Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology, 12th Ed


Propulsion and Mixing of Food in the Alimentary Tract

image The time that food remains in each part of the alimentary tract is critical for optimal processing and absorption of nutrients. Also, appropriate mixing must be provided. Because the requirements for mixing and propulsion are quite different at each stage of processing, multiple automatic nervous and hormonal mechanisms control the timing of each of these so that they will occur optimally, not too rapidly, not too slowly.

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss these movements, especially the automatic mechanisms of this control.

Ingestion of Food

The amount of food that a person ingests is determined principally by intrinsic desire for food called hunger. The type of food that a person preferentially seeks is determined by appetite. These mechanisms are extremely important for maintaining an adequate nutritional supply for the body and are discussed in Chapter 71 in relation to nutrition of the body. The current discussion of food ingestion is confined to the mechanics of ingestion, especially masticationand swallowing.

Mastication (Chewing)

The teeth are admirably designed for chewing. The anterior teeth (incisors) provide a strong cutting action and the posterior teeth (molars) a grinding action. All the jaw muscles working together can close the teeth with a force as great as 55 pounds on the incisors and 200 pounds on the molars.

Most of the muscles of chewing are innervated by the motor branch of the fifth cranial nerve, and the chewing process is controlled by nuclei in the brain stem. Stimulation of specific reticular areas in the brain stem taste centers will cause rhythmical chewing movements. Also, stimulation of areas in the hypothalamus, amygdala, and even the cerebral cortex near the sensory areas for taste and smell can often cause chewing.

Much of the chewing process is caused by a chewing reflex. The presence of a bolus of food in the mouth at first initiates reflex inhibition of the muscles of mastication, which allows the lower jaw to drop. The drop in turn initiates a stretch reflex of the jaw muscles that leads to rebound contraction. This automatically raises the jaw to cause closure of the teeth, but it also compresses the bolus again against the linings of the mouth, which inhibits the jaw muscles once again, allowing the jaw to drop and rebound another time; this is repeated again and again.

Chewing is important for digestion of all foods, but especially important for most fruits and raw vegetables because these have indigestible cellulose membranes around their nutrient portions that must be broken before the food can be digested. Also, chewing aids the digestion of food for still another simple reason: Digestive enzymes act only on the surfaces of food particles; therefore, the rate of digestion is absolutely dependent on the total surface area exposed to the digestive secretions. In addition, grinding the food to a very fine particulate consistency prevents excoriation of the gastrointestinal tract and increases the ease with which food is emptied from the stomach into the small intestine, then into all succeeding segments of the gut.

Swallowing (Deglutition)

Swallowing is a complicated mechanism, principally because the pharynx subserves respiration and swallowing. The pharynx is converted for only a few seconds at a time into a tract for propulsion of food. It is especially important that respiration not be compromised because of swallowing.

In general, swallowing can be divided into (1) a voluntary stage, which initiates the swallowing process; (2) a pharyngeal stage, which is involuntary and constitutes passage of food through the pharynx into the esophagus; and (3) an esophageal stage, another involuntary phase that transports food from the pharynx to the stomach.

Voluntary Stage of Swallowing

When the food is ready for swallowing, it is “voluntarily” squeezed or rolled posteriorly into the pharynx by pressure of the tongue upward and backward against the palate, as shown in Figure 63-1. From here on, swallowing becomes entirely—or almost entirely—automatic and ordinarily cannot be stopped.


Figure 63-1 Swallowing mechanism.

Pharyngeal Stage of Swallowing

As the bolus of food enters the posterior mouth and pharynx, it stimulates epithelial swallowing receptor areas all around the opening of the pharynx, especially on the tonsillar pillars, and impulses from these pass to the brain stem to initiate a series of automatic pharyngeal muscle contractions as follows:

1. The soft palate is pulled upward to close the posterior nares, to prevent reflux of food into the nasal cavities.

2. The palatopharyngeal folds on each side of the pharynx are pulled medially to approximate each other. In this way, these folds form a sagittal slit through which the food must pass into the posterior pharynx. This slit performs a selective action, allowing food that has been masticated sufficiently to pass with ease. Because this stage of swallowing lasts less than 1 second, any large object is usually impeded too much to pass into the esophagus.

3. The vocal cords of the larynx are strongly approximated, and the larynx is pulled upward and anteriorly by the neck muscles. These actions, combined with the presence of ligaments that prevent upward movement of the epiglottis, cause the epiglottis to swing backward over the opening of the larynx. All these effects acting together prevent passage of food into the nose and trachea. Most essential is the tight approximation of the vocal cords, but the epiglottis helps to prevent food from ever getting as far as the vocal cords. Destruction of the vocal cords or of the muscles that approximate them can cause strangulation.

4. The upward movement of the larynx also pulls up and enlarges the opening to the esophagus. At the same time, the upper 3 to 4 centimeters of the esophageal muscular wall, called the upper esophageal sphincter (also called the pharyngoesophageal sphincter), relaxes. Thus, food moves easily and freely from the posterior pharynx into the upper esophagus. Between swallows, this sphincter remains strongly contracted, thereby preventing air from going into the esophagus during respiration. The upward movement of the larynx also lifts the glottis out of the main stream of food flow, so the food mainly passes on each side of the epiglottis rather than over its surface; this adds still another protection against entry of food into the trachea.

5. Once the larynx is raised and the pharyngoesophageal sphincter becomes relaxed, the entire muscular wall of the pharynx contracts, beginning in the superior part of the pharynx, then spreading downward over the middle and inferior pharyngeal areas, which propels the food by peristalsis into the esophagus.

To summarize the mechanics of the pharyngeal stage of swallowing: The trachea is closed, the esophagus is opened, and a fast peristaltic wave initiated by the nervous system of the pharynx forces the bolus of food into the upper esophagus, the entire process occurring in less than 2 seconds.

Nervous Initiation of the Pharyngeal Stage of Swallowing

The most sensitive tactile areas of the posterior mouth and pharynx for initiating the pharyngeal stage of swallowing lie in a ring around the pharyngeal opening, with greatest sensitivity on the tonsillar pillars. Impulses are transmitted from these areas through the sensory portions of the trigeminal and glossopharyngeal nerves into the medulla oblongata, either into or closely associated with the tractus solitarius, which receives essentially all sensory impulses from the mouth.

The successive stages of the swallowing process are then automatically initiated in orderly sequence by neuronal areas of the reticular substance of the medulla and lower portion of the pons. The sequence of the swallowing reflex is the same from one swallow to the next, and the timing of the entire cycle also remains constant from one swallow to the next. The areas in the medulla and lower pons that control swallowing are collectively called the deglutition or swallowing center.

The motor impulses from the swallowing center to the pharynx and upper esophagus that cause swallowing are transmitted successively by the fifth, ninth, tenth, and twelfth cranial nerves and even a few of the superior cervical nerves.

In summary, the pharyngeal stage of swallowing is principally a reflex act. It is almost always initiated by voluntary movement of food into the back of the mouth, which in turn excites involuntary pharyngeal sensory receptors to elicit the swallowing reflex.

Effect of the Pharyngeal Stage of Swallowing on Respiration

The entire pharyngeal stage of swallowing usually occurs in less than 6 seconds, thereby interrupting respiration for only a fraction of a usual respiratory cycle. The swallowing center specifically inhibits the respiratory center of the medulla during this time, halting respiration at any point in its cycle to allow swallowing to proceed. Yet even while a person is talking, swallowing interrupts respiration for such a short time that it is hardly noticeable.

Esophageal Stage of Swallowing

The esophagus functions primarily to conduct food rapidly from the pharynx to the stomach, and its movements are organized specifically for this function.

The esophagus normally exhibits two types of peristaltic movements: primary peristalsis and secondary peristalsis. Primary peristalsis is simply continuation of the peristaltic wave that begins in the pharynx and spreads into the esophagus during the pharyngeal stage of swallowing. This wave passes all the way from the pharynx to the stomach in about 8 to 10 seconds. Food swallowed by a person who is in the upright position is usually transmitted to the lower end of the esophagus even more rapidly than the peristaltic wave itself, in about 5 to 8 seconds, because of the additional effect of gravity pulling the food downward.

If the primary peristaltic wave fails to move into the stomach all the food that has entered the esophagus, secondary peristaltic waves result from distention of the esophagus itself by the retained food; these waves continue until all the food has emptied into the stomach. The secondary peristaltic waves are initiated partly by intrinsic neural circuits in the myenteric nervous system and partly by reflexes that begin in the pharynx and are then transmitted upward through vagal afferent fibers to the medulla and back again to the esophagus through glossopharyngeal and vagal efferent nerve fibers.

The musculature of the pharyngeal wall and upper third of the esophagus is striated muscle. Therefore, the peristaltic waves in these regions are controlled by skeletal nerve impulses from the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves. In the lower two thirds of the esophagus, the musculature is smooth muscle, but this portion of the esophagus is also strongly controlled by the vagus nerves acting through connections with the esophageal myenteric nervous system. When the vagus nerves to the esophagus are cut, the myenteric nerve plexus of the esophagus becomes excitable enough after several days to cause strong secondary peristaltic waves even without support from the vagal reflexes. Therefore, even after paralysis of the brain stem swallowing reflex, food fed by tube or in some other way into the esophagus still passes readily into the stomach.

Receptive Relaxation of the Stomach

When the esophageal peristaltic wave approaches toward the stomach, a wave of relaxation, transmitted through myenteric inhibitory neurons, precedes the peristalsis. Furthermore, the entire stomach and, to a lesser extent, even the duodenum become relaxed as this wave reaches the lower end of the esophagus and thus are prepared ahead of time to receive the food propelled into the esophagus during the swallowing act.

Function of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (Gastroesophageal Sphincter)

At the lower end of the esophagus, extending upward about 3 centimeters above its juncture with the stomach, the esophageal circular muscle functions as a broad lower esophageal sphincter, also called the gastroesophageal sphincter. This sphincter normally remains tonically constricted with an intraluminal pressure at this point in the esophagus of about 30 mm Hg, in contrast to the midportion of the esophagus, which normally remains relaxed. When a peristaltic swallowing wave passes down the esophagus, there is “receptive relaxation” of the lower esophageal sphincter ahead of the peristaltic wave, which allows easy propulsion of the swallowed food into the stomach. Rarely, the sphincter does not relax satisfactorily, resulting in a condition called achalasia. This is discussed in Chapter 66.

The stomach secretions are highly acidic and contain many proteolytic enzymes. The esophageal mucosa, except in the lower one eighth of the esophagus, is not capable of resisting for long the digestive action of gastric secretions. Fortunately, the tonic constriction of the lower esophageal sphincter helps to prevent significant reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus except under abnormal conditions.

Additional Prevention of Esophageal Reflux by Valvelike Closure of the Distal End of the Esophagus

Another factor that helps to prevent reflux is a valvelike mechanism of a short portion of the esophagus that extends slightly into the stomach. Increased intra-abdominal pressure caves the esophagus inward at this point. Thus, this valvelike closure of the lower esophagus helps to prevent high intra-abdominal pressure from forcing stomach contents backward into the esophagus. Otherwise, every time we walked, coughed, or breathed hard, we might expel stomach acid into the esophagus.

Motor Functions of the Stomach

The motor functions of the stomach are threefold: (1) storage of large quantities of food until the food can be processed in the stomach, duodenum, and lower intestinal tract; (2) mixing of this food with gastric secretions until it forms a semifluid mixture called chyme; and (3) slow emptying of the chyme from the stomach into the small intestine at a rate suitable for proper digestion and absorption by the small intestine.

Figure 63-2 shows the basic anatomy of the stomach. Anatomically, the stomach is usually divided into two major parts: (1) the body and (2) the antrum. Physiologically, it is more appropriately divided into (1) the “orad” portion, comprising about the first two thirds of the body, and (2) the “caudad” portion, comprising the remainder of the body plus the antrum.


Figure 63-2 Physiologic anatomy of the stomach.

Storage Function of the Stomach

As food enters the stomach, it forms concentric circles of the food in the orad portion of the stomach, the newest food lying closest to the esophageal opening and the oldest food lying nearest the outer wall of the stomach. Normally, when food stretches the stomach, a “vagovagal reflex” from the stomach to the brain stem and then back to the stomach reduces the tone in the muscular wall of the body of the stomach so that the wall bulges progressively outward, accommodating greater and greater quantities of food up to a limit in the completely relaxed stomach of 0.8 to 1.5 liters. The pressure in the stomach remains low until this limit is approached.

Mixing and Propulsion of Food in the Stomach—Basic Electrical Rhythm of the Stomach Wall

The digestive juices of the stomach are secreted by gastric glands, which are present in almost the entire wall of the body of the stomach except along a narrow strip on the lesser curvature of the stomach. These secretions come immediately into contact with that portion of the stored food lying against the mucosal surface of the stomach. As long as food is in the stomach, weak peristaltic constrictor waves,called mixing waves, begin in the mid to upper portions of the stomach wall and move toward the antrum about once every 15 to 20 seconds. These waves are initiated by the gut wall basic electrical rhythm,which was discussed in Chapter 62, consisting of electrical “slow waves” that occur spontaneously in the stomach wall. As the constrictor waves progress from the body of the stomach into the antrum, they become more intense, some becoming extremely intense and providing powerful peristaltic action potential–driven constrictor rings that force the antral contents under higher and higher pressure toward the pylorus.

These constrictor rings also play an important role in mixing the stomach contents in the following way: Each time a peristaltic wave passes down the antral wall toward the pylorus, it digs deeply into the food contents in the antrum. Yet the opening of the pylorus is still small enough that only a few milliliters or less of antral contents are expelled into the duodenum with each peristaltic wave. Also, as each peristaltic wave approaches the pylorus, the pyloric muscle itself often contracts, which further impedes emptying through the pylorus. Therefore, most of the antral contents are squeezed upstream through the peristaltic ring toward the body of the stomach, not through the pylorus. Thus, the moving peristaltic constrictive ring, combined with this upstream squeezing action, called “retropulsion,” is an exceedingly important mixing mechanism in the stomach.


After food in the stomach has become thoroughly mixed with the stomach secretions, the resulting mixture that passes down the gut is called chyme. The degree of fluidity of the chyme leaving the stomach depends on the relative amounts of food, water, and stomach secretions and on the degree of digestion that has occurred. The appearance of chyme is that of a murky semifluid or paste.

Hunger Contractions

Besides the peristaltic contractions that occur when food is present in the stomach, another type of intense contractions, called hunger contractions, often occurs when the stomach has been empty for several hours or more. They are rhythmical peristaltic contractions in the body of the stomach. When the successive contractions become extremely strong, they often fuse to cause a continuing tetanic contraction that sometimes lasts for 2 to 3 minutes.

Hunger contractions are most intense in young, healthy people who have high degrees of gastrointestinal tonus; they are also greatly increased by the person’s having lower than normal levels of blood sugar. When hunger contractions occur in the stomach, the person sometimes experiences mild pain in the pit of the stomach, called hunger pangs. Hunger pangs usually do not begin until 12 to 24 hours after the last ingestion of food; in starvation, they reach their greatest intensity in 3 to 4 days and gradually weaken in succeeding days.

Stomach Emptying

Stomach emptying is promoted by intense peristaltic contractions in the stomach antrum. At the same time, emptying is opposed by varying degrees of resistance to passage of chyme at the pylorus.

Intense Antral Peristaltic Contractions During Stomach Emptying—“Pyloric Pump.”

Most of the time, the rhythmical stomach contractions are weak and function mainly to cause mixing of food and gastric secretions. However, for about 20 percent of the time while food is in the stomach, the contractions become intense, beginning in midstomach and spreading through the caudad stomach; these contractions are strong peristaltic, very tight ringlike constrictions that can cause stomach emptying. As the stomach becomes progressively more and more empty, these constrictions begin farther and farther up the body of the stomach, gradually pinching off the food in the body of the stomach and adding this food to the chyme in the antrum. These intense peristaltic contractions often create 50 to 70 centimeters of water pressure, which is about six times as powerful as the usual mixing type of peristaltic waves.

When pyloric tone is normal, each strong peristaltic wave forces up to several milliliters of chyme into the duodenum. Thus, the peristaltic waves, in addition to causing mixing in the stomach, also provide a pumping action called the “pyloric pump.”

Role of the Pylorus in Controlling Stomach Emptying

The distal opening of the stomach is the pylorus. Here the thickness of the circular wall muscle becomes 50 to 100 percent greater than in the earlier portions of the stomach antrum, and it remains slightly tonically contracted almost all the time. Therefore, the pyloric circular muscle is called the pyloric sphincter.

Despite normal tonic contraction of the pyloric sphincter, the pylorus usually is open enough for water and other fluids to empty from the stomach into the duodenum with ease. Conversely, the constriction usually prevents passage of food particles until they have become mixed in the chyme to almost fluid consistency. The degree of constriction of the pylorus is increased or decreased under the influence of nervous and humoral reflex signals from both the stomach and the duodenum, as discussed shortly.

Regulation of Stomach Emptying

The rate at which the stomach empties is regulated by signals from both the stomach and the duodenum. However, the duodenum provides by far the more potent of the signals, controlling the emptying of chyme into the duodenum at a rate no greater than the rate at which the chyme can be digested and absorbed in the small intestine.

Gastric Factors That Promote Emptying

Effect of Gastric Food Volume on Rate of Emptying

Increased food volume in the stomach promotes increased emptying from the stomach. But this increased emptying does not occur for the reasons that one would expect. It is not increased storage pressure of the food in the stomach that causes the increased emptying because, in the usual normal range of volume, the increase in volume does not increase the pressure much. However, stretching of the stomach wall does elicit local myenteric reflexes in the wall that greatly accentuate activity of the pyloric pump and at the same time inhibit the pylorus.

Effect of the Hormone Gastrin on Stomach Emptying

In Chapter 64, we discuss how stomach wall stretch and the presence of certain types of foods in the stomach—particularly digestive products of meat—elicit release of the hormone gastrin from the antral mucosa. This has potent effects to cause secretion of highly acidic gastric juice by the stomach glands. Gastrin also has mild to moderate stimulatory effects on motor functions in the body of the stomach. Most important, it seems to enhance the activity of the pyloric pump. Thus, gastrin likely promotes stomach emptying.

Powerful Duodenal Factors That Inhibit Stomach Emptying

Inhibitory Effect of Enterogastric Nervous Reflexes from the Duodenum

When food enters the duodenum, multiple nervous reflexes are initiated from the duodenal wall. They pass back to the stomach to slow or even stop stomach emptying if the volume of chyme in the duodenum becomes too much. These reflexes are mediated by three routes: (1) directly from the duodenum to the stomach through the enteric nervous system in the gut wall, (2) through extrinsic nerves that go to the prevertebral sympathetic ganglia and then back through inhibitory sympathetic nerve fibers to the stomach, and (3) probably to a slight extent through the vagus nerves all the way to the brain stem, where they inhibit the normal excitatory signals transmitted to the stomach through the vagi. All these parallel reflexes have two effects on stomach emptying: First, they strongly inhibit the “pyloric pump” propulsive contractions, and second, they increase the tone of the pyloric sphincter.

The types of factors that are continually monitored in the duodenum and that can initiate enterogastric inhibitory reflexes include the following:

1. The degree of distention of the duodenum

2. The presence of any degree of irritation of the duodenal mucosa

3. The degree of acidity of the duodenal chyme

4. The degree of osmolality of the chyme

5. The presence of certain breakdown products in the chyme, especially breakdown products of proteins and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of fats

The enterogastric inhibitory reflexes are especially sensitive to the presence of irritants and acids in the duodenal chyme, and they often become strongly activated within as little as 30 seconds. For instance, whenever the pH of the chyme in the duodenum falls below about 3.5 to 4, the reflexes frequently block further release of acidic stomach contents into the duodenum until the duodenal chyme can be neutralized by pancreatic and other secretions.

Breakdown products of protein digestion also elicit inhibitory enterogastric reflexes; by slowing the rate of stomach emptying, sufficient time is ensured for adequate protein digestion in the duodenum and small intestine.

Finally, either hypotonic or hypertonic fluids (especially hypertonic) elicit the inhibitory reflexes. Thus, too rapid flow of nonisotonic fluids into the small intestine is prevented, thereby also preventing rapid changes in electrolyte concentrations in the whole-body extracellular fluid during absorption of the intestinal contents.

Hormonal Feedback from the Duodenum Inhibits Gastric Emptying—Role of Fats and the Hormone Cholecystokinin

Not only do nervous reflexes from the duodenum to the stomach inhibit stomach emptying, but hormones released from the upper intestine do so as well. The stimulus for releasing these inhibitory hormones is mainly fats entering the duodenum, although other types of foods can increase the hormones to a lesser degree.

On entering the duodenum, the fats extract several different hormones from the duodenal and jejunal epithelium, either by binding with “receptors” on the epithelial cells or in some other way. In turn, the hormones are carried by way of the blood to the stomach, where they inhibit the pyloric pump and at the same time increase the strength of contraction of the pyloric sphincter. These effects are important because fats are much slower to be digested than most other foods.

Precisely which hormones cause the hormonal feedback inhibition of the stomach is not fully clear. The most potent appears to be cholecystokinin (CCK), which is released from the mucosa of the jejunum in response to fatty substances in the chyme. This hormone acts as an inhibitor to block increased stomach motility caused by gastrin.

Other possible inhibitors of stomach emptying are the hormones secretin and gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP), also called glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide. Secretin is released mainly from the duodenal mucosa in response to gastric acid passed from the stomach through the pylorus. GIP has a general but weak effect of decreasing gastrointestinal motility.

GIP is released from the upper small intestine in response mainly to fat in the chyme, but to a lesser extent to carbohydrates as well. Although GIP inhibits gastric motility under some conditions, its main effect at physiologic concentrations is probably mainly to stimulate secretion of insulin by the pancreas.

These hormones are discussed at greater length elsewhere in this text, especially in Chapter 64 in relation to control of gallbladder emptying and control of rate of pancreatic secretion.

In summary, hormones, especially CCK, can inhibit gastric emptying when excess quantities of chyme, especially acidic or fatty chyme, enter the duodenum from the stomach.

Summary of the Control of Stomach Emptying

Emptying of the stomach is controlled only to a moderate degree by stomach factors such as the degree of filling in the stomach and the excitatory effect of gastrin on stomach peristalsis. Probably the more important control of stomach emptying resides in inhibitory feedback signals from the duodenum, including both enterogastric inhibitory nervous feedback reflexes and hormonal feedback by CCK. These feedback inhibitory mechanisms work together to slow the rate of emptying when (1) too much chyme is already in the small intestine or (2) the chyme is excessively acidic, contains too much unprocessed protein or fat, is hypotonic or hypertonic, or is irritating. In this way, the rate of stomach emptying is limited to that amount of chyme that the small intestine can process.

Movements of the Small Intestine

The movements of the small intestine, like those elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract, can be divided into mixing contractions and propulsive contractions. To a great extent, this separation is artificial because essentially all movements of the small intestine cause at least some degree of both mixing and propulsion. The usual classification of these processes is the following.

Mixing Contractions (Segmentation Contractions)

When a portion of the small intestine becomes distended with chyme, stretching of the intestinal wall elicits localized concentric contractions spaced at intervals along the intestine and lasting a fraction of a minute. The contractions cause “segmentation” of the small intestine, as shown in Figure 63-3. That is, they divide the intestine into spaced segments that have the appearance of a chain of sausages. As one set of segmentation contractions relaxes, a new set often begins, but the contractions this time occur mainly at new points between the previous contractions. Therefore, the segmentation contractions “chop” the chyme two to three times per minute, in this way promoting progressive mixing of the food with secretions of the small intestine.


Figure 63-3 Segmentation movements of the small intestine.

The maximum frequency of the segmentation contractions in the small intestine is determined by the frequency of electrical slow waves in the intestinal wall, which is the basic electrical rhythm described in Chapter 62. Because this frequency normally is not over 12 per minute in the duodenum and proximal jejunum, the maximum frequency of the segmentation contractions in these areas is also about 12 per minute, but this occurs only under extreme conditions of stimulation. In the terminal ileum, the maximum frequency is usually eight to nine contractions per minute.

The segmentation contractions become exceedingly weak when the excitatory activity of the enteric nervous system is blocked by the drug atropine. Therefore, even though it is the slow waves in the smooth muscle itself that cause the segmentation contractions, these contractions are not effective without background excitation mainly from the myenteric nerve plexus.

Propulsive Movements

Peristalsis in the Small Intestine

Chyme is propelled through the small intestine by peristaltic waves. These can occur in any part of the small intestine, and they move toward the anus at a velocity of 0.5 to 2.0 cm/sec, faster in the proximal intestine and slower in the terminal intestine. They are normally weak and usually die out after traveling only 3 to 5 centimeters, rarely farther than 10 centimeters, so forward movement of the chyme is very slow, so slow that net movement along the small intestine normally averages only 1 cm/min. This means that 3 to 5 hours are required for passage of chyme from the pylorus to the ileocecal valve.

Control of Peristalsis by Nervous and Hormonal Signals

Peristaltic activity of the small intestine is greatly increased after a meal. This is caused partly by the beginning entry of chyme into the duodenum causing stretch of the duodenal wall. Also, peristaltic activity is increased by the so-called gastroenteric reflex that is initiated by distention of the stomach and conducted principally through the myenteric plexus from the stomach down along the wall of the small intestine.

In addition to the nervous signals that may affect small intestinal peristalsis, several hormonal factors also affect peristalsis. They include gastrin, CCK, insulin, motilin, and serotonin, all of which enhance intestinal motility and are secreted during various phases of food processing. Conversely, secretin and glucagon inhibit small intestinal motility. The physiologic importance of each of these hormonal factors for controlling motility is still questionable.

The function of the peristaltic waves in the small intestine is not only to cause progression of chyme toward the ileocecal valve but also to spread out the chyme along the intestinal mucosa. As the chyme enters the intestines from the stomach and elicits peristalsis, this immediately spreads the chyme along the intestine; and this process intensifies as additional chyme enters the duodenum. On reaching the ileocecal valve, the chyme is sometimes blocked for several hours until the person eats another meal; at that time, a gastroileal reflex intensifies peristalsis in the ileum and forces the remaining chyme through the ileocecal valve into the cecum of the large intestine.

Propulsive Effect of the Segmentation Movements

The segmentation movements, although lasting for only a few seconds at a time, often also travel 1 centimeter or so in the anal direction and during that time help propel the food down the intestine. The difference between the segmentation and the peristaltic movements is not as great as might be implied by their separation into these two classifications.

Peristaltic Rush

Although peristalsis in the small intestine is normally weak, intense irritation of the intestinal mucosa, as occurs in some severe cases of infectious diarrhea, can cause both powerful and rapid peristalsis, called the peristaltic rush.This is initiated partly by nervous reflexes that involve the autonomic nervous system and brain stem and partly by intrinsic enhancement of the myenteric plexus reflexes within the gut wall itself. The powerful peristaltic contractions travel long distances in the small intestine within minutes, sweeping the contents of the intestine into the colon and thereby relieving the small intestine of irritative chyme and excessive distention.

Movements Caused by the Muscularis Mucosae and Muscle Fibers of the Villi

The muscularis mucosae can cause short folds to appear in the intestinal mucosa. In addition, individual fibers from this muscle extend into the intestinal villi and cause them to contract intermittently. The mucosal folds increase the surface area exposed to the chyme, thereby increasing absorption. Also, contractions of the villi—shortening, elongating, and shortening again—“milk” the villi so that lymph flows freely from the central lacteals of the villi into the lymphatic system. These mucosal and villous contractions are initiated mainly by local nervous reflexes in the submucosal nerve plexus that occur in response to chyme in the small intestine.

Function of the Ileocecal Valve

A principal function of the ileocecal valve is to prevent backflow of fecal contents from the colon into the small intestine. As shown in Figure 63-4, the ileocecal valve itself protrudes into the lumen of the cecum and therefore is forcefully closed when excess pressure builds up in the cecum and tries to push cecal contents backward against the valve lips. The valve usually can resist reverse pressure of at least 50 to 60 centimeters of water.


Figure 63-4 Emptying at the ileocecal valve.

In addition, the wall of the ileum for several centimeters immediately upstream from the ileocecal valve has a thickened circular muscle called the ileocecal sphincter. This sphincter normally remains mildly constricted and slows emptying of ileal contents into the cecum. However, immediately after a meal, a gastroileal reflex (described earlier) intensifies peristalsis in the ileum, and emptying of ileal contents into the cecum proceeds.

Resistance to emptying at the ileocecal valve prolongs the stay of chyme in the ileum and thereby facilitates absorption. Normally, only 1500 to 2000 milliliters of chyme empty into the cecum each day.

Feedback Control of the Ileocecal Sphincter

The degree of contraction of the ileocecal sphincter and the intensity of peristalsis in the terminal ileum are controlled significantly by reflexes from the cecum. When the cecum is distended, contraction of the ileocecal sphincter becomes intensified and ileal peristalsis is inhibited, both of which greatly delay emptying of additional chyme into the cecum from the ileum. Also, any irritant in the cecum delays emptying. For instance, when a person has an inflamed appendix, the irritation of this vestigial remnant of the cecum can cause such intense spasm of the ileocecal sphincter and partial paralysis of the ileum that these effects together block emptying of the ileum into the cecum. The reflexes from the cecum to the ileocecal sphincter and ileum are mediated both by way of the myenteric plexus in the gut wall itself and of the extrinsic autonomic nerves, especially by way of the prevertebral sympathetic ganglia.

Movements of the Colon

The principal functions of the colon are (1) absorption of water and electrolytes from the chyme to form solid feces and (2) storage of fecal matter until it can be expelled. The proximal half of the colon, shown in Figure 63-5, is concerned principally with absorption, and the distal half with storage. Because intense colon wall movements are not required for these functions, the movements of the colon are normally sluggish. Yet in a sluggish manner, the movements still have characteristics similar to those of the small intestine and can be divided once again into mixing movements and propulsive movements.


Figure 63-5 Absorptive and storage functions of the large intestine.

Mixing Movements—“Haustrations.”

In the same manner that segmentation movements occur in the small intestine, large circular constrictions occur in the large intestine. At each of these constrictions, about 2.5 centimeters of the circular muscle contract, sometimes constricting the lumen of the colon almost to occlusion. At the same time, the longitudinal muscle of the colon, which is aggregated into three longitudinal strips called the teniae coli,contracts. These combined contractions of the circular and longitudinal strips of muscle cause the unstimulated portion of the large intestine to bulge outward into baglike sacs called haustrations.

Each haustration usually reaches peak intensity in about 30 seconds and then disappears during the next 60 seconds. They also at times move slowly toward the anus during contraction, especially in the cecum and ascending colon, and thereby provide a minor amount of forward propulsion of the colonic contents. After another few minutes, new haustral contractions occur in other areas nearby. Therefore, the fecal material in the large intestine is slowly dug into and rolled over in much the same manner that one spades the earth. In this way, all the fecal material is gradually exposed to the mucosal surface of the large intestine, and fluid and dissolved substances are progressively absorbed until only 80 to 200 milliliters of feces are expelled each day.

Propulsive Movements—“Mass Movements.”

Much of the propulsion in the cecum and ascending colon results from the slow but persistent haustral contractions, requiring as many as 8 to 15 hours to move the chyme from the ileocecal valve through the colon, while the chyme itself becomes fecal in quality, a semisolid slush instead of semifluid.

From the cecum to the sigmoid, mass movements can, for many minutes at a time, take over the propulsive role. These movements usually occur only one to three times each day, in many people especially for about 15 minutes during the first hour after eating breakfast.

A mass movement is a modified type of peristalsis characterized by the following sequence of events: First, a constrictive ring occurs in response to a distended or irritated point in the colon, usually in the transverse colon. Then, rapidly, the 20 or more centimeters of colon distal to the constrictive ring lose their haustrations and instead contract as a unit, propelling the fecal material in this segment en massefurther down the colon. The contraction develops progressively more force for about 30 seconds, and relaxation occurs during the next 2 to 3 minutes. Then, another mass movement occurs, this time perhaps farther along the colon.

A series of mass movements usually persists for 10 to 30 minutes. Then they cease but return perhaps a half day later. When they have forced a mass of feces into the rectum, the desire for defecation is felt.

Initiation of Mass Movements by Gastrocolic and Duodenocolic Reflexes

Appearance of mass movements after meals is facilitated by gastrocolic and duodenocolic reflexes. These reflexes result from distention of the stomach and duodenum. They occur either not at all or hardly at all when the extrinsic autonomic nerves to the colon have been removed; therefore, the reflexes almost certainly are transmitted by way of the autonomic nervous system.

Irritation in the colon can also initiate intense mass movements. For instance, a person who has an ulcerated condition of the colon mucosa (ulcerative colitis) frequently has mass movements that persist almost all the time.


Most of the time, the rectum is empty of feces. This results partly from the fact that a weak functional sphincter exists about 20 centimeters from the anus at the juncture between the sigmoid colon and the rectum. There is also a sharp angulation here that contributes additional resistance to filling of the rectum.

When a mass movement forces feces into the rectum, the desire for defecation occurs immediately, including reflex contraction of the rectum and relaxation of the anal sphincters.

Continual dribble of fecal matter through the anus is prevented by tonic constriction of (1) an internal anal sphincter, a several-centimeters-long thickening of the circular smooth muscle that lies immediately inside the anus, and (2) an external anal sphincter, composed of striated voluntary muscle that both surrounds the internal sphincter and extends distal to it. The external sphincter is controlled by nerve fibers in the pudendal nerve, which is part of the somatic nervous system and therefore is under voluntary, conscious, or at least subconscious control; subconsciously, the external sphincter is usually kept continuously constricted unless conscious signals inhibit the constriction.

Defecation Reflexes

Ordinarily, defecation is initiated by defecation reflexes. One of these reflexes is an intrinsic reflex mediated by the local enteric nervous system in the rectal wall. This can be described as follows: When feces enter the rectum, distention of the rectal wall initiates afferent signals that spread through the myenteric plexus to initiate peristaltic waves in the descending colon, sigmoid, and rectum, forcing feces toward the anus. As the peristaltic wave approaches the anus, the internal anal sphincter is relaxed by inhibitory signals from the myenteric plexus; if the external anal sphincter is also consciously, voluntarily relaxed at the same time, defecation occurs.

The intrinsic myenteric defecation reflex functioning by itself normally is relatively weak. To be effective in causing defecation, it usually must be fortified by another type of defecation reflex, a parasympathetic defecation reflexthat involves the sacral segments of the spinal cord, shown in Figure 63-6. When the nerve endings in the rectum are stimulated, signals are transmitted first into the spinal cord and then reflexly back to the descending colon, sigmoid, rectum, and anus by way of parasympathetic nerve fibers in the pelvic nerves. These parasympathetic signals greatly intensify the peristaltic waves and relax the internal anal sphincter, thus converting the intrinsic myenteric defecation reflex from a weak effort into a powerful process of defecation that is sometimes effective in emptying the large bowel all the way from the splenic flexure of the colon to the anus.


Figure 63-6 Afferent and efferent pathways of the parasympathetic mechanism for enhancing the defecation reflex.

Defecation signals entering the spinal cord initiate other effects, such as taking a deep breath, closure of the glottis, and contraction of the abdominal wall muscles to force the fecal contents of the colon downward and at the same time cause the pelvic floor to relax downward and pull outward on the anal ring to evaginate the feces.

When it becomes convenient for the person to defecate, the defecation reflexes can purposely be activated by taking a deep breath to move the diaphragm downward and then contracting the abdominal muscles to increase the pressure in the abdomen, thus forcing fecal contents into the rectum to cause new reflexes. Reflexes initiated in this way are almost never as effective as those that arise naturally, for which reason people who too often inhibit their natural reflexes are likely to become severely constipated.

In newborn babies and in some people with transected spinal cords, the defecation reflexes cause automatic emptying of the lower bowel at inconvenient times during the day because of lack of conscious control exercised through voluntary contraction or relaxation of the external anal sphincter.

Other Autonomic Reflexes That Affect Bowel Activity

Aside from the duodenocolic, gastrocolic, gastroileal, enterogastric, and defecation reflexes that have been discussed in this chapter, several other important nervous reflexes also can affect the overall degree of bowel activity. They are the peritoneointestinal reflex, renointestinal reflex, and vesicointestinal reflex.

The peritoneointestinal reflex results from irritation of the peritoneum; it strongly inhibits the excitatory enteric nerves and thereby can cause intestinal paralysis, especially in patients with peritonitis. The renointestinal and vesicointestinal reflexes inhibit intestinal activity as a result of kidney or bladder irritation, respectively.


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