Everything we eat and drink undergoes a series of complex processes all working seamlessly together, breaking down food so we can properly absorb the nutrients it contains. While the intestines is where the majority of digestion takes place, it is inside the oral cavity, or mouth, where the whole process of digestion begins.
Functions and parts of the oral cavity
The oral cavity is the first part of the gastrointestinal tract which is responsible for processing and digesting our food. The oral cavity is composed of the cheeks, hard and soft palates, the tongue, oral mucosa as well as the salivary glands and teeth. Inside the oral cavity is where food is broken down using mechanical and chemical processes to help break down our food into a form that's easy to swallow.
The salivary glands
Salivary glands are found in various parts of the oral cavity including the lips, cheeks, palate and tongue. Salivary glands can be stimulated into secreting saliva through taste, smell, sight, sound and even thoughts of food. For example, the smell of freshly baked bread coming from a bakery alerts us to the fact that something tasty is around and the digestive system starts preparing itself for the imminent arrival of nutrients. Saliva is important to the digestion process as it contains special enzymes which help destroy bacteria while breaking down fats and starches from our food. Saliva also makes our food easier to chew and swallow.
The teeth play a major part in the mechanical process of breaking down our food into smaller, more manageable pieces. Front teeth are sharp and good for biting, tearing and cutting, while the back teeth are designed for chewing and grinding food into macroscopic pieces. Teeth are composed of dentin which contains 70 percent more calcium than bone and they’re covered with enamel, the hardest material in the body. Together, this helps give them the strength and stability needed for the continued daily wear and tear they undergo while processing our food.
The tongue is a muscular organ within the oral cavity which is covered with tiny papillae, small projections which help the tongue grip food. The tongue works in conjunction with teeth by pushing food around the mouth, making it accessible to the teeth. It then helps to form chewed food into a ball before pushing it to the back of the mouth in preparation for swallowing.
The soft palate
At the very back of the throat is the uvula which looks like a hanging cone of tissue. This, together with the soft palate helps to seal off the entrance to the nasal passage and stops food from entering the windpipe. When we swallow, the soft palate contracts to allow our food to transition down the esophagus and onto the next stage of the digestion process.
While we may not be aware of it, the oral cavity plays an important part of the digestive process. The various parts of the mouth including the tongue, teeth and salivary glands are essential to help transform solid food into a state from which the body can easily absorb vital nutrients. Without it, we’d only be able to consume liquids. Fortunately, we don't need to give much thought to this process, apart from enjoying what we're eating.