A diagram of the human heart; labeled is the blood vessel that sends blood from the heart through the systemic circuit (the aorta) and the blood vessels that bring blood back from upper and lower body to the heart (the superior and inferior vena cava, respectively).
Diagram of the human heart. From the left ventricle, oxygenated blood enters through the aorta and is distributed throughout the arteries of the systemic circuit.
Systemic circulation refers to the part of the circulatory system in which the blood leaves the heart, services the body's cells, and then re-enters the heart. Blood leaves through the left ventricle to the aorta, the body's largest artery. The aorta leads to smaller arteries, arterioles, and finally capillaries. Waste and carbon dioxide diffuse out of the cell into the blood, and oxygen in the blood diffuses into the cell. Blood then moves to venous capillaries, and then the venae cavae: the lower inferior vena cava and the upper superior vena cava, through which the blood re-enters the heart at the right atrium.
Oxygenated blood enters the systemic circulation when leaving the left ventricle, through the aortic semilunar valve. The first part of the systemic circulation is the aorta, a massive and thick-walled artery. The aorta arches and branches into major arteries to the upper body before passing through the diaphragm, where it branches further into arteries which supply the lower parts of the body.
After their passage through body tissues, capillaries merge once again into venules, which continue to merge into veins. The venous system finally coalesces into two major veins: the superior vena cava (roughly speaking draining the areas above the heart) and the inferior vena cava (roughly speaking from areas below the heart). These two great vessels empty into the right atrium of the heart.
The general rule is that arteries from the heart branch out into capillaries, which collect into veins leading back to the heart. Portal veins are a slight exception to this. In humans the only significant example is the hepatic portal vein which combines from capillaries around the gut where the blood absorbs the various products of digestion; rather than leading directly back to the heart, the hepatic portal vein branches into a second capillary system in the liver.
Because the systemic circulation is powered by the left ventricle (which is very muscular), one advantage of this form of circulation - as opposed to open circulation, or the gill system that fish use to breathe - is that there is simultaneous high-pressure oxygenated blood delivered to all parts of the body (except for the inner epithelial lining of the lungs which receive their oxygen during the exchange of the gases themselves).
^Harvey, W., Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus, Frankfurt, W. Fitzeri, 1628
^Maton, Anthea; Jean Hopkins, Charles William McLaughlin, Susan Johnson, Maryanna Quon Warner, David LaHart, Jill D. Wright (1993). Human Biology and Health. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ISBN0-13-981176-1.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)