February 14, 2024
February 14, 2024

Gallbladder Function: What It Does and Why It Matters

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Gallbladder Function: What It Does and Why It Matters

The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located deep in your abdomen beneath your liver. It plays a major role in breaking down food to ensure optimal nutrition and it stores and releases bile. 

A healthy gallbladder aids digestion, releasing and preventing discomfort and potential complications. Sometimes, gallstones, which are hardened cholesterol deposits, can form in the gallbladder. This can cause pain, inflammation, and even infection. 

Your gallbladder contains many nerve endings that signal the brain when something is wrong. However, there are also less obvious symptoms of gallbladder dysfunction. 

Understanding how your gallbladder functions and structure can help you identify and treat disorders early. Similarly, lifestyle changes and avoiding some risks may help you prevent disease altogether. 

Normal Anatomy and Gallbladder Function 

Gallbladder function: Gallbladder physiology infographic

Your gallbladder consists of three distinct parts: the fundus, body, and neck. The fundus forms the rounded base that faces the abdominal wall. The “body” rests in an indentation in the lower liver while the neck tapers into the cystic duct to form part of the biliary tree. 

Gallbladder and Bile: Key Players in Digestive Health

Bile, primarily produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder, plays a critical role in digesting and absorbing dietary fats and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in the small intestine. 

Bile is made of the following:

  • Bile salts: The main component of bile, responsible for emulsifying fats.
  • Cholesterol: A small amount of cholesterol is present in bile.
  • Bilirubin: A waste product from the breakdown of red blood cells, giving bile its yellow color.
  • Electrolytes and water: These contribute to the overall composition and function of bile.

The gallbladder concentrates bile by removing water, making it more effective for fat digestion. During a meal, the gallbladder contracts, releasing concentrated bile into the small intestine.

What Are Common Issues That Affect Gallbladder Function?

Gallbladder function: illustration of the pancreas

Unhealthy gallbladder function can impair numerous bodily processes, leading to a variety of issues and symptoms. Here’s a closer look at the most common gallbladder issues.

Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Gallbladder gallstones are a common issue caused by a buildup of cholesterol or from excess bilirubin. Cholesterol stones are more common, but either type of gallstones can block the bile flow, causing severe pain in the upper abdomen. This is often referred to as a gallbladder attack.

Some of the first symptoms of a “bad gallbladder” include the following:

  • Severe pain in the upper right abdomen: Intense abdominal pain is typical of gallbladder problems, often lasting 1 to 5 hours.
  • Central abdominal discomfort: Pain just below the breastbone, indicative of issues in the biliary tract, potentially linked to gallstones.
  • Radiating pain: Discomfort that spreads from the abdomen to the side or shoulder blade, common in gallbladder disease.
  • Postprandial abdominal pain: Abdominal pain following meals, possibly due to gallbladder contracting to release bile for digesting fats.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Symptoms that may accompany gallbladder or biliary tract issues.
  • Fever or chills: Signs of inflammation or infection, such as cholecystitis.
  • Pale stools: Light-colored stool can indicate a blockage in the bile flow from the gallbladder to the duodenum.
  • Dark urine: Brownish urine may occur when bilirubin levels are high due to gallbladder or liver issues.
  • Jaundice: Yellowing of the skin or eyes are often a symptom of gallbladder disease affecting the flow of bile.
  • Clay-colored bowel movements: Stools may appear clay-colored due to a lack of bile, often seen in gallbladder blockage or diseases.


Cholecystitis is inflammation of the gallbladder. If bile becomes trapped and builds up in the gallbladder, it can cause inflammation. In most cases, this happens when solid lumps (gallstones) block the tube that drains bile from the gallbladder. This causes severe pain and often requires medical treatment. If you are prone to gallbladder attacks, changing your diet to avoid foods high in fat may help curtail these painful events.

Biliary Dyskinesia

Sometimes a problem with the muscles responsible for gallbladder motility (the ability to move) can cause it to not empty bile effectively. Gallbladder dyskinesia results from the complex interaction of multiple neural and hormonal factors. Clinical and experimental studies have shown that gallstones can lead to biliary dyskinesia while other research suggests that these disruptions may precede the formation of gallstones. Either way, it may result in symptoms like severe upper abdominal pain.

Common Bile Duct Stones (Choledocholithiasis)

Stones in the bile ducts sometimes don't cause any symptoms and might only be discovered by accident during a check-up or another medical procedure. However, these stones can often cause noticeable health problems.

Biliary colic: This is a term for sudden and severe stomach pain that comes and goes. It's caused by a stone temporarily blocking the bile duct, which is the pathway the bile takes from the gallbladder to the small intestine.

Ascending cholangitis: This infection in the bile ducts happens when a stone blocks the duct, causing bile to back up and get infected.

Obstructive jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes): If a stone blocks the bile duct, bile can't get to the intestines and starts to build up in the body. This can turn the skin and whites of the eyes yellow, a condition called jaundice.


When gallstones block the pancreatic duct, it can cause a condition called pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas. It can be very painful and may require prompt medical treatment. When the pancreatic duct is blocked, it can cause enzymes to leak into the surrounding tissues instead of being released into the small intestine.

Inflammation and damage to the pancreas can lead to symptoms like severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Left untreated, pancreatitis can lead to intense complications, such as infection, bleeding, and even organ failure.

General Digestive Problems

Since bile is essential for fat digestion, a malfunctioning gallbladder can lead to digestive issues. These can include indigestion, bloating, intolerance to fatty foods, and changes in bowel movements.

Can Gallstones Lead to Cancer?

The relationship between gallbladder cancer and gallstones or gallbladder inflammation is not fully understood but the connection is valid. Though still rare, long-standing inflammation and gallstones can increase the risk of gallbladder cancer by five times when compared to those who don’t. 

There is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of this type of cancer and other gallbladder disorders. Some unique gallbladder cancer symptoms include the following:

  • Abdominal discomfort: This occurs mainly in the upper right side of the abdomen, near the gallbladder.
  • Bloating: Swelling or enlargement of the abdomen is often accompanied by discomfort or pain.
  • Unintentional weight loss: Unexplained weight loss over a short period can indicate gallbladder cancer or other types of cancers.
  • Loss of appetite: Not feeling like eating or not having the same hunger cues despite eating less than usual.
  • Itchy skin: When bilirubin and other toxins accumulate in the skin, it can cause severe itching.

Gallbladder Dysfunction: Risk Factors and Prevention

Gallbladder function: couple looking at the menu of a restaurant

Abnormal gallbladder function can be influenced by various risk factors. Some people might be more susceptible to gallbladder problems due to a combination of genetics, lifestyle, and health-related factors. 

Gender: Women are more likely to have gallbladder issues than men, particularly middle-aged and older women. This is partially due to hormonal factors as estrogen increases the risk of gallstones.

Diet: A high-fat, high-cholesterol, low-fiber diet can contribute to the formation of gallstones and other gallbladder problems.

Rapid weight loss: Losing weight very quickly can increase the risk of gallstones. This is often seen in people undergoing aggressive weight loss regimens or bariatric surgery. A recent study found an increased risk of gallbladder disease in patients taking Ozempic, a GLP-1 receptor agonist medication that treats diabetes and obesity. It’s unknown whether this is from the rapid weight loss many users experience or other causes. Other GLP-1 RA drugs included in the study were albiglutide, dulaglutide, exenatide, liraglutide, and lixisenatide.

Pregnancy: Becoming pregnant can increase the risk of gallbladder problems. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can slow gallbladder movement, leading to gallstone formation.

Family history: A family history of gallbladder disease can increase the risk, suggesting a genetic predisposition.

Ethnicity: Some ethnic groups, such as Native Americans and Mexican Americans, have higher rates of gallbladder disease, likely due to genetic factors.

Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity can heighten the risk of gallstones and gallbladder disease.

Certain medical conditions: Diabetes, liver disease, and certain gastrointestinal diseases can increase the risk of gallbladder problems.

Cholesterol-lowering medications: Some medications that lower cholesterol can increase the concentration of cholesterol in bile, leading to gallstone formation.

Older age: The risk of gallbladder problems increases with age as the body's metabolism and digestive processes change.

Female hormone therapy: The use of hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills, which contain estrogen, can increase the risk of gallstones.

Can You Live Without Your Gallbladder?

Yes, you can live without a gallbladder. After a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal), the liver will still produce bile to digest food. But instead of storing it in the gallbladder, it empties into the small intestines to help you maintain a functional digestive system. 

That said, some long-term effects of gallbladder removal can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatty food intolerance
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Intermittent episodes of abdominal pain 

After gallbladder removal, it’s best to avoid high-fat, fried, and greasy foods. Gallbladder removal can also increase the risk of liver problems. To support the liver and other digestive organs, people who have had their gallbladder removed should eat a healthy diet.

Don’t Worry, Be Proactive 

Gallbladder function: old woman sitting on a couch

Understanding gallbladder function, risk factors, and potential problems are key steps in being proactive about your health. When you know your risk factors and adopt healthy habits — such as eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight — you can potentially reduce the risk of getting gallstones or other gallbladder diseases.

Another important aspect of proactive healthcare is vigilance. In fact, you can look for some diseases before you even have symptoms. Early detection can lead to better outcomes because the disease might be in its initial stages, making it more responsive to treatment. Early detection can also prevent the disease from progressing, potentially reducing the need for surgery, avoiding complications, and improving long-term health.

With the Ezra Full Body MRI, you can gain insights into your body's health, including the gallbladder, so you can address issues before they become serious. All it takes is one hour to screen for potential cancer and other abnormalities in up to 13 organs. Know your risk and feel empowered to safeguard your health.