ParkZeit interview with Dr Kogelnig: the passage of food

How our digestive system works

When we eat, we engage the eyes and nose as well as our mouths – in fact, eating involves all of our senses. A beautifully presented dish can delight, while the flavour creates a moment of bliss, triggering pleasure in the brain. What normally happens to food as it travels further into the body is not a matter we generally like to dwell on. But in interview, Dr Richard Kogelnig, Deputy Medical Director at Park Igls, Mayr Physician and GP, has painted a vivid picture of the passage of food through our bodies.

Gesundheitszentrum Park Igls in Tirol

Dr Richard Kogelnig: Food intake is made up of several components that affect the passage of food through the body: from a biological point of view, it’s all about supplying energy and nutrients that are essential to the metabolism and the body’s cell and organ regeneration. However, there are also aesthetic, psychosocial and emotional aspects to food. A beautifully presented dish is a pleasure. Additional stimulation of our olfactory sense – our sense of smell – promotes the production of digestive juices, even before a single bite has been taken. The psychosocial side of eating has holistic significance too: eating or preparing food in good company creates a sense of community, thereby promoting wellbeing.

Kogelnig: The mouth is a complex system made up of different parts. The lips are highly sensitive to temperature and touch and assess the food’s physical characteristics, i.e. whether it is hot, cold, coarse, prickly, etc. Our teeth play an important role by breaking down the food into smaller pieces. The better you chew, the more digestive enzymes are released in saliva, speeding up the food’s breakdown. Chewing kicks off the whole digestive process. ‘Well chewed is half digested,’ we say! Thorough chewing allows us to really enjoy our food, but is also vital to achieve satiation. The feeling of satiety protects the stomach from overfilling and its consequences such as belching, reflux, heartburn, bloating, other problems of the digestive tract, and putting on weight, of course.

Kogelnig: Chewing causes the parotid glands to secrete saliva which contains enzymes, and this starts the digestion of carbohydrates, which our taste receptors perceive as sweet. The tongue’s salivary glands produce another substance, which makes the prepared bite slippery and easier to swallow, so it can enter the stomach safely through the oesophagus.

Kogelnig: When a bite of food has been chewed and swallowed and then reaches the stomach, protein digestion begins: hydrochloric acid and pepsin start to break down the protein structure. Stomach acid also provides an important barrier against germs and viruses. That’s why long-term use of antacids increases the risk of infection and is potentially harmful to health.

The soft mass of chewed food, or bolus, is moved in small portions into the duodenum by rhythmic movements of the pylorus, and is then pushed into the small intestine. This is where 90% of the digestion takes place. By adding enzymes from the pancreas that breaks down protein, fat and carbohydrates, all foods are broken down into small components which are then absorbed by the intestinal mucosa, which has a surface area of 400 to 500sqm. Finally, the components are transported via the vascular system to the liver, the body’s chemical factory.

Kogelnig: Fat digestion requires bile, which is produced by the liver and also detoxifies the body. The gut absorbs vital vitamins and trace elements from food, which are essential to allow our organs to perform all their complex tasks.

Indulging in gluttony, eating too much raw food – especially in the evenings – and excessive alcohol consumption, as well as taking medication such as pain killers, overloads this complex system. And overload triggers inflammation in the gut, which can affect all of our organs. This is where Modern Mayr Medicine steps in: changes in diet and behaviours lead to the gut’s recovery and regeneration, and thus to an upturn in health.

Kogelnig: The small intestine ends in the ileocaecal valve where it opens into the large intestine. This is where we find an exponential increase in bacteria, the microflora which are important for further metabolic processes and the immune system. This microbiome can be seriously compromised by medication, especially antibiotics, after which it can take up to a year to restore health.

Another interesting aspect is that the large intestine absorbs most of the water and minerals to protect the body from dehydration and mineral loss.

Kogelnig: People who’ve had their gallbladder or part of their stomach removed generally have to radically change their eating habits. You can live without your stomach and gallbladder, but only if you change your eating habits and behaviour to suit. As mentioned earlier, Modern Mayr Medicine is particularly helpful in these cases. Diagnosis, therapy and understanding food’s fascinating journey form the basis for preventing and treating illnesses, especially lifestyle diseases.

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Dr Richard Kogelnig – GP and psychologist, Mayr Physician, Deputy Medical Director at the Park Igls health resort