Bile: makeup, functions, where it is and how it works

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Bile, also known as bile, is a thick, sticky, yellow-green liquid produced by the liver . Bile breaks down fats into fatty acids so that they enter the body through the digestive tract .

Other important functions of bile include removing certain waste products from the body, such as hemoglobin , a protein that comes from broken down red blood cells, and excess cholesterol .

This article looks at the different functions of bile in your body: how it is produced, what it is for, and why your body needs it. Below you will also find information on diseases associated with bile, some of which can be life threatening.

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Bile

The digestive fluid, produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder , breaks down fats in the small intestine and helps remove waste products from the body.

What is bile made of?

Many compounds make up bile, but some of the most important are bile acids, also known as bile salts, which mix fats during digestion so that your body can metabolize them.

Bile consists of the following components:

  • Bile acids
  • Cholesterol
  • Water
  • Pigments, including bilirubin
  • Phospholipids, complex fats that contain phosphorus.
  • Electrolytes, including sodium and potassium .
  • Metals like copper

Bilirubin is a waste product of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the blood. Bilirubin is excreted in the bile to pass through the digestive system and then leave the body in the stool .

What does bile do?

Bile plays a key role in digesting fats so they can be used by the body. Bile is also necessary to remove what the body cannot use.

Bile has three main functions:

  • Helps break down fats into digestible forms.
  • Helps assimilate fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Helps eliminate toxins and metabolic wastes, including bilirubin and cholesterol.

By breaking down fats, bile acids also help the intestines absorb fat- soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Where is the bile

The liver filters, breaks down, converts, and stores various substances for your body to use or remove.

The liver also produces 800 to 1,000 milliliters (27 to 34 fluid ounces) of bile each day. Bile is secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, a small organ attached to the lower part of the liver.

When you eat, bile leaves the gallbladder through a tube called the common bile duct. This duct connects the gallbladder and liver to the duodenum , the first part of the small intestine.

Opening

People have been interested in bile for centuries, but it wasn't until 1848 that theories about bile were first documented. Fast forward to the 1920s, when scientists began to study the chemistry and biology of bile in detail.

In 1928, the German scientist Heinrich Weiland received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the composition of bile acids. His discovery helped clarify the important functions of bile acids in the body.

Discoveries related to bile continue. A study published in 2020 in the journal Nature documented the discovery that microbes in the gut produce new bile acids.

More research is needed to confirm the results, but research suggests that the gut microbiome (bacteria and other microbes found in the gastrointestinal tract) may play a role in the production of bile acids and enzymes in the liver.

How bile works

Between meals, bile collects in the gallbladder and only a small amount of bile enters the intestines. Bile also becomes more concentrated during this storage process.

Fatty foods that enter the duodenum trigger hormonal and nerve signals that cause the gallbladder to contract. Hormones that control this process:

  • Cholecystokinin
  • Secretin
  • Gastrine
  • Somatostatin

The signals also come from the vagus nerve , which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen.

As a result, bile enters the duodenum and mixes with food, stomach acids, and pancreatic digestive fluids, helping the intestines absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.

Most bile acids are absorbed through the small intestine, then circulate into the bloodstream and return to the liver.

Summary

Bile is a fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Under the influence of hormones and the vagus nerve, bile is secreted from the gallbladder into the duodenum and intestines. Your body then uses it to break down fats, absorb vitamins, and remove waste products your body doesn't need.

Related conditions

Many people are familiar with jaundice , when bilirubin (the main pigment in bile) builds up in the bloodstream. It is common in newborns who are not always developed enough to remove pigment from their system. Classic signs include dark urine and yellowing of the skin and eyes.

But jaundice can also occur in people of any age when the flow of bile from the liver to the duodenum slows or stops. This condition, known as cholestasis , can result from diseases of the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder, or any damage to the bile ducts.

Conditions that can cause scarring or inflammation of the liver and lead to cholestasis include:

Damage to the bile ducts is commonly considered a symptom of chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis C and other types of viral hepatitis can interfere with the liver's ability to produce bile, which can lead to a variety of digestive problems and ultimately gallbladder inflammation.

Other conditions that can affect bile production or flow include:

Your gallbladder is more likely to give you trouble if something like a gallstone blocks the flow of bile through the bile ducts. Treatment may include cholecystectomy , an operation to remove the gallbladder. After this procedure, the bile flows directly from the liver to the small intestine. The gallbladder is not important for this process.

Bile duct obstruction due to gallstones or gallbladder cancer can actually mimic acute viral hepatitis. Ultrasound can be used to rule out the possibility of gallstones or cancer .

Bile reflux is another associated medical condition. It occurs when bile builds up in the stomach and esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth and stomach. Bile reflux is sometimes accompanied by acid reflux .

Unlike acid reflux, changing your diet or lifestyle generally does not improve bile reflux. Treatment involves medication or, in severe cases, surgery.

Summary

Bile is made up of several components, including bile acids, bilirubin, and fats. It is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder until the body needs it for digestion. Bile helps the body separate essential nutrients from toxins and waste products that are eliminated in the stool.

If bile flow slows or stops due to disease or inflammation, bilirubin can build up and cause jaundice. If you notice jaundice, call your doctor, as it is a symptom of gallstones, gallbladder cancer, and other conditions that may require cholecystectomy.

Get the word of drug information

Bile plays an important role in digestion. Experts are still studying its production and cycle through the intestines.

If you have jaundice or have been diagnosed with a medical condition that affects the flow or production of bile, it is important to remember that you have options. There are many treatments that can restore or improve bile flow and any associated digestive problems you may have.

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