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What Does the Gallbladder Do in the Digestive System? A Simple Explanation.

Updated on July 19, 2014
Image courtesy
Image courtesy

The Gallbladder

The gallbladder (also called the gall bladder or the cholecyst) is a small, sac-shaped organ about 4 inches (10cm) long in adult humans. It located in the hollow underneath the liver, just below the front rib cage on the right hand side. The gallbladder is part of the biliary system, which also includes the pancreas and the liver. It is attached to the liver by its long 'neck' which is part of the common bile duct. It is also attached through this duct to the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine.

The function of the gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile (or gall) produced by the liver.

Bile salts increase the absorption of fats, and help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Bile also helps the body remove damaged red blood cells, and because it is alkaline, it can also help neutralize stomach acid.

When food containing fat enters the digestive tract and begins to be digested, the gallbladder is triggered to contract and release some of the bile into the duodenum. This bile helps to emulsify the fats, allowing them to be more easily absorbed by the body, The more concentrated the bile, the more effective it is in this emulsification.

An adult human gallbladder can store approximately 1.7 US fl oz (50ml) of bile.

Gallstones in dissected gallbladder Attribution: Emmanuelm at en.wikipedia
Gallstones in dissected gallbladder Attribution: Emmanuelm at en.wikipedia


Sometimes gallstones form in the gallbladder and/or in the common bile duct. They are solid lumps of crystal that are formed when there is some sort of imbalance in the bile. They are made from calcium salts, cholesterol, and bile pigment in varying proportions.

Gallstones can vary enormously in size: the smallest can be as minuscule as a grain of sand; the largest as big as a golf ball.

Most gallstones are formed when there is too much cholesterol and not enough bile salts. These stones are called cholesterol stones, and are usually green, or sometimes yellow or white in color

Gallstones can also be caused by an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a produced when red blood cells break down. It is a yellow pigment secreted in bile and in urine, responsible for the yellow color of bruises and urine, and of people who suffer from jaundice. These stones are called pigment stones, and are small and dark.

A combination of these factors can cause mixed gallstones.

It is common to have numerous small stones, however the stones can range in number and size.

Small stones in the gallbladder usually do not present a problem, however if the gallstones are large in number or size, they can be painful when the gallbladder contracts in response to fatty food.

If a stone leaves the gallbladder, and blocks the common bile duct, it can be very serious, painful, damaging to organs and even fatal if left without treatment.

The symptoms of gallstones are wide and varied. Most people with gallstones actually suffer no symptoms at all, and are unaware of them, in which case they pose no problem. In more severe cases, sometimes a sufferer will feel pain after a fatty meal, sometimes severe pain, sometimes suffer jaundice, plus there are many other signs. If you have any reason to suspect that there might be something wrong, it is always best to seek medical advice.

While research continues, it is currently believed that a tendency towards gallstones may be inherited, as well as possibly being caused by body weight, diet and/or the extent to which the gallbladder moves.

Location of the Gallbladder

Gallbladder Removal

The gallbladder is not a vital organ, which means that the body can survive without it.   Gallstones can be removed surgically, but the tendency towards them cannot be cured.  Often the easiest solution is to surgically remove the gallbladder.  This common operation is called a cholecystectomy.

Once the gallbladder is removed, the small intestine then takes the bile directly from the liver.  The liver is unable to regulate delivery of bile in the manner of the gallbladder, or to concentrate bile.  Therefore, once the gallbladder is removed, it is important to watch the diet and try to limit the amount of fat intake,  Digestive enzymes must also be supplemented to allow the body to properly absorb good fats such as Omega 3.

Want to Know More?

Janice VanCleave's The Human Body for Every Kid: Easy Activities that Make Learning Science Fun
Janice VanCleave's The Human Body for Every Kid: Easy Activities that Make Learning Science Fun

Finding out how your body works is fun with this interactive book full of super cool experiments. Heaps of activities for kids of all ages.



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