Last updated
Bile (yellow material) in a liver biopsy stained with hematoxylin-eosin in a condition called cholestasis (setting of bile stasis) Cholestasis 2 high mag.jpg
Bile (yellow material) in a liver biopsy stained with hematoxylin-eosin in a condition called cholestasis (setting of bile stasis)

Bile (from Latin bilis), or gall, is a yellow-green fluid produced by the liver of most vertebrates that aids the digestion of lipids in the small intestine. In humans, bile is primarily composed of water, produced continuously by the liver, and stored and concentrated in the gallbladder. After eating, this stored bile is discharged into the first section of the small intestine. [1]



In the human liver, bile is composed of 97–98% water, 0.7% bile salts, 0.2% bilirubin, 0.51% fats (cholesterol, fatty acids, and lecithin), and 200 meq/L inorganic salts. [2] [3] The two main pigments of bile are bilirubin, which is yellow, and its oxidised form biliverdin, which is green. When mixed, they are responsible for the brown color of feces. [4] About 400 to 800 milliliters (14 to 27 U.S. fluid ounces) of bile is produced per day in adult human beings. [5]


Action of bile salts in digestion Lipid and bile salts.svg
Action of bile salts in digestion
Recycling of the bile Bile recycling.png
Recycling of the bile

Bile or gall acts to some extent as a surfactant, helping to emulsify the lipids in food. Bile salt anions are hydrophilic on one side and hydrophobic on the other side; consequently, they tend to aggregate around droplets of lipids (triglycerides and phospholipids) to form micelles, with the hydrophobic sides towards the fat and hydrophilic sides facing outwards. The hydrophilic sides are negatively charged, and this charge prevents fat droplets coated with bile from re-aggregating into larger fat particles. Ordinarily, the micelles in the duodenum have a diameter around 1–50  μm in humans. [6]

The dispersion of food fat into micelles provides a greatly increased surface area for the action of the enzyme pancreatic lipase, which digests the triglycerides, and is able to reach the fatty core through gaps between the bile salts. [7] A triglyceride is broken down into two fatty acids and a monoglyceride, which are absorbed by the villi on the intestine walls. After being transferred across the intestinal membrane, the fatty acids reform into triglycerides (re-esterified), before being absorbed into the lymphatic system through lacteals. Without bile salts, most of the lipids in food would be excreted in feces, undigested. [8]

Since bile increases the absorption of fats, it is an important part of the absorption of the fat-soluble substances, [9] such as the vitamins A, D, E, and K. [10]

Besides its digestive function, bile serves also as the route of excretion for bilirubin, a byproduct of red blood cells recycled by the liver. Bilirubin derives from hemoglobin by glucuronidation.

Bile tends to be alkaline on average. The pH of common duct bile (7.50 to 8.05) is higher than that of the corresponding gallbladder bile (6.80 to 7.65). Bile in the gallbladder becomes more acidic the longer a person goes without eating, though resting slows this fall in pH. [11] As an alkali, it also has the function of neutralizing excess stomach acid before it enters the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine. Bile salts also act as bactericides, destroying many of the microbes that may be present in the food. [12]

Clinical significance

In the absence of bile, fats become indigestible and are instead excreted in feces, a condition called steatorrhea. Feces lack their characteristic brown color and instead are white or gray, and greasy. [13] Steatorrhea can lead to deficiencies in essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. [14] In addition, past the small intestine (which is normally responsible for absorbing fat from food) the gastrointestinal tract and gut flora are not adapted to processing fats, leading to problems in the large intestine. [15]

The cholesterol contained in bile will occasionally accrete into lumps in the gallbladder, forming gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are generally treated through surgical removal of the gallbladder. However, they can sometimes be dissolved by increasing the concentration of certain naturally occurring bile acids, such as chenodeoxycholic acid and ursodeoxycholic acid. [16] [17]

On an empty stomach – after repeated vomiting, for example – a person's vomit may be green or dark yellow, and very bitter. The bitter and greenish component may be bile or normal digestive juices originating in the stomach. [18] Bile may be forced into the stomach secondary to a weakened valve (pylorus), the presence of certain drugs including alcohol, or powerful muscular contractions and duodenal spasms. This is known as biliary reflux. [19]


Biliary obstruction refers to a condition when bile ducts which deliver bile from the gallbladder or liver to the duodenum become obstructed. The blockage of bile might cause a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream which can result in jaundice. There are several potential causes for biliary obstruction including gallstones, cancer, [20] trauma, choledochal cysts, or other benign causes of bile duct narrowing. [21] The most common cause of bile duct obstruction is when gallstone(s) are dislodged from the gallbladder into the cystic duct or common bile duct resulting in a blockage. A blockage of the gallbladder or cystic duct may cause cholecystitis. If the blockage is beyond the confluence of the pancreatic duct, this may cause gallstone pancreatitis. In some instances of biliary obstruction, the bile may become infected by bacteria resulting in ascending cholangitis.

Society and culture

In medical theories prevalent in the West from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, the body's health depended on the equilibrium of four "humors", or vital fluids, two of which related to bile: blood, phlegm, "yellow bile" (choler), and "black bile". These "humors" are believed to have their roots in the appearance of a blood sedimentation test made in open air, which exhibits a dark clot at the bottom ("black bile"), a layer of unclotted erythrocytes ("blood"), a layer of white blood cells ("phlegm") and a layer of clear yellow serum ("yellow bile"). [22]

Excesses of black bile and yellow bile were thought to produce depression and aggression, respectively, and the Greek names for them gave rise to the English words cholera (from Greek χολή kholē, "bile") and melancholia. In the former of those senses, the same theories explain the derivation of the English word bilious from bile, the meaning of gall in English as "exasperation" or "impudence", and the Latin word cholera, derived from the Greek kholé, which was passed along into some Romance languages as words connoting anger, such as colère (French) and cólera (Spanish). [23]


Soap can be mixed with bile from mammals, such as ox gall. This mixture, called bile soap [24] or gall soap, can be applied to textiles a few hours before washing as a traditional and effective method for removing various kinds of tough stains. [25]


"Pinapaitan" is a dish in Philippine cuisine that uses bile as flavoring. [26] Other areas where bile is commonly used as a cooking ingredient include Laos and northern parts of Thailand.


In regions where bile products are a popular ingredient in traditional medicine, the use of bears in bile-farming has been widespread. This practice has been condemned by activists, and some pharmaceutical companies have developed synthetic (non-ursine) alternatives. [27]

Principal acids

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jaundice</span> Abnormal pigmentation symptom for disease of the liver

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a yellowish or greenish pigmentation of the skin and sclera due to high bilirubin levels. Jaundice in adults is typically a sign indicating the presence of underlying diseases involving abnormal heme metabolism, liver dysfunction, or biliary-tract obstruction. The prevalence of jaundice in adults is rare, while jaundice in babies is common, with an estimated 80% affected during their first week of life. The most commonly associated symptoms of jaundice are itchiness, pale feces, and dark urine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Small intestine</span> Organ in the gastrointestinal tract

The small intestine or small bowel is an organ in the gastrointestinal tract where most of the absorption of nutrients from food takes place. It lies between the stomach and large intestine, and receives bile and pancreatic juice through the pancreatic duct to aid in digestion. The small intestine is about 5.5 metres long and folds many times to fit in the abdomen. Although it is longer than the large intestine, it is called the small intestine because it is narrower in diameter.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gallbladder</span> Organ in humans and other vertebrates

In vertebrates, the gallbladder, also known as the cholecyst, is a small hollow organ where bile is stored and concentrated before it is released into the small intestine. In humans, the pear-shaped gallbladder lies beneath the liver, although the structure and position of the gallbladder can vary significantly among animal species. It receives and stores bile, produced by the liver, via the common hepatic duct, and releases it via the common bile duct into the duodenum, where the bile helps in the digestion of fats.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bile duct</span> Type of organ

A bile duct is any of a number of long tube-like structures that carry bile, and is present in most vertebrates.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gallstone</span> Disease where stones form in the gallbladder

A gallstone is a stone formed within the gallbladder from precipitated bile components. The term cholelithiasis may refer to the presence of gallstones or to any disease caused by gallstones, and choledocholithiasis refers to the presence of migrated gallstones within bile ducts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cholecystitis</span> Medical condition

Cholecystitis is inflammation of the gallbladder. Symptoms include right upper abdominal pain, pain in the right shoulder, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally fever. Often gallbladder attacks precede acute cholecystitis. The pain lasts longer in cholecystitis than in a typical gallbladder attack. Without appropriate treatment, recurrent episodes of cholecystitis are common. Complications of acute cholecystitis include gallstone pancreatitis, common bile duct stones, or inflammation of the common bile duct.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Common bile duct</span> Gastrointestinal duct

The common bile duct, sometimes abbreviated as CBD, is a duct in the gastrointestinal tract of organisms that have a gallbladder. It is formed by the confluence of the common hepatic duct and cystic duct and terminates by uniting with pancreatic duct, forming the ampulla of Vater. The flow of bile from the ampulla of Vater into the duodenum is under the control of the sphincter of Oddi.

Steatorrhea is the presence of excess fat in feces. Stools may be bulky and difficult to flush, have a pale and oily appearance, and can be especially foul-smelling. An oily anal leakage or some level of fecal incontinence may occur. There is increased fat excretion, which can be measured by determining the fecal fat level. The definition of how much fecal fat constitutes steatorrhea has not been standardized.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gastrointestinal disease</span> Medical condition

Gastrointestinal diseases refer to diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract, namely the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum, and the accessory organs of digestion, the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Common bile duct stone</span> Medical condition

Common bile duct stone, also known as choledocholithiasis, is the presence of gallstones in the common bile duct (CBD). This condition can cause jaundice and liver cell damage. Treatments include choledocholithotomy and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enterohepatic circulation</span>

Enterohepatic circulation refers to the circulation of biliary acids, bilirubin, drugs or other substances from the liver to the bile, followed by entry into the small intestine, absorption by the enterocyte and transport back to the liver. Enterohepatic circulation is an especially important concept in the field of toxicology as many lipophilic xenobiotics undergo this process causing repeated liver damage.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cholestasis</span> Medical condition

Cholestasis is a condition where bile cannot flow from the liver to the duodenum. The two basic distinctions are an obstructive type of cholestasis where there is a mechanical blockage in the duct system that can occur from a gallstone or malignancy, and metabolic types of cholestasis which are disturbances in bile formation that can occur because of genetic defects or acquired as a side effect of many medications. Classification is further divided into acute or chronic and extrahepatic or intrahepatic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bile acid</span> Steroid acid found predominantly in the bile of mammals and other vertebrates

Bile acids are steroid acids found predominantly in the bile of mammals and other vertebrates. Diverse bile acids are synthesized in the liver. Bile acids are conjugated with taurine or glycine residues to give anions called bile salts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ascending cholangitis</span> Medical condition

Ascending cholangitis, also known as acute cholangitis or simply cholangitis, is inflammation of the bile duct, usually caused by bacteria ascending from its junction with the duodenum. It tends to occur if the bile duct is already partially obstructed by gallstones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Biliary tract</span> Organ system

The biliary tract refers to the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts, and how they work together to make, store and secrete bile. Bile consists of water, electrolytes, bile acids, cholesterol, phospholipids and conjugated bilirubin. Some components are synthesized by hepatocytes ; the rest are extracted from the blood by the liver.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gallbladder disease</span> Medical condition

Gallbladder diseases are diseases involving the gallbladder and is closely linked to biliary disease, with the most common cause being gallstones (cholelithiasis).

Jejunoileal bypass (JIB) was a surgical weight-loss procedure performed for the relief of morbid obesity from the 1950s through the 1970s in which all but 30 cm (12 in) to 45 cm (18 in) of the small bowel were detached and set to the side.

Biliary dyskinesia is a disorder of some component of biliary part of the digestive system in which bile cannot physically move in the proper direction through the tubular biliary tract. It most commonly involves abnormal biliary tract peristalsis muscular coordination within the gallbladder in response to dietary stimulation of that organ to squirt the liquid bile through the common bile duct into the duodenum. Ineffective peristaltic contraction of that structure produces postprandial right upper abdominal pain (cholecystodynia) and almost no other problem. When the dyskinesia is localized at the biliary outlet into the duodenum just as increased tonus of that outlet sphincter of Oddi, the backed-up bile can cause pancreatic injury with abdominal pain more toward the upper left side. In general, biliary dyskinesia is the disturbance in the coordination of peristaltic contraction of the biliary ducts, and/or reduction in the speed of emptying of the biliary tree into the duodenum.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Human digestive system</span> Digestive system in humans

The human digestive system consists of the gastrointestinal tract plus the accessory organs of digestion. Digestion involves the breakdown of food into smaller and smaller components, until they can be absorbed and assimilated into the body. The process of digestion has three stages: the cephalic phase, the gastric phase, and the intestinal phase.

Canine gallbladder mucocele (GBM) is an emerging biliary disease in dogs described as the excessive and abnormal accumulation of thick, gelatinous mucus in the lumen, which results in an enlarged gallbladder. GBMs have been diagnosed more frequently in comparison to prior to the 2000s when it was considered rare. The mucus is usually pale yellow to dark green in appearance.


  1. Puestow, Charles B. (1931-12-01). "The Discharge of Bile into the Duodenum". Archives of Surgery. 23 (6): 1013–1029. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1931.01160120127008. ISSN   0272-5533.
  2. Barrett, Kim E.; Barman, Susan M.; Boitano, Scott; Brooks, Heddwen L. (2012). Ganong's Review of Medical Physiology (24th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 512. ISBN   978-0-07-178003-2.
  3. Guyton and Hall (2011). Textbook of Medical Physiology. U.S.: Saunders Elsevier. p. 784. ISBN   978-1-4160-4574-8.
  4. "Bile pigments - Oxford Reference". Retrieved 2020-01-20.
  5. "Secretion of Bile and the Role of Bile Acids In Digestion". Retrieved 2017-03-31.
  6. Dickinson, Eric; Leser, Martin E. (2007-10-31). Food Colloids: Self-Assembly and Material Science. Royal Society of Chemistry. p. 22. ISBN   978-1-84755-769-8.
  7. Lowe, Mark E. (2002-12-01). "The triglyceride lipases of the pancreas". Journal of Lipid Research. 43 (12): 2007–2016. doi: 10.1194/jlr.R200012-JLR200 . ISSN   0022-2275. PMID   12454260.
  8. Starr, Cecie (2007-09-20). Biology: Concepts and Applications. Cengage Learning. p. 650. ISBN   978-0-495-11981-4.
  9. "Secretion of Bile and the Role of Bile Acids In Digestion". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  10. "Secretion of Bile and the Role of Bile Acids In Digestion". Retrieved 2018-04-09.
  11. Sutor, D. June (1976). "Diurnal Variations in the pH of Pathological Gallbladder Bile". Gut. 17 (12): 971–974. doi:10.1136/gut.17.12.971. PMC   1411240 . PMID   14056.
  12. Merritt, M. E.; Donaldson, J. R. (2009-09-17). "Effect of bile salts on the DNA and membrane integrity of enteric bacteria". Journal of Medical Microbiology. 58 (12): 1533–1541. doi: 10.1099/jmm.0.014092-0 . ISSN   0022-2615. PMID   19762477.
  13. Barabote RD, Tamang DG, Abeywardena SN, et al. (2006). "Extra domains in secondary transport carriers and channel proteins". Biochim. Biophys. Acta. 1758 (10): 1557–79. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamem.2006.06.018 . PMID   16905115.
  14. Azer, Samy A.; Sankararaman, Senthilkumar (2019), "Steatorrhea", StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID   31082099 , retrieved 2020-01-20
  15. Gorbach, Sherwood L. (1971-06-01). "Intestinal Microflora". Gastroenterology. 60 (6): 1110–1129. doi: 10.1016/S0016-5085(71)80039-2 . ISSN   0016-5085. PMID   4933894.
  16. Bell, G. D. (1980-01-01), Dukes, M. N. G. (ed.), Drugs used in the management of gallstones, Side Effects of Drugs Annual, vol. 4, Elsevier, pp. 258–263, doi:10.1016/S0378-6080(80)80042-0, ISBN   9780444901309 , retrieved 2020-01-20
  17. Guarino, Michele Pier Luc a; Cocca, Silvia; Altomare, Annamaria; Emerenziani, Sara; Cicala, Michele (2013-08-21). "Ursodeoxycholic acid therapy in gallbladder disease, a story not yet completed". World Journal of Gastroenterology. 19 (31): 5029–5034. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i31.5029. ISSN   1007-9327. PMC   3746374 . PMID   23964136.
  18. Choices, NHS. "Nausea and vomiting in adults - NHS Choices". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  19. Iacobuzio-Donahue, Christine A.; Montgomery, Elizabeth A. (2011-06-06). Gastrointestinal and Liver Pathology E-Book: A Volume in the Series: Foundations in Diagnostic Pathology. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 71. ISBN   978-1-4557-1193-2.
  20. Boulay, Brian R; Birg, Aleksandr (2016-06-15). "Malignant biliary obstruction: From palliation to treatment". World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology. 8 (6): 498–508. doi:10.4251/wjgo.v8.i6.498. ISSN   1948-5204. PMC   4909451 . PMID   27326319.
  21. Shanbhogue, Alampady Krishna Prasad; Tirumani, Sree Harsha; Prasad, Srinivasa R.; Fasih, Najla; McInnes, Matthew (2011-08-01). "Benign Biliary Strictures: A Current Comprehensive Clinical and Imaging Review". American Journal of Roentgenology. 197 (2): W295–W306. doi:10.2214/AJR.10.6002. ISSN   0361-803X. PMID   21785056.
  22. Johansson, Ingvar; Lynøe, Niels (2008). Medicine & Philosophy: A Twenty-First Century Introduction. Walter de Gruyter. p. 27. ISBN   9783110321364 . Retrieved 2015-04-23. If blood is poured into a glass jar, a process of coagulation and sedimentation starts. It ends with four clearly distinct layers: a red region, a yellowish one, a black one, and a white one (Figure 4, left) ... The lowest part of the same column consists of sediment that is too dense to permit light to pass through. Therefore, this part of the column looks black and might be referred to as the 'black bile'. On the top of the column there is a white layer, which we today classify as fibrin; it might correspond to Galen's 'phlegm'. The remaining part is a rather clear but somewhat yellowish fluid that surrounds the coagulated column in the middle. It might be called 'yellow bile', but today we recognize it as blood serum.
  23. Boddice, Rob (2017). Pain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 10. ISBN   978-0-19-873856-5.
  24. Newton, W. (1837). "The invention of certain improvements in the manufacture of soap, which will be particularly applicable to the felting of woollen cloths". The London Journal of Arts and Sciences; and Repertory of Patent Inventions. IX: 289. Retrieved 2007-02-08.
  25. Martin, Geoffrey (1951). The Modern Soap and Detergent Industry: The manufacture of special soaps and detergent compositions. Technical Press. p. 15.
  26. "Pinapaitan - Ang Sarap". Ang Sarap (A Tagalog word for "It's Delicious"). 2013-08-13. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  27. Hance, J. (2015). "Is the end of 'house of horror' bear bile factories in sight?". The Guardian.

Further reading