Tucked beneath the liver towards the right side is a pear-shaped organ called the gallbladder, which is about 7.5-10 cm long (3-4 inches). Its main function is to store and concentrate bile. The gall bladder is connected to the liver by way of bile ducts, which are special pathways located in the liver’s densely packed web of blood vessels.
Bile is essential for the digestion of food. It is comprised of a bitter, greenish mixture of acids, salts, pigments, cholesterol, electrolytes, proteins, and other substances that are carried into the intestines. In 400 BCE, Hippocrates recognized its importance when he wrote that disease results from an imbalance of four body fluids called humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile).
Fatty foods that enter the duodenum stimulate the production of the hormone, CCK (cholecystokinin) which then stimulates the smooth muscle of the gallbladder to contract. This contraction ejects bile into the cystic duct. The bile moves on into the common bile duct and then into the duodenum where it surrounds the fats, helping to break them apart so that they can be digested. If there is a problem with the liver and fats can not be digested, the fats are carried directly into the feces to be eliminated from the body. This may sound like a good thing for dieters, but it is devastating for the body. The right fats are vital to the rebuilding of each and every new body cell.
The gallbladder is able to store approximately 1.2 liters (2.5 pints) of bile every day. Bile salts cause the stool to turn brown. If the bile is unable to leave the gallbladder because of a blockage, as a gallstone, the stool color will change to gray or clay-colored.
Bile acids are vital in the production and elimination of cholesterol. At the same time, cholesterol is a significant component of all living tissues and is involved in the processing of vitamins and hormones. Too much, however, clogs the arteries and contributes to some forms of liver disease.
Bilirubin is a component of bile that causes the yellowish color. Bilirubin is actually a waste product comprised of worn out red blood cells. When there is a problem with the liver, bilirubin begins to accumulate in the body, causing the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow (jaundice) – a common characteristic of newborns and those who have contracted hepatitis.