Digestive System > Small Intestine

Absorption of Water and Electrolytes

The small intestine must absorb massive quantities of water. A normal person or animal of similar size takes in roughly 1 to 2 liters of dietary fluid every day. On top of that, another 6 to 7 liters of fluid is received by the small intestine daily as secretions from salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, liver and the small intestine itself.

By the time the ingesta enters the large intestine, approximately 80% of this fluid has been absorbed. Net movement of water across cell membranes always occurs by osmosis, and the fundamental concept needed to understand absorption in the small gut is that there is a tight coupling between water and solute absorption. Another way of saying this is that absorption of water is absolutely dependent on absorption of solutes, particularly sodium:

As sodium is rapidly pumped out of the cell, it achieves very high concentration in the narrow space between enterocytes. A potent osmotic gradient is thus formed across apical cell membranes and their connecting junctional complexes that osmotically drives movement of water across the epithelium.

Water is thus absorbed into the intercellular space by diffusion down an osmotic gradient. However, looking at the process as a whole, transport of water from lumen to blood is often against an osmotic gradient - this is important because it means that the intestine can absorb water into blood even when the osmolarity in the lumen is higher than osmolarity of blood.

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