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What is Bile?

Bile or gall is a bitter yellowish, blue and green fluid secreted by hepatocytes from the liver of most vertebrates. In many species, bile is stored in the gallbladder between meals and upon eating is discharged into the duodenum where the bile aids the process of digestion of lipids by emulsification.

Bile is a complex fluid containing water, electrolytes and a battery of organic molecules including bile acids, cholesterol, phospholipids and bilirubin that flows through the biliary tract into the small intestine.

There are two fundamentally important functions of bile in all species:

  • Bile contains bile acids, which are critical for digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine.
  • Many waste products, including bilirubin, are eliminated from the body by secretion into bile and elimination in feces.

Adult humans produce 400 to 800 ml of bile daily, and other animals proportionately similar amounts. The secretion of bile can be considered to occur in two stages:

  • Initially, hepatocytes secrete bile into canaliculi, from which it flows into bile ducts. This hepatic bile contains large quantities of bile acids, cholesterol and other organic molecules.
  • As bile flows through the bile ducts it is modified by addition of a watery, bicarbonate-rich secretion from ductal epithelial cells.

In species with a gallbladder (man and most domestic animals except horses and rats), further modification of bile occurs in that organ. The gall bladder stores and concentrates bile during the fasting state. Typically, bile is concentrated five-fold in the gall bladder by absorption of water and small electrolytes - virtually all of the the organic molecules are retained.

Secretion into bile is a major route for eliminating cholesterol. Free cholesterol is virtually insoluble in aqueous solutions, but in bile, it is made soluble by bile acids and lipids like lethicin. Gallstones, most of which are composed predominantly of cholesterol, result from processes that allow cholesterol to precipitate from solution in bile.

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