The digestive system consists of several organs, all of which work together to convert food into energy. The gallbladder is one of these structures. Located beneath the liver, it plays a major role in helping to break down fatty foods. To be more specific, the pouch-like organ stores and concentrates bile—an alkaline fluid that aids in digestion. Despite the role it plays, however, the organ is not essential for life. It is possible for someone to live without a gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a small hollow organ under the right lower ribs. Shaped like a pear, the gallbladder connects to the liver via the biliary tract. In addition to helping with digestion, it is also a part of the biliary system. in the latter, its main role is to store and transport bile. When fully distended, the gallbladder can reach up to ten centimeters in length and four centimeters in diameter; a normal gallbladder has a capacity of approximately 50 milliliters.
The gallbladder sits in the upper right region of the abdomen. More specifically, it lies within a shallow depression between two parts of the liver. Surrounded by peritoneum—the membrane of the abdominal cavity—the gallbladder eventually tapers at the neck to form the cystic duct. It is connected to the common hepatic duct, and the two come together to form the common bile duct, which extends to the small intestine.
There are three different parts to a gallbladder—the fundus, the body, and the neck. The fundus is the rounded portion of the gallbladder. Slightly angled, it projects beyond the inferior surface of the liver; it also faces the abdominal wall. The body is the largest part of the gallbladder. Attached to the visceral surface of the liver, it eventually tapers into a region called the infundibulum, which connects to the neck. The neck of the gallbladder tapers to become the cystic duct. It also contains a mucosal fold called Hartmann’s Pouch -- this is where gallstones often lodge.
Like most organs, the gallbladder contains several different layers. The mucosa—that is, the innermost layer—consists of the epithelium and lamina propria, the latter of which is made up of loose connective tissue. The middle layer, the muscularis, plays a role in gallbladder contraction. The Rotitansky-Aschoff sinuses extend from the mucosal into the muscular layer. On the outside, a smooth membrane, the serosa, covers the organ.
The gallbladder stores bile—a yellowish-brown liquid that travels through the biliary tract—prior to digestion. The liver products this alkaline liquid, which is mainly composed of bile acids, salts, cholesterol, and water. Important for the digestion of fats, bile breaking down these compounds into their components—fatty acids and glycerol. Following that, absorption occurs in the small intestine.
In addition to being a storage site, the gallbladder also concentrates bile up to tenfold; it achieves this by removing water and electrolytes through its walls. In its concentrated form, bile is much more effective at breaking down fats. Without the gallbladder, bile would be more dilute, which adversely impacts the body’s ability to digest fats.
Following a meal, the small intestine releases a hormone called cholecystokinin; this causes the smooth muscles in the gallbladder to contract. In doing so, it pushes bile through the cystic duct and into the common bile duct. At the same time, the sphincter of Oddi—a muscular valve that controls the flow of digestive juices—also relaxes, which allows bile to enter the small intestine. In the duodenum, bile acids facilitate the digestion and absorption of fats.
Gallstones are pebble-like deposits that can form in the gallbladder. These relatively common growths are composed of bilirubin or cholesterol, both of which are present in the sac-like organ. Depending on their size, gallstones can cause a variety of symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, jaundice, and fever. If there is severe pain, surgical removal of the gallbladder may be necessary. Without a gallbladder, bile will flow directly from the liver to the small intestine via the hepatic and common bile ducts.
Fortunately, it is possible for us to live without gallbladders; there will, however, be some lasting effects. Given that the organ is responsible for storing and concentrating bile, the body may not be able to digest fats as efficiently following the procedure. For this reason, individuals should follow a low-fat diet. It also helps to eat small, frequent meals as opposed to large dinners.
It is important to keep your gallbladder healthy by eating a well-balanced diet. For instance, individuals should consume foods rich in omega-3 fats such as salmon and mackerel and incorporate green, leafy vegetables into most meals. Avoid food items that are high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats.
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