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Homeostatic imbalances

Ulcers: when the mucosal barrier breaks down

As effective as the mucosal barrier is, it is not a “fail-safe” mechanism. Sometimes, gastric juice eats away at the superficial lining of the stomach mucosa, creating erosions, which mostly heal on their own. Deeper and larger erosions are called ulcers.

Why does the mucosal barrier break down? A number of factors can interfere with its ability to protect the stomach lining. The majority of all ulcers are caused by either excessive intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, or Helicobacter pylori infection.

Antacids help relieve symptoms of ulcers such as “burning” pain and indigestion. When ulcers are caused by NSAID use, switching to other classes of pain relievers allows healing. When caused by H. pylori infection, antibiotics are effective.

A potential complication of ulcers is perforation: Perforated ulcers create a hole in the stomach wall, resulting in peritonitis (inflammation of the peritoneum). These ulcers must be repaired surgically.

Digestive functions of the stomach

The stomach participates in virtually all the digestive activities with the exception of ingestion and defecation. Although almost all absorption takes place in the small intestine, the stomach does absorb some nonpolar substances, such as alcohol and aspirin.

Mechanical digestion

Within a few moments after food after enters your stomach, mixing waves begin to occur at intervals of approximately 20 seconds. A mixing wave    is a unique type of peristalsis that mixes and softens the food with gastric juices to create chyme. The initial mixing waves are relatively gentle, but these are followed by more intense waves, starting at the body of the stomach and increasing in force as they reach the pylorus. It is fair to say that long before your sushi exits through the pyloric sphincter, it bears little resemblance to the sushi you ate.

The pylorus, which holds around 30 mL (1 fluid ounce) of chyme, acts as a filter, permitting only liquids and small food particles to pass through the mostly, but not fully, closed pyloric sphincter. In a process called gastric emptying    , rhythmic mixing waves force about 3 mL of chyme at a time through the pyloric sphincter and into the duodenum. Release of a greater amount of chyme at one time would overwhelm the capacity of the small intestine to handle it. The rest of the chyme is pushed back into the body of the stomach, where it continues mixing. This process is repeated when the next mixing waves force more chyme into the duodenum.

Gastric emptying is regulated by both the stomach and the duodenum. The presence of chyme in the duodenum activates receptors that inhibit gastric secretion. This prevents additional chyme from being released by the stomach before the duodenum is ready to process it.

Chemical digestion

The fundus plays an important role, because it stores both undigested food and gases that are released during the process of chemical digestion. Food may sit in the fundus of the stomach for a while before being mixed with the chyme. While the food is in the fundus, the digestive activities of salivary amylase continue until the food begins mixing with the acidic chyme. Ultimately, mixing waves incorporate this food with the chyme, the acidity of which inactivates salivary amylase and activates lingual lipase. Lingual lipase then begins breaking down triglycerides into free fatty acids, and mono- and diglycerides.

The breakdown of protein begins in the stomach through the actions of HCl and the enzyme pepsin. During infancy, gastric glands also produce rennin, an enzyme that helps digest milk protein.

Its numerous digestive functions notwithstanding, there is only one stomach function necessary to life: the production of intrinsic factor. The intestinal absorption of vitamin B 12 , which is necessary for both the production of mature red blood cells and normal neurological functioning, cannot occur without intrinsic factor. People who undergo total gastrectomy (stomach removal)—for life-threatening stomach cancer, for example—can survive with minimal digestive dysfunction if they receive vitamin B 12 injections.

The contents of the stomach are completely emptied into the duodenum within 2 to 4 hours after you eat a meal. Different types of food take different amounts of time to process. Foods heavy in carbohydrates empty fastest, followed by high-protein foods. Meals with a high triglyceride content remain in the stomach the longest. Since enzymes in the small intestine digest fats slowly, food can stay in the stomach for 6 hours or longer when the duodenum is processing fatty chyme. However, note that this is still a fraction of the 24 to 72 hours that full digestion typically takes from start to finish.

Chapter review

The stomach participates in all digestive activities except ingestion and defecation. It vigorously churns food. It secretes gastric juices that break down food and absorbs certain drugs, including aspirin and some alcohol. The stomach begins the digestion of protein and continues the digestion of carbohydrates and fats. It stores food as an acidic liquid called chyme, and releases it gradually into the small intestine through the pyloric sphincter.

Watch this animation that depicts the structure of the stomach and how this structure functions in the initiation of protein digestion. This view of the stomach shows the characteristic rugae. What is the function of these rugae?

Answers may vary.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology: energy, maintenance and environmental exchange. OpenStax CNX. Aug 21, 2014 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11701/1.1
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