The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located under the liver that plays an essential role in the digestive process. Its main function is to store bile. Bile helps your digestive system break down fats. Bile is a mixture of mainly cholesterol, bilirubin and bile salts.
What Is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small organ shaped like a pear on the upper right side of the abdomen, just below the liver. The gallbladder is part of the biliary tract—the organs and ducts that make and store bile.
Bile is a greenish-yellow fluid produced by the liver. It is made mostly of bilirubin, cholesterol, and bile salts. The liver secretes bile for two primary reasons—to carry away waste and to break down fats during the digestive process.
Bile is carried along the bile ducts. The bile ducts are a series of thin tubes that go from the liver to the small intestine. They allow bile to travel from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine, where bile can help to break down fats in foods.
Bile and gallbladder both play an essential part in digestion. Though the liver produces bile, the gallbladder acts like a storage tank for bile when it is not being used. Without a gallbladder, bile would not be stored. Still, it would drip continuously into your digestive system, interfering with your body’s ability to digest and absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
What Role Does the Gallbladder Play in the Digestive Process?
To understand the importance of the gallbladder, it is helpful to understand the whole digestive system process. Many people do not know how the digestive process works, but understanding this foundational process may help you know how to optimize your digestive health. At the very least, it will help you understand what is going on in your body every time you eat a meal. Below, we will discuss the digestive process in order, making special notes of where the gallbladder and bile come in to support the process.
The Digestive Process Step by Step:
Getting nutrients and energy from your is a multi-step process that begins with the first bite. The digestive process starts before your first bite. Your saliva can start flowing at even the thought or anticipation of food.
When we smell food, think of food, or have any trigger that causes us to anticipate a meal, saliva begins to flow from the salivary glands in our mouths. This saliva contains essential enzymes that help to pre-digest our food. For example, the enzyme amylase begins breaking down starches into simple sugars, the enzyme lipase helps to break down fat, and the enzyme protease helps to break down proteins. Therefore, when eating, we must chew our food thoroughly to break it down into smaller particles and mix our food with our enzyme-rich saliva.
Not including salvation, the first step in the digestive process is ingestion, taking food through the mouth. Food contains large molecules that cannot pass through the cell membranes. The food needs to be broken down into smaller particles to get the nutrients from foods our bodies need. The entire digestive system process is focused on breaking down food into small enough particles so that it can be adequately absorbed and eliminated efficiently. This process begins in the mouth with the process of chewing.
Chewing (mastication) is the process of breaking food down into smaller particles. While food is being mechanically broken down by chewing, the enzymes in our saliva also process the food. Together, these processes break down the large particles of food into a soft mass (bolus) that can be swallowed and then travel the length of the esophagus where it enters the stomach.
Once the broken-down food has entered the stomach, the food substance is identified, and many chemical reactions begin. For example, simple carbohydrates, like fruit, require little to no digestion and are quickly absorbed. Liquids also leave the stomach very quickly.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats stay in the stomach for much longer—up to three to five hours. In addition, the stomach is lined with millions of tiny villi, also found in the small intestine.
Once the stomach identifies food, a signal sent from the brain releases hydrochloric acid into the stomach. This is the only acid that the body produces and is highly acidic—ranging on average from 1.5 to 3 on the pH scale. However, the stomach lining is protected by an alkaline mucus coating that neutralizes its acidic effects, except for the contents of food inside the stomach.
This is a critical stage in the digestive process because if the body does not produce enough hydrochloric acid or if the hydrochloric acid is diluted through ingesting too much fluid with a meal, the initial breakdown of the food substance will not take place. To make the situation even worse, many people follow their meal with dessert. By this time, hydrochloric acid has already been introduced into the stomach. This combination of hydrochloric acid and simple carbohydrate sugar inhibits efficient digestion from happening.
As food leaves the stomach, it enters the small intestine, which begins with the duodenum. This curved tube is approximately the same length as the esophagus. This is where food that hopefully has achieved the initial digestion stages is broken down even further.
Here the liver, pancreas, and gall bladder all participate: the liver produces bile which is stored in the gallbladder and is released into the duodenum, separating fats so that the pancreatic enzymes can break them down into a water-soluble form that the body can assimilate. Without bile, the body would have a very difficult time breaking down fats and would also struggle to receive the essential fat-soluble vitamins that it needs. Bile plays a vital role in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and the assimilation of calcium and converting beta-carotene into vitamin A.
The pancreatic enzymes, amylases, lipases, and proteases neutralize the hydrochloric acid to produce the alkaline environment necessary for the absorption and further breakdown of proteins and carbohydrates. The pancreas also secretes insulin into the bloodstream, regulating the burning of sugars in the body.
The next twenty feet of the small intestine is where digestion is completed, in the jejunum (approximately 10 feet) and ileum (10-12 feet). It is here that almost all absorption of nutrients takes place, and, if the environment is right—given the earlier stages provided the proper breakdown—that enzymes will have broken down the food molecules into a size that the billions of villi or cells lining the small intestine will assimilate as nutrients.
Once absorbed by the villi, amino acids from protein, sugar from complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, glycerol, vitamins, minerals, and cholesterol all enter the bloodstream to be assimilated into the body’s trillions of cells. Assimilation gets the nutrients from your food to your cells, which are used for growth and repair.
The indigestible material from the food then moves from the small intestine to the ileum and into the colon (large intestine). A valve, called the ileocecal valve, operates at this junction, preventing backup into the ileum. The indigestible material, main cellulose, enters the colon in a liquid state. During the next 10 to 14 hours, these substances will be dehydrated and stored in preparation for elimination.
To summarize, digestion begins in the mouth, chewing food into smaller particles and combining it with enzyme-rich saliva. Once swallowed, the food then travels down the esophagus into the stomach, where it is broken down further by hydrochloric acid and released into the duodenum, where it is further broken down by bile and digestive enzymes. In the remaining part of the small intestine (jejunum and ileum), the broken-down nutrients from the food are then absorbed by billions of villi lining the small intestine and enter into the bloodstream, where they are then assimilated by the blood and distributed to the body’s many cells where they are used for tissue growth and repair. Finally, the indigestible material from the food enters the colon, which is formed into excrement and then eliminated.
How Long Does the Digestive Process Take?
Exactly how long food takes to digest varies from person to person. Many factors influence the rate of digestion as well—such as what kind of food was eaten, how much of it was eaten, how well it was chewed, etc.
In general, the entire digestive process takes several hours. Food typically stays in the stomach between 40 and 120 minutes. It can take another 40 to 120 minutes to move through the small intestine before entering the colon, where it can be stored for up to a few days even before it is eliminated.
Some of the factors that play a significant role in determining the rate of digestion include:
- The type of food (fruits digest faster than meat, for example)
- Level of exercise and movement
- Body type
- Stress levels
- Past surgeries
- Possible medications
Regardless of how long the digestive process takes, you can ensure healthy digestion of food by following proper food-eating guidelines, such as:
- Eating whole organic foods
- Chewing your food thoroughly
- Eating while in a relaxed state
- Not overeating
- Drinking no more than 4-8 oz with a meal
- Allowing for 3-5 hours between meals
- Eating at regular meal times
- Not eating late at night or right before bed
- Avoid foods with toxins in them (junk food, processed foods, fast food, etc.)
The gallbladder is an essential organ because it acts as a storage tank for bile, a fluid produced by the liver and plays an essential role in the digestive process. Bile helps to carry away waste and also helps to break down fat. Without it, the body would not only have difficulty breaking down fats but struggle to absorb the essential fat-soluble vitamins from food like vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Keeping the gallbladder in good health starts with taking care of your digestive health. In addition, taking care of your liver is also important. You can keep your digestive system in good health by always eating in a way that supports digestion—instead of eating for flavor or taste alone.
While people can live without a gallbladder, it can lead to serious digestive issues. Therefore, it is best to try to keep your gallbladder in good health so your whole body can function at its best.