The Digestive Process: How Does the Gallbladder Aid in Digestion?
You probably don’t think much about your gallbladder — unless it has to be removed. It’s a pear-shaped organ that sits below your liver, waiting to be called into action. It is only about 3 to 4 inches long, and 1 inch across. Despite its size, the gallbladder is key in digesting food and absorbing energy from it.
How the gallbladder works
There’s a reason your gallbladder sits so close to your liver, your body’s largest internal organ. Think of your liver as a factory and your gallbladder as a warehouse next door. Your liver produces a powerful digestive juice known as bile. Next, the bile passes to the gallbladder which concentrates and stores it for later use. Bile helps break down the food you eat.
Bile’s most important role is dissolving fats. This is the toughest part of food to digest. Carbohydrates and proteins tend to break down more easily. Fats need more chemical interaction in order to be changed into energy.
When you digest fatty food, your gallbladder releases bile. This digestive juice passes down a narrow tube, called the cystic duct. It goes straight into your duodenum. This is the first section of your small intestine, just underneath your stomach. There, the strong chemicals go to work, dissolving fatty bits into a liquid form that you can digest.
Working with the pancreas
Your bile travels down your cystic duct into your small intestine. Then another branch of ductwork, called the pancreatic duct, joins the channel. The pancreatic duct carries enzymes from your pancreas. Think of this as two rivers coming together. The digestive juices from the liver and the pancreas play a clear role in digestion, along with other enzymes in the small intestine. Once the bile breaks down fat into a useable form, the enzymes from your pancreas and your small intestine do their finishing work. They allow food pieces to pass through the walls of your small intestine and into your bloodstream in the form of energy.
What happens when the gallbladder is removed?
Although your gallbladder does an important job, it’s not a vital organ. If you develop painful gallstones or a more rare condition such as gallbladder cancer, your doctor may recommend removing your gallbladder. In fact, gallbladder removal is one of the most common surgeries performed in the U.S.
Once a doctor removes your gallbladder, you can still break down fats in your small intestine. The bile simply flows directly from your liver to your duodenum, rather than passing through your gallbladder first.