The final part of my journey through the Gastrointestinal Process
Man, it has been a trip. I am passing through the ileum, the end of the small intestine, and into the large intestine. The large intestine is the last part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the long, tube-like pathway that food travels through your digestive system. It follows from the small intestine and ends at the anal canal, where food waste leaves your body. The large intestine also called the large bowel, is where food waste is formed into poop, stored, and finally excreted. It includes the colon, rectum, and anus. Sometimes “colon” is also used to describe the entire large intestine.
What are the different parts of the large intestine?
The large intestine is one long tube, but slightly different things happen in different parts of it. Its three parts are the colon, the rectum, and the anus. The colon can also be divided into parts. The entry point, about six inches long, is called the cecum. The rest of the colon is divided into segments: the ascending colon (traveling up), the transverse colon (traveling across to the left), the descending colon (traveling down), and the sigmoid colon the short section that heads back across to the right.
What does the large intestine do?
When the large intestine receives food from the small intestine, the food has been liquified by the digestive process and most of the nutrients have been absorbed. The colon’s job is to dehydrate what’s left of the food and form it into the stool. It does this by slowly absorbing water and electrolytes as its muscle system moves the waste along. Meanwhile, bacteria living in your colon feed on the waste and break it down further, completing the chemical part of the digestive process.
How do the different parts of the large intestine work?
The cecum is the beginning of the colon. The small intestine feeds into the cecum through a small channel so the end of the cecum is actually closed like a pouch. This pouch, the first 6 inches of the colon, is also the widest portion of the large intestine. This is the reservoir where food from the small intestine arrives in the large intestine. When the cecum is full, it triggers the muscle movements of the colon to begin.
As food proceeds to the ascending colon, it travels upward and eventually sideways across the transverse colon. These segments surround and frame the small intestine, which is coiled inside. Any remaining water and electrolytes are absorbed in the ascending and transverse colon so that the food waste that arrives in the descending colon is mostly solid. The colon secretes mucus to bind and lubricate the food waste to help it pass through smoothly as it is dehydrated.
Like the small intestine, the large intestine churns the food against its mucous lining and also moves it forward through regular, periodically needed muscle contractions. (peristalsis continues here and we are riding that wave through). But this process is much slower in the large intestine — about 24 hours. Digestion also happens here, but not by enzymes as it did in the small intestine. Here, friendly gut bacteria break down the remaining carbohydrates to produce key vitamins (B and K) that are absorbed through the mucosa. This takes longer.
By the time the sigmoid colon delivers the food waste to the rectum, it resembles the poop you know. The poop now consists of indigestible matter and dead cells shed from your intestinal mucosa, along with small amounts of mucus and water. If about 16 ounces of liquid food entered the large intestine, about 5 ounces of it remain as poop. When poop enters the rectum, it triggers the urge to defecate. This is the natural continuation of the mass muscle movements of the colon.
The anus is the canal your poop will travel through to leave your body. It’s closed on each side by a muscle sphincter. On the inside, the internal sphincter opens automatically to let poop through. The outer sphincter is the one you control to let poop out when you’re ready. When poop in the rectum triggers the urge to defecate, nerve signals cause the internal sphincter to relax. This is your cue to find a toilet where you can let the poop out through your external sphincter.
The large intestine looks like a semi-flat, segmented tube that lays loosely around the edges of the abdominal cavity. A seam runs vertically down the middle of the tube, making the segments bulge on either side of it.
How long is the large intestine?
The large intestine is about six feet long — much shorter than the small intestine, which is 22 feet. It’s called the large intestine because it’s wider — about three inches, while the small intestine is only one inch in diameter.
Digestion Time? Quote from Dr. Elizabeth Rajan, M.D.
Digestion time varies among individuals and between men and women. After you eat, it takes about six to eight hours for food to pass through your stomach and small intestine. Food then enters your large intestine (colon) for further digestion, absorption of water, and, finally, elimination of undigested food. It takes about 36 hours for food to move through the entire colon. All in all, the whole process — from the time you swallow food to the time it leaves your body as feces — takes about two to five days, depending on the individual.
Attribution: Much of the material in this blog is taken from the “Cleveland Clinic Online Publication.”
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