Gallbladder disease is prevalent among a significant percentage of the our population. Despite how healthy you may think you are, you still may be at risk for suffering gallstones. Gallstones can cause gallbladder inflammation, leading to infection, removal of the gall bladder, and worse case scenario, severe sepsis and death if left untreated. This is going to be part one on a series of understanding the gall bladder and what it does in your body and what you can do if things go wrong for your gall bladder.
Understanding The Gallbladder
Throughout our series about the gallbladder we will be touching on several different topics: What the gallbladder does, complications that can lead to surgery and life threatening illnesses, and what you can do to prevent them. Starting off, let’s start off with a little bit of anatomy:
The gallbladder is a hollow, pear-shape/sized muscular organ in the right upper side of your abdomen that sits alongside to your your liver. The gallbladder and the liver both work hand in hand when it comes to the digestive process. The liver makes bile salts which are used in the aid of digestion. The gallbladder stores these bile salts for a later use – like that meal you just recently ate.
The gallbladder has three different regions: the fundus, the body, and the neck. The neck of the gallbladder goes on to form what’s called the common bile duct. This duct makes it’s way to your duodenum – the first part of your small intestine and as it does, it passes right through the pancreas. Together bile salts combine with enzymes from the pancreas to aid in the digestion of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins (1).
Gall Bladder Functions:
1. Bile Storage
Bile is made in the liver and in instances where bile salts are needed for digestion, bile will flow into the small intestine. When there’s no used for bile, a sphincter near the small intestine (hepatopancreatic sphincter) is triggered to close and since the bile can’t flow out into the intestines, it fills in the gallbladder for later use. When the gallbladder is full, it can hold between 40-70ml of bile YUM! (1)
2. Bile Modification
As bile remains in the gallbladder it eventually goes through chemical changes. Water gets absorbed from the bile and the components that make up the bile become increasingly concentrated (1).
As the bile becomes more concentrated clumps of bile salts can form leading to something called gallstones – something that effects somewhere between ten to twenty percent of people in the United States, can require surgery, and in extreme cases can cause death. This is something that we will be talking about in detail in our next post on our series about the gallbladder – gallstones – what causes them and what you can do to avoid them.
3. Why Bile Is Important:
Without bile we wouldn’t be able to digest foods. Bile is primarily responsible for helping to breakdown fats and proteins into smaller pieces – but mostly fats. Bile, suspends fat in the water in our intestines (another reason why it’s important to drink water – it aids in digestion). With the fat suspended in water, you get tiny little fat droplets. Kind of what it would look like if you mixed olive oil in a small container of water and shook it up really hard/fast then let it settle. Once bile helps break down fats into smaller particles, it’s easier for your small intestine to absorb what you’ve eaten.
What Causes The Gallbladder To Release Bile?
Alright, so you’ve got the basics down – the liver makes bile for digestion and the gallbladder stores and releases bile for the use in absorption. What causes the gallbladder to release bile? The short answer: all that chewed up food that you eat. As your digested food passes from the stomach to the small intestine a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) is released – particularly when your partially digested food contains large amounts of fat and protein. CCK causes contraction of the gallbladder and bile to be released (1). The bile then goes to your small intestine to break down your food.
Now that you’ve got the basics for the gallbladder and it’s function down, our next post will talk about a complication of the gallblader that often times requires surgery: gallstones. Stay tuned!
1. Martini, F., Timmons, M., Tallitsch, R. Human Anatomy Fifth Edition. San Francisco: Pearson Education Inc. 2006. P. 676-678