which further break down peptide chains. This results in molecules small enough to enter the bloodstream (Figure 23.31).

This diagrams shows the human digestive system and identifies the role of each organ in protein digestion. A text call-out next to each organ details the specific function.
Figure 23.30 Digestion of Protein The digestion of protein begins in the stomach and is completed in the small intestine.
This flow chart shows the different steps in the digestion of protein. The four steps shown are protein, large polypeptides, short peptides and amino acids and amino acids.
Figure 23.31 Digestion of Protein Flow Chart Proteins are successively broken down into their amino acid components.

Lipid Digestion

A healthy diet limits lipid intake to 35 percent of total calorie intake. The most common dietary lipids are triglycerides, which are made up of a glycerol molecule bound to three fatty acid chains. Small amounts of dietary cholesterol and phospholipids are also consumed.

The three lipases responsible for lipid digestion are lingual lipase, gastric lipase, and pancreatic lipase. However, because the pancreas is the only consequential source of lipase, virtually all lipid digestion occurs in the small intestine. Pancreatic lipase breaks down each triglyceride into two free fatty acids and a monoglyceride. The fatty acids include both short-chain (less than 10 to 12 carbons) and long-chain fatty acids.

Nucleic Acid Digestion

The nucleic acids DNA and RNA are found in most of the foods you eat. Two types of pancreatic nuclease are responsible for their digestion: deoxyribonuclease, which digests DNA, and ribonuclease, which digests RNA. The nucleotides produced by this digestion are further broken down by two intestinal brush border enzymes (nucleosidase and phosphatase) into pentoses, phosphates, and nitrogenous bases, which can be absorbed through the alimentary canal wall. The large food molecules that must be broken down into subunits are summarized Table 23.9

Absorbable Food Substances
Source Substance
Carbohydrates Monosaccharides: glucose, galactose, and fructose
Proteins Single amino acids, dipeptides, and tripeptides
Triglycerides Monoacylglycerides, glycerol, and free fatty acids
Nucleic acids Pentose sugars, phosphates, and nitrogenous bases
Table 23.9


The mechanical and digestive processes have one goal: to convert food into molecules small enough to be absorbed by the epithelial cells of the intestinal villi. The absorptive capacity of the alimentary canal is almost endless. Each day, the alimentary canal processes up to 10 liters of food, liquids, and GI secretions, yet less than one liter enters the large intestine. Almost all ingested food, 80 percent of electrolytes, and 90 percent of water are absorbed in the small intestine. Although the entire small intestine is involved in the absorption of water and lipids, most absorption of carbohydrates and proteins occurs in the jejunum. Notably, bile salts and vitamin B12 are absorbed in the terminal ileum. By the time chyme passes from the ileum into the large intestine, it is essentially indigestible food residue (mainly plant fibers like cellulose), some water, and millions of bacteria (Figure 23.32).

This image shows the human digestive system. Next to each organ, a text callout identifies how water and digestive secretions such as saliva and bile are processed.
Figure 23.32 Digestive Secretions and Absorption of Water Absorption is a complex process, in which nutrients from digested food are harvested.

Absorption can occur through five mechanisms: (1) active transport, (2) passive diffusion, (3) facilitated diffusion, (4) co-transport (or secondary active transport), and (5) endocytosis. As you will recall from Chapter 3, active transport refers to the movement of a substance across a cell membrane going from an area of lower concentration to an area of higher concentration (up the concentration gradient). In this type of transport, proteins within the cell membrane act as “pumps,” using cellular energy (ATP) to move the substance. Passive diffusion refers to the movement of substances from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration, while facilitated diffusion refers to the movement of substances from an area of higher to an area of lower concentration using a carrier protein in the cell membrane. Co-transport uses the movement of one molecule through the membrane from higher to lower concentration to power the movement of another from lower to higher. Finally, endocytosis is a transportation process in which the cell membrane engulfs material. It requires energy, generally in the form of ATP.

Because the cell’s plasma membrane is made up of hydrophobic phospholipids, water-soluble nutrients must use transport molecules embedded in the membrane to enter cells. Moreover, substances cannot pass between the epithelial cells of the intestinal mucosa because these cells are bound together by tight junctions. Thus, substances can only enter blood capillaries by passing through the apical surfaces of epithelial cells and into the interstitial fluid. Water-soluble nutrients enter the capillary blood in the villi and travel to the liver via the hepatic portal vein.

In contrast to the water-soluble nutrients, lipid-soluble nutrients can diffuse through the plasma membrane. Once inside the cell, they are packaged for transport via the base of the cell and then enter the lacteals of the villi to be transported by lymphatic vessels to the systemic circulation via the thoracic duct. The absorption of most nutrients through the mucosa of the intestinal villi requires active transport fueled by ATP. The routes of absorption for each food category are summarized in Table 23.10.


Absorption in the Alimentary Canal
Food Breakdown products Absorption mechanism Entry to bloodstream Destination
Carbohydrates Glucose Co-transport with sodium ions Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Carbohydrates Galactose Co-transport with sodium ions Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Carbohydrates Fructose Facilitated diffusion Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Protein Amino acids Co-transport with sodium ions Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Lipids Long-chain fatty acids Diffusion into intestinal cells, where they are combined with proteins to create chylomicrons Lacteals of villi Systemic circulation via lymph entering thoracic duct
Lipids Monoacylglycerides Diffusion into intestinal cells, where they are combined with proteins to create chylomicrons Lacteals of villi Systemic circulation via lymph entering thoracic duct
Lipids Short-chain fatty acids Simple diffusion Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Lipids Glycerol Simple diffusion Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Nucleic Acids Nucleic acid digestion products Active transport via membrane carriers Capillary blood in villi Liver via hepatic portal vein
Table 23.10

Carbohydrate Absorption

All carbohydrates are absorbed in the form of monosaccharides. The small intestine is highly efficient at this, absorbing monosaccharides at an estimated rate of 120 grams per hour. All normally digested dietary carbohydrates are absorbed; indigestible fibers are eliminated in the feces. The monosaccharides glucose and galactose are transported into the epithelial cells by common protein carriers via secondary active transport (that is, co-transport with sodium ions). The monosaccharides leave these cells via facilitated diffusion and enter the capillaries through intercellular clefts. The monosaccharide fructose (which is in fruit) is absorbed and transported by facilitated diffusion alone. The monosaccharides combine with the transport proteins immediately after the disaccharides are broken down.

Protein Absorption

Active transport mechanisms, primarily in the duodenum and jejunum, absorb most proteins as their breakdown products, amino acids. Almost all (95 to 98 percent) protein is digested and absorbed in the small intestine. The type of carrier that transports an amino acid varies. Most carriers are linked to the active transport of sodium. Short chains of two amino acids (dipeptides) or three amino acids (tripeptides) are also transported actively. However, after they enter the absorptive epithelial cells, they are broken down into their amino acids before leaving the cell and entering the capillary blood via diffusion.

Lipid Absorption

About 95 percent of lipids are absorbed in the small intestine. Bile salts not only speed up lipid digestion, they are also essential to the absorption of the end products of lipid digestion. Short-chain fatty acids are relatively water soluble and can enter the absorptive cells (enterocytes) directly. The small size of short-chain fatty acids enables them to be absorbed by enterocytes via simple diffusion, and then take the same path as monosaccharides and amino acids into the blood capillary of a villus.

The large and hydrophobic long-chain fatty acids and monoacylglycerides are not so easily suspended in the watery intestinal chyme. However, bile salts and lecithin resolve this issue by enclosing them in a micelle, which is a tiny sphere with polar (hydrophilic) ends facing the watery environment and hydrophobic tails turned to the interior, creating a receptive environment for the long-chain fatty acids. The core also includes cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins. Without micelles, lipids would sit on the surface of chyme and never come in contact with the absorptive surfaces of the epithelial cells. Micelles can easily squeeze between microvilli and get very near the luminal cell surface. At this point, lipid substances exit the micelle and are absorbed via simple diffusion.

The free fatty acids and monoacylglycerides that enter the epithelial cells are reincorporated into triglycerides. The triglycerides are mixed with phospholipids and cholesterol, and surrounded with a protein coat. This new complex, called a chylomicron, is a water-soluble lipoprotein. After being processed by the Golgi apparatus, chylomicrons are released from the cell (Figure 23.33). Too big to pass through the basement membranes of blood capillaries, chylomicrons instead enter the large pores of lacteals. The lacteals come together to form the lymphatic vessels. The chylomicrons are transported in the lymphatic vessels and empty through the thoracic duct into the subclavian vein of the circulatory system. Once in the bloodstream, the enzyme lipoprotein lipase breaks down the triglycerides of the chylomicrons into free fatty acids and glycerol. These breakdown products then pass through capillary walls to be used for energy by cells or stored in adipose tissue as fat. Liver cells combine the remaining chylomicron remnants with proteins, forming lipoproteins that transport cholesterol in the blood.

This diagram shows how lipids are absorbed from the lumen of the intestine into the lacteals. The fatty acid micelles are shown to enter the epithelial cell and form chylomicrons inside the Golgi apparatus. Then, the chylomicrons are extruded from the epithelial cell and are taken up by the lacteals.
Figure 23.33 Lipid Absorption Unlike amino acids and simple sugars, lipids are transformed as they are absorbed through epithelial cells.

Nucleic Acid Absorption

The products of nucleic acid digestion—pentose sugars, nitrogenous bases, and phosphate ions—are transported by carriers across the villus epithelium via active transport. These products then enter the bloodstream.

Mineral Absorption

The electrolytes absorbed by the small intestine are from both GI secretions and ingested foods. Since electrolytes dissociate into ions in water, most are absorbed via active transport throughout the entire small intestine. During absorption, co-transport mechanisms result in the accumulation of sodium ions inside the cells, whereas anti-port mechanisms reduce the potassium ion concentration inside the cells. To restore the sodium-potassium gradient across the cell membrane, a sodium-potassium pump requiring ATP pumps sodium out and potassium in.

In general, all minerals that enter the intestine are absorbed, whether you need them or not. Iron and calcium are exceptions; they are absorbed in the duodenum in amounts that meet the body’s current requirements, as follows:

Iron—The ionic iron needed for the production of hemoglobin is absorbed into mucosal cells via active transport. Once inside mucosal cells, ionic iron binds to the protein ferritin, creating iron-ferritin complexes that store iron until needed. When the body has enough iron, most of the stored iron is lost when worn-out epithelial cells slough off. When the body needs iron because, for example, it is lost during acute or chronic bleeding, there is increased uptake of iron from the intestine and accelerated release of iron into the bloodstream. Since females experience significant iron loss during menstruation, they have around four times as many iron transport proteins in their intestinal epithelial cells as do males.

Calcium—Blood levels of ionic calcium determine the absorption of dietary calcium. When blood levels of ionic calcium drop, parathyroid hormone (PTH) secreted by the parathyroid glands stimulates the release of calcium ions from bone matrices and increases the reabsorption of calcium by the kidneys. PTH also upregulates the activation of vitamin D in the kidney, which then facilitates intestinal calcium ion absorption.

Vitamin Absorption

The small intestine absorbs the vitamins that occur naturally in food and supplements. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are absorbed along with dietary lipids in micelles via simple diffusion. This is why you are advised to eat some fatty foods when you take fat-soluble vitamin supplements. Most water-soluble vitamins (including most B vitamins and vitamin C) also are absorbed by simple diffusion. An exception is vitamin B12, which is a very large molecule. Intrinsic factor secreted in the stomach binds to vitamin B12, preventing its digestion and creating a complex that binds to mucosal receptors in the terminal ileum, where it is taken up by endocytosis.

Water Absorption

Each day, about nine liters of fluid enter the small intestine. About 2.3 liters are ingested in foods and beverages, and the rest is from GI secretions. About 90 percent of this water is absorbed in the small intestine. Water absorption is driven by the concentration gradient of the water: The concentration of water is higher in chyme than it is in epithelial cells. Thus, water moves down its concentration gradient from the chyme into cells. As noted earlier, much of the remaining water is then absorbed in the colon.


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SA Bos, M.D.

Lead Author