Gastrointestinal System Anatomy

Introduction to the gastrointestinal system

The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) consists of a hollow muscular tube starting from the oral cavity, where food enters the mouth, continuing through the pharynx, oesophagus, stomach and intestines to the rectum and anus, where food is expelled. There are various accessory organs that assist the tract by secreting enzymes to help break down food into its component nutrients. Thus the salivary glands, liver, pancreas and gall bladder have important functions in the digestive system. Food is propelled along the length of the GIT by peristaltic movements of the muscular walls.

The primary purpose of the gastrointestinal tract is to break food down into nutrients, which can be absorbed into the body to provide energy. First food must be ingested into the mouth to be mechanically processed and moistened. Secondly, digestion occurs mainly in the stomach and small intestine where proteins, fats and carbohydrates are chemically broken down into their basic building blocks. Smaller molecules are then absorbed across the epithelium of the small intestine and subsequently enter the circulation. The large intestine plays a key role in reabsorbing excess water. Finally, undigested material and secreted waste products are excreted from the body via defecation (passing of faces).

In the case of gastrointestinal disease or disorders, these functions of the gastrointestinal tract are not achieved successfully. Patients may develop symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, malabsorption, constipation or obstruction. Gastrointestinal problems are very common and most people will have experienced some of the above symptoms several times throughout their lives.

Basic structure

The gastrointestinal tract is a muscular tube lined by a special layer of cells, called epithelium. The contents of the tube are considered external to the body and are in continuity with the outside world at the mouth and the anus. Although each section of the tract has specialised functions, the entire tract has a similar basic structure with regional variations.

The wall is divided into four layers as follows:


The innermost layer of the digestive tract has specialised epithelial cells supported by an underlying connective tissue layer called the lamina propria. The lamina propria contains blood vessels, nerves, lymphoid tissue and glands that support the mucosa. Depending on its function, the epithelium may be simple (a single layer) or stratified (multiple layers).

Areas such as the mouth and oesophagus are covered by a stratified squamous (flat) epithelium so they can survive the wear and tear of passing food. Simple columnar (tall) or glandular epithelium lines the stomach and intestines to aid secretion and absorption. The inner lining is constantly shed and replaced, making it one of the most rapidly dividing areas of the body! Beneath the lamina propria is the muscularis mucosa. This comprises layers of smooth muscle which can contract to change the shape of the lumen.


The submucosa surrounds the muscularis mucosa and consists of fat, fibrous connective tissue and larger vessels and nerves. At its outer margin there is a specialized nerve plexus called the submucosal plexus or Meissner plexus. This supplies the mucosa and submucosa.

Muscularis externa

This smooth muscle layer has inner circular and outer longitudinal layers of muscle fibres separated by the myenteric plexus or Auerbach plexus. Neural innervations control the contraction of these muscles and hence the mechanical breakdown and peristalsis of the food within the lumen.


The outer layer of the GIT is formed by fat and another layer of epithelial cells called mesothelium.