Digestive System > Liver

Secretion of Bile and the Role of Bile Acids In Digestion

Bile is a complex fluid containing water, electrolytes and a battery of organic molecules including bile acids, cholesterol, phospholipids and bilirubin that flows through the biliary tract into the small intestine. There are two fundamentally important functions of bile in all species:

Adult humans produce 400 to 800 ml of bile daily, and other animals proportionately similar amounts. The secretion of bile can be considered to occur in two stages:

In species with a gallbladder (man and most domestic animals except horses and rats), further modification of bile occurs in that organ. The gall bladder stores and concentrates bile during the fasting state. Typically, bile is concentrated five-fold in the gall bladder by absorption of water and small electrolytes - virtually all of the organic molecules are retained.

Secretion into bile is a major route for eliminating cholesterol. Free cholesterol is virtually insoluble in aqueous solutions, but in bile, it is made soluble by bile acids and lipids like lecithin. Gallstones, most of which are composed predominantly of cholesterol, result from processes that allow cholesterol to precipitate from solution in bile.

Role of Bile Acids in Fat Digestion and Absorption

Bile acids are derivatives of cholesterol synthesized in the hepatocyte. Cholesterol, ingested as part of the diet or derived from hepatic synthesis is converted into the bile acids cholic and chenodeoxycholic acids, which are then conjugated to an amino acid (glycine or taurine) to yield the conjugated form that is actively secreted into cannaliculi.

Bile acids are facial amphipathic, that is, they contain both hydrophobic (lipid soluble) and polar (hydrophilic) faces. The cholesterol-derived portion of a bile acid has one face that is hydrophobic (that with methyl groups) and one that is hydrophilic (that with the hydroxyl groups); the amino acid conjugate is polar and hydrophilic.

Their amphipathic nature enables bile acids to carry out two important functions:

Role of Bile Acids in Cholesterol Homeostasis

Hepatic synthesis of bile acids accounts for the majority of cholesterol breakdown in the body. In humans, roughly 500 mg of cholesterol are converted to bile acids and eliminated in bile every day. This route for elimination of excess cholesterol is probably important in all animals, but particularly in situations of massive cholesterol ingestion.

Interestingly, it has recently been demonstrated that bile acids participate in cholesterol metabolism by functioning as hormones that alter the transcription of the rate-limiting enzyme in cholesterol biosynthesis.

Enterohepatic Recirculation

Large amounts of bile acids are secreted into the intestine every day, but only relatively small quantities are lost from the body. This is because approximately 95% of the bile acids delivered to the duodenum are absorbed back into blood within the ileum.

Venous blood from the ileum goes straight into the portal vein, and hence through the sinusoids of the liver. Hepatocytes extract bile acids very efficiently from sinusoidal blood, and little escapes the healthy liver into systemic circulation. Bile acids are then transported across the hepatocytes to be resecreted into canaliculi. The net effect of this enterohepatic recirculation is that each bile salt molecule is reused about 20 times, often two or three times during a single digestive phase.

It should be noted that liver disease can dramatically alter this pattern of recirculation - for instance, sick hepatocytes have decreased ability to extract bile acids from portal blood and damage to the canalicular system can result in escape of bile acids into the systemic circulation. Assay of systemic levels of bile acids is used clinically as a sensitive indicator of hepatic disease.

Pattern and Control of Bile Secretion

The flow of bile is lowest during fasting, and a majority of that is diverted into the gallbladder for concentration. When chyme from an ingested meal enters the small intestine, acid and partially digested fats and proteins stimulate secretion of cholecystokinin and secretin. As discussed previously, these enteric hormones have important effects on pancreatic exocrine secretion. They are both also important for secretion and flow of bile:

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