You likely don’t think much about your gallbladder, unless it has to be removed. It’s a pear-shaped organ that sits below your liver, waiting to be called into action. It is only about 3 to 4 inches long, and 1 inch across. It may be small. But the gallbladder plays a key role in digesting food and getting energy from it.
How the gallbladder works
There’s a reason your gallbladder sits so close to your liver, your body’s largest internal organ. Think of your liver as a factory. And your gallbladder as a warehouse next door. Your liver makes a powerful digestive juice called bile. Next, the bile passes to the gallbladder which concentrates and stores it for later use. Bile helps break down the food you eat.
Bile’s most important role is breaking down fats. This is the hardest part of food to digest. Carbohydrates and proteins tend to break down more easily. Fats need more chemical interaction in order to be changed into energy.
When you digest fatty food, your gallbladder releases bile. This digestive juice passes down a narrow tube (the cystic duct). It goes straight into the first section of your small intestine, just underneath your stomach (the duodenum). There, the strong chemicals go to work. They break down fatty bits into a liquid form that you can digest.
Working with the pancreas
Your bile travels down your cystic duct into your small intestine. Then another branch of ductwork, called the pancreatic duct, joins the channel. The pancreatic duct carries enzymes from your pancreas. Think of this as 2 rivers coming together. The digestive juices from the liver and the pancreas play a clear role in digestion. So do other enzymes in the small intestine. The bile breaks down fat into a form the body can use. Then the enzymes from your pancreas and your small intestine get to work. They let food pieces pass through the walls of your small intestine and into your blood in the form of energy.
What happens when the gallbladder is removed?
Your gallbladder does an important job. But it’s not a vital organ. If you get painful gallstones or a more rare condition such as gallbladder cancer, your healthcare provider may advise removing your gallbladder. In fact, gallbladder removal is one of the most common surgeries done in the U.S.
Once your gallbladder is removed, you can still break down fats in your small intestine. The bile simply flows directly from your liver to your duodenum, rather than passing through your gallbladder first.