A large part of protein digestion occurs in the stomach (Figure 16.7). The stomach is a saclike organ that secretes gastric digestive juices.
Protein digestion is carried out by an enzyme called pepsin in the stomach chamber. The highly acidic environment kills many microorganisms in the food and, combined with the action of the enzyme pepsin, results in the catabolism of protein in the food. Chemical digestion is facilitated by the churning action of the stomach caused by contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles. The partially digested food and gastric juice mixture is called chyme. Gastric emptying occurs within two to six hours after a meal. Only a small amount of chyme is released into the small intestine at a time. The movement of chyme from the stomach into the small intestine is regulated by hormones, stomach distension and muscular reflexes that influence the pyloric sphincter.
The stomach lining is unaffected by pepsin and the acidity because pepsin is released in an inactive form and the stomach has a thick mucus lining that protects the underlying tissue.