What Is Bile and How Does It Work?

If you’ve been diagnosed with bile reflux, you have likely found yourself wondering “just what is bile?”  We generally have a pretty good understanding of what stomach acids are all about, but bile is a completely different fluid used by the digestive system to break down the foods we eat.

Appearance of Bile

Bile can vary somewhat in appearance, ranging from dark green to yellowish brown.  It has a bitter taste that can be experienced if it is refluxed into the esophagus.  This type of situation can lead to serious health problems and should be treated if it occurs often.

Bile Is Not Acidic

One of the first myths to dispel is that bile is a type of stomach acid.  Not only is bile not produced in the stomach, but it’s not even acidic.  That might be hard to believe based on the burning sensation it causes, but it’s true.  Bile is actually alkaline, and is made up of water, bile salts, mucus, pigments, fat, cholesterol, and some inorganic salts.

The Liver and the Gall Bladder

Bile is used within the biliary system, which creates the fluid, stores it, and then releases it to serve in digestion.  It is created by the liver and is stored within the gall bladder to be used after food has left the stomach and entered the portion of the small intestine called the duodenum.  Even in cases where the gall bladder has been removed by surgery, the liver continues to manufacture bile to aid in digestion.  The biliary system also includes bile ducts both inside and outside of the liver, as well as some cells within this organ.

Breaking Down Fats

The purpose of bile is to break down the fats that we take in through our diet.  After food has spent time churning within the stomach, it passes into the small intestine.  There it is mixed with bile.  Droplets of fat are surrounded by bile to prevent them from attaching to one another to form larger globules of fat.  Once the droplets have been isolated in this way, an enzyme from the pancreas can make its way in between the bile salts in order to digest parts of the fat and reach the core.  This is an important job because the fats must be broken down in order to pass through the walls of the intestine and utilized by the body.  Otherwise, they would simply pass through the body undigested.

Other Purposes of Bile

In addition to this digestive function, bile also performs a couple of other important tasks.  For example, it helps to clean the blood.  When red blood cells are recycled by the liver, they create a waste product called bilirubin.  This substance can be toxic to the body in large amounts, and bile aids in its removal.  Another “cleaning” function of bile is to destroy dangerous microbes that enter the body with our food.

Additionally, because bile is alkaline, it helps to neutralize stomach acids.  This keeps those acids from causing problems as the food they have helped to digest passes further down the small intestine.