The Human Body

The Large Intestine

A watery residue of indigestible food and digestive juices remains unabsorbed. This residue leaves the ileum of the small intestine and moves by peristalsis into the large intestine, where it spends 12 to 24 hours. The large intestine forms an inverted U over the coils of the small intestine. It starts on the lower right-hand side of the body and ends on the lower left-hand side. The large intestine is 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 ft) long and about 6 cm (2.5 in) in diameter.

The large intestine serves several important functions. It absorbs water—about 6 liters (1.6 gallons) daily—as well as dissolved salts from the residue passed on by the small intestine. In addition, bacteria in the large intestine promote the breakdown of undigested materials and make several vitamins, notably vitamin K, which the body needs for blood clotting. The large intestine moves its remaining contents toward the rectum, which makes up the final 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) of the alimentary canal. The rectum stores the feces—waste material that consists largely of undigested food, digestive juices, bacteria, and mucus—until elimination. Then, muscle contractions in the walls of the rectum push the feces toward the anus. When sphincters between the rectum and anus relax, the feces pass out of the body.