This article, which forms part of the life sciences series and is the first of two articles on the digestive system, explores the structure and function of the digestive system. It is important that nurses understand how the digestive system works and its role in maintaining health. The article describes the gross structure of the gastrointestinal tract along with relevant physiology. It also outlines several disorders of the gastrointestinal tract and their treatment and nursing management. The second article will explain the liver, pancreas and gall bladder and their digestive functions, and provides a brief overview of the disorders of chronic liver disease, pancreatitis and gallstones.