In the systemic circulation, which serves the body except for the lungs, oxygenated blood from the lungs returns to the heart from two pairs of pulmonary veins, a pair from each lung. It enters the left atrium, which contracts when filled, sending blood into the left ventricle (a large percentage of blood also enters the ventricle passively, without atrial contraction). The bicuspid, or mitral, valve controls blood flow into the ventricle. Contraction of the powerful ventricle forces the blood under great pressure into the aortic arch and on into the aorta. The coronary arteries stem from the aortic root and nourish the heart muscle itself. Three major arteries originate from the aortic arch, supplying blood to the head, neck, and arms. The other major arteries originating from the aorta are the renal arteries, which supply the kidneys; the celiac axis and superior and inferior mesenteric arteries, which supply the intestines, spleen, and liver; and the iliac arteries, which branch out to the lower trunk and become the femoral and popliteal arteries of the thighs and legs, respectively. The arterial walls are partially composed of fibromuscular tissue, which help to regulate blood pressure and flow. In addition, a system of shunts allows blood to bypass the capillary beds and helps to regulate body temperature.
At the far end of the network, the capillaries converge to form venules, which in turn form veins. The inferior vena cava returns blood to the heart from the legs and trunk; it is supplied by the iliac veins from the legs, the hepatic veins from the liver, and the renal veins from the kidneys. The subclavian veins, draining the arms, and the jugular veins, draining the head and neck, join to form the superior vena cava. The two vena cavae, together with the coronary veins, return blood low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide to the right atrium of the heart.