Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Viscera: Small Intestine

(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here:

Abdominal organs are often grouped into the colloquial term gut. “Gut” also refers to a specific organ – the small intestine (or small bowel). It is an important part of the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract, connecting the stomach to the colon and involved in digesting and absorbing nutrients. The small intestine is extremely long, roughly 7m in an adult. It fits in the abdomen by folding and packing neatly, lying under the liver, stomach and pancreas while being framed by the large intestine. The small intestine is not freely hanging so you cannot just pull it out like a rope. It is connected to the body by a fan-like membrane called the mesentery, which provides blood supply to the gut. The mesentery is attached along one side of the gut the entire way through.

The small bowel is composed of three parts: the duodenum, jejunum and ileum. Although people think digestion mainly happens in the stomach, it is actually primarily performed in the duodenum. The duodenum not only receives liquefied food from the stomach, but is also the place where the pancreas and liver drain digestive juices such as pancreatic enzymes and bile. The enzymes breakdown large molecules like fat, protein and carbohydrates into smaller building blocks, while bile acts like detergent to allow fat to mix better with water (emulsification).

The digested food then travels down the GI tract through a process called peristalsis, where the gut squeezes behind the bolus of food to push it forward, much like squeezing toothpaste out of the tube. The broken down products are mainly absorbed in the second part of the bowel (jejunum) via the walls. The small bowel wall looks like a carpet due to microscopic finger-like projections called villi. Villi allow for a much greater surface area for enhanced absorption. In coeliac disease, these villi are flattened by an autoimmune process and the patient cannot absorb as much nutrients (including vitamins).

By the time the food reaches the ileum, most of the nutrients have been absorbed. The ileum finishes the job by absorbing some extra things like vitamin B12 and bile salts, then sends the food through the ileocoecal valve, which is the door between the small and large intestine.

The small bowel is used by various cultures for culinary purposes. Other than simply eating the bowel itself after cooking, it is often used to pack different meats or other food inside, such as sausages or soondae (Korean sausages, filled with chop sui noodles).

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