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What Is the Biliary System?

By A. Reed
Updated May 17, 2024
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Made up of the liver, pancreas, bile ducts and gallbladder, the biliary system is responsible for bile production and release. Bile is the fluid necessary for the emulsification of lipids during digestion. It is manufactured by the liver and excreted in the form of feces.

As food is eaten and digested in the stomach, it enters the duodenum, the beginning of the small intestine. Liver cells initiate transport, secreting bile into a series of hepatic ducts. Eventually, bile flows into the duodenum through another portal called the common bile duct. Secretion is regulated by the sphincter of Oddi, a muscle that opens to allow passage.

Capable of containing as much as 1.7 ounces (50 ml) of fluid when the human body is fasting, the gallbladder is a sac-like organ that serves as a storage site for bile. During digestion, the sac empties completely. The parts of the gallbladder include the body, neck and fundus.

When bile becomes too concentrated with cholesterol, gallstones might form, causing nausea, vomiting and persistent abdominal pain. Sometimes the biliary system can become infected or obstructed. Recurrent attacks tend to require complete removal of the gallbladder via a surgical procedure referred to as cholecystectomy.

​Located anterior to the right kidney and stomach, the liver is accountable for more than 500 functions that are essential for survival. Primarily, the liver is responsible for detoxification of the blood by removing drugs, alcohol and bacteria. Another closely associated structure, the pancreas, uses enzymes to metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, which can be a serious biliary system disorder. Acute pancreatitis is manifest because of enzymes attempting to break it down. This might be brought on by an alcoholic binge or gallstones. Chronically, the condition can completely destroy the pancreas, increasing risk of developing pancreatic cancer, which is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

Other diseases of the biliary system also can be fatal, particularly those that affect the liver. Generally caused by alcoholism, cirrhosis involves scarring of liver tissue that progressively affects the organ's function. Given the number of important actions that the liver performs, the impact of the disease is devastating. Common symptoms of cirrhosis include jaundice, itching and weakness.

Millions of people are infected with hepatitis, a condition of liver inflammation that is sometimes caused by alcohol or drug abuse. Hepatitis is also caused by viral infection that can be either short-lived or long-lasting. Chronic forms of the disease often lead to cirrhosis. Thousands of people die from hepatitis every year.

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