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Health Begins In The Gut!
Digestion Problems | GI North | Cumming, GA

This image shows a 3D rendered illustration of colon villi.

Let’s Talk About Villi

Most of us don’t think about the foods we eat after enjoying a snack or meal. Although food and drink satisfy our hunger and make us feel pleasantly full, the healthy digestive system extracts, moves, and uses nutrients in foods to keep us healthy. In fact, some nutritionists say that “health begins in the gut” and they’re right!

Under a microscope, the inner open space of the small intestine looks velvety because it’s covered by countless small fingerlike projections known as villi. The villi protrude approximately one millimeter into this inner open cavity, the lumen. Villi are part of the mucosal structure that is home to constantly renewing epithelial (endoderm) cells, including secretory and endocrine cells. This structure absorbs nutrients from foods the individual eats and transports them to the blood system. The amazing process actually completes one of the most primary functions of digestion and the digestive system. Knowing how the small intestine works makes understanding how the intestinal mucosa functions.

Cellular Parts Of The Villi

The process of digestion is amazing in its elegance: Stem cells in areas known as crypts constantly divide. Each new cell from this division process remains as a new stem cell. Differentiation of cells in the four digestive paths enables the development of Paneth, enterocyte, goblet, and entero-endocrine cells. Enterocyte cells must divide multiple times during their migration to the intestinal crypts. Then, they move into position on the villi, differentiating even more into functioning absorbing cells. In short, enterocytes are developed at the base of the intestinal crypts, then move along crypt walls to finally reach maturity on the projectile villi.


The body’s physical and chemical digestive processing plant breaks down the food value of everything the individual eats or drinks. The process begins in the mouth with chewing action, causing wave-like peristalsis (esophagus muscles contract, as the stomach churns and mixes food particles). Saliva from the mouth works directly with cells, which line the stomach. The liver and pancreas then apply enzymes to break the food particles into molecular portions so that the small intestine easily absorbs nutrients.

Nutrient Absorption

All nutrients, including nutritional building blocks like amino acids and various sugars, must pass across the system of intestinal villi. The villus cell contains both a blood supply and a lymph vessel. As nutrients cross the epithelial divide, some pass into the cell’s capillary bed and enter the blood stream (especially fats) while others enter the lymph vessel. Those nutrients entering the lymphatic system (which actually drains from the intestinal system) flow to the blood stream through the thoractic duct. According to Colorado State University researchers, when the villi work properly, maximum nutritional available from foods consumed are extracted and sent to the body’s cells for repair and/or growth purposes. GI North, a gastroenterology practice located in suburban Atlanta, works with patients to achieve better digestive function.

The Small Intestine

The small intestine is actually the longest “stretch” of the digestive system. It usually measures about six meters in length (or approximately three times the average human’s height! The three sections of the small intestine are involved in the challenge of extracting food nutrients. Digested food matter (called chime) moves from stomach to the small intestine. It first enters the duodenum. Pancreatic enzymes and bile mix with the chime to fully break down protein, carbohydrate and fat in the foods consumed. The duodenum is responsible for breaking down some elemental nutrients such as iron, but the jejunum (second part of the small intestine) works to absorb most nutrients. Lastly, the ileum then absorbs any nutrients, which remain. When its work is done, the small intestine passes bulk material to the large intestine.

Digestion Issues | GI North | Cumming, GA

The Villi

As you can see, villi are important in the nutrient absorption process. If the small intestine’s luminal system were completely flat, nutrients from foods would leave the small intestine and pass through undigested to the large intestine. They would be excreted and their potential benefits to the body would be lost. Of course, the small intestine contains villi, which are housed by mucosal folds (circular folds). The villi line the small intestine’s walls. In fact, microvilli—very tiny projections in the membranes—coat the villi! The amazing addition of villi in the small intestine increases its available surface area from one-half a square meter to more than two hundred fifty square meters! This surface greatly improves the nutrients the body can take in and use.

Digestive Diseases

Some diseases, such as celiac disease, affect villi function in the small intestine. They shrink and flatten over time as the body attempts to deal with common gluten from grain foods. Over time, celiac disease or even gluten allergies can decrease the body’s ability to properly digest foods. Without proper digestion, every cell in the body suffers.


If your digestion isn’t in proper order, don’t wait! Contact GI North to arrange a mutually convenient office visit as the first step to improving your digestion and total health. We’re located in Cumming, Georgia, an easy drive from Alpharetta, Canton, Dawsonville, Suwanee, and the greater Atlanta metro area. Call Drs. Cofrancesco and Quijano at 404-446-0400 today. We speak Spanish and welcome new patients.

© 2014 GI North Gastroenterology Services. All rights reserved.

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