Chemical digestion in the small intestine relies heavily on the activities of accessory digestive organs: the liver and gallbladder. The digestive role of the liver is to produce bile and export it to the duodenum. The gallbladder primarily stores and concentrates the bile, while the bile ducts release it.

 

 

 

Figure 1: The liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are considered accessory digestive organs, but their roles in the digestive system are vital.

The Liver

The liver is the largest gland in the body, weighing about three pounds (1200-1500 gr) in an adult. It is also one of the most important organs. In addition to being an accessory digestive organ, it plays a number of roles in metabolism and regulation. The liver lies inferior to the diaphragm in the right upper quadrant of the abdominal cavity and receives protection from the surrounding ribs.

The liver is divided into two primary lobes: a large right lobe and a much smaller left lobe. In the right lobe, some anatomists also identify an inferior quadrate lobe and a posterior caudate lobe, which are defined by internal features. The liver is connected to the abdominal wall and diaphragm by five peritoneal folds referred to as ligaments. These are the falciform ligament, the coronary ligament, two lateral ligaments, and the ligamentum teres hepatis. The falciform ligament and ligamentum teres hepatis are actually remnants of the umbilical vein, and separate the right and left lobes anteriorly. The lesser omentum tethers the liver to the lesser curvature of the stomach.

The porta hepatis (“gate to the liver”) is where the hepatic artery and hepatic portal vein enter the liver. These two vessels, along with the common hepatic duct, run behind the lateral border of the lesser omentum on the way to their destinations. As shown in Figure 2, the hepatic artery delivers oxygenated blood from the heart to the liver. The hepatic portal vein delivers partially deoxygenated blood containing nutrients absorbed from the small intestine and actually supplies more oxygen to the liver than do the much smaller hepatic arteries. In addition to nutrients, drugs and toxins are also absorbed. After processing the bloodborne nutrients and toxins, the liver releases nutrients needed by other cells back into the blood, which drains into the central vein and then through the hepatic vein to the inferior vena cava. With this hepatic portal circulation, all blood from the alimentary canal passes through the liver. This largely explains why the liver is the most common site for the metastasis of cancers that originate in the alimentary canal.

 
Microscopic Anatomy of the Liver

Figure 2: The liver receives oxygenated blood from the hepatic artery and nutrient-rich deoxygenated blood from the hepatic portal vein.

 

Histology

The liver has three main components: hepatocytes, bile canaliculi, and hepatic sinusoids. A hepatocyte is the liver’s main cell type, accounting for around 80 percent of the liver’s volume. These cells play a role in a wide variety of secretory, metabolic, and endocrine functions. Plates of hepatocytes called hepatic laminae radiate outward from the portal vein in each hepatic lobule.

Between adjacent hepatocytes, grooves in the cell membranes provide room for each bile canaliculus (plural = canaliculi). These small ducts accumulate the bile produced by hepatocytes. From here, bile flows first into bile ductules and then into bile ducts. The bile ducts unite to form the larger right and left hepatic ducts, which themselves merge and exit the liver as the common hepatic duct. This duct then joins with the cystic duct from the gallbladder, forming the common bile duct through which bile flows into the small intestine.

hepatic sinusoid is an open, porous blood space formed by fenestrated capillaries from nutrient-rich hepatic portal veins and oxygen-rich hepatic arteries. Hepatocytes are tightly packed around the fenestrated endothelium of these spaces, giving them easy access to the blood. From their central position, hepatocytes process the nutrients, toxins, and waste materials carried by the blood. Materials such as bilirubin are processed and excreted into the bile canaliculi. Other materials including proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates are processed and secreted into the sinusoids or just stored in the cells until called upon. The hepatic sinusoids combine and send blood to a central vein. Blood then flows through a hepatic vein into the inferior vena cava. This means that blood and bile flow in opposite directions. The hepatic sinusoids also contain star-shaped reticuloendothelial cells (Kupffer cells), phagocytes that remove dead red and white blood cells, bacteria, and other foreign material that enter the sinusoids. The portal triad is a distinctive arrangement around the perimeter of hepatic lobules, consisting of three basic structures: a bile duct, a hepatic artery branch, and a hepatic portal vein branch.

Functions

Synthesis

The liver plays a major role in carbohydrate, protein, amino acid, and lipid metabolism. The liver performs several roles in carbohydrate metabolism: the liver synthesizes and stores around 100 g of glycogen via glycogenesis, the formation of glycogen from glucose. When needed, the liver releases glucose into the blood by performing glycogenolysis, the breakdown of glycogen into glucose. The liver is also responsible for gluconeogenesis, which is the synthesis of glucose from certain amino acids, lactate, or glycerol. Adipose and liver cells produce glycerol by breakdown of fat, which the liver uses for gluconeogenesis.

The liver is responsible for the mainstay of protein metabolism, synthesis as well as degradation. It is also responsible for a large part of amino acid synthesis. The liver plays a role in the production of clotting factors, as well as red blood cell production. Some of the proteins synthesized by the liver include coagulation factors I (fibrinogen), II (prothrombin), V, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, factor XII|[XII]], XIII, as well as protein C, protein S and antithrombin. In the first trimester fetus, the liver is the main site of red blood cell production. By the 32nd week of gestation, the bone marrow has almost completely taken over that task. The liver is a major site of production for thrombopoeitin, a glycoprotein hormone that regulates the production of platelets by the bone marrow.

The liver plays several roles in lipid metabolism: it performs cholesterol synthesis, lipogenesis, and the production of triglycerides, and a bulk of the body’s lipoproteins are synthesized in the liver.

The liver plays a key role in digestion, as it produces and excretes bile (a yellowish liquid) required for emulsifying fats and help the absorption of vitamin K from the diet. Some of the bile drains directly into the duodenum, and some is stored in the gallbladder.

The liver also produces insulin-like growth factor 1, a polypeptide protein hormone that plays an important role in childhood growth and continues to have anabolic effects in adults.

Detoxification & elimination

In the process of detoxification and elimination, the liver handles many substances. The liver is responsible for the breakdown of insulin and other hormones. The liver breaks down bilirubin via glucuronidation, facilitating its excretion into bile. It also plays a key role in breaking down or modifying toxic substances (e.g., methylation) and most medicinal products in a process called drug metabolism. A great deal of these processes are catalyzed by a collection of hepatic enzymes called Cytochrome P450. The activity of cytochrome P450 enzymes has a great deal of genetic variability, which explains inter-person differences in e.g. certain medication levels in the blood. This metabolism sometimes results in unwanted toxication; when the metabolite is more toxic than its precursor. Preferably, the toxins are conjugated to avail excretion in bile or urine. The liver breaks down ammonia into urea as part of the urea cycle, and the urea is excreted in the urine.

Other functions of the liver

The liver stores a multitude of substances, including glucose (in the form of glycogen), vitamin A (1–2 years’ supply), vitamin D (1–4 months’ supply), vitamin B12 (3–5 years’ supply), vitamin K, iron, and copper.
The liver is responsible for immunological effects – the mononuclear phagocyte system of the liver contains many immunologically active cells, acting as a ‘sieve’ for antigens carried to it via the portal system.
The liver produces albumin, the most abundant protein in blood serum. It is essential in the maintenance of oncotic pressure, and acts as a transport for fatty acids and steroid hormones.
The liver synthesizes angiotensinogen, a hormone that is responsible for raising the blood pressure when activated by renin, an enzyme that is released when the kidney senses low blood pressure.
The liver produces the enzyme catalase in order to break down hydrogen peroxide, a very toxic substance due to it being a powerful oxidising agent, into water and oxygen.

Because lipids are hydrophobic, meaning they do not dissolve in water, before they can be digested in the watery environment of the small intestine, large lipid globules must be broken down into smaller lipid globules. This process is known as emulsification. Bile is a mixture secreted by the liver to accomplish the emulsification of lipids in the small intestine.

Hepatocytes secrete about one liter of bile each day. A yellow-brown or yellow-green alkaline solution (pH 7.6 to 8.6), bile is a mixture of water, bile salts, bile pigments, phospholipids (such as lecithin), electrolytes, cholesterol, and triglycerides. The components most critical to emulsification are bile salts and phospholipids, which have a nonpolar (hydrophobic) region as well as a polar (hydrophilic) region. The hydrophobic region interacts with the large lipid molecules, whereas the hydrophilic region interacts with the watery chyme in the intestine. This results in the large lipid globules being pulled apart into many tiny lipid fragments of about 1 µm in diameter. This change dramatically increases the surface area available for lipid-digesting enzyme activity. This is the same way dish soap works on fats mixed with water.

Bile salts act as emulsifying agents, so they are also important for the absorption of digested lipids. While most constituents of bile are eliminated in feces, bile salts are reclaimed by the enterohepatic circulation. Once bile salts reach the ileum, they are absorbed and returned to the liver in the hepatic portal blood. The hepatocytes then excrete the bile salts into newly formed bile. Thus, this precious resource is recycled.

Bilirubin, the main bile pigment, is a waste product produced when the spleen removes old or damaged red blood cells from the circulation. These breakdown products, including proteins, iron, and toxic bilirubin, are transported to the liver via the splenic vein of the hepatic portal system. In the liver, proteins and iron are recycled, whereas ‘unprocessed’ unconjugated (or indirect) bilirubin is conjugated to be water-soluble and then excreted in the bile. It accounts for the green color of bile. Bilirubin is eventually transformed by intestinal bacteria into stercobilin, a brown pigment that gives your stool its characteristic color. In some disease states, bile does not enter the intestine, resulting in white (‘acholic’) stool with a high fat content, since virtually no fats are broken down or absorbed.

Hepatocytes work non-stop, but bile production increases when fatty chyme enters the duodenum and stimulates the secretion of the gut hormone secretin. Between meals, bile is produced but conserved. The valve-like hepatopancreatic ampulla closes, allowing bile to divert to the gallbladder, where it is concentrated and stored until the next meal.

 
Urobilinogen is a colorless by-product of bilirubin reduction in the intestines by bacteria. About half of the urobilinogen formed is reabsorbed and taken up via the portal vein to the liver, enters circulation and is excreted by the kidney.
 
Ammonia also goes through a enterohepatic cycle. Ammonia is released by metabolising amino acids in the kidney and intestinal wall, as well as during muscle activity. Furthermore, bacteria in the colon also produce ammonia by metabolising amino acids. Ammonia is processed into urea by the hepatocyte. Most urea is then excreted with urine, but a small fraction diffuses into the intestinal lumen and is reprocessed into ammonia by intestinal bacteria.
 

The Gallbladder

 

The gallbladder is 8–10 cm (~3–4 in) long and is nested in a shallow area on the posterior aspect of the right lobe of the liver. This muscular sac stores, concentrates, and, when stimulated, propels the bile into the duodenum via the common bile duct. It is divided into three regions. The fundus is the widest portion and tapers medially into the body, which in turn narrows to become the neck. The neck angles slightly superiorly as it approaches the hepatic duct. The cystic duct is 1–2 cm (less than 1 in) long and turns inferiorly as it bridges the neck and hepatic duct.

 

Figure 4: The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile, and releases it into the two-way cystic duct when it is needed by the small intestine.

The simple columnar epithelium of the gallbladder mucosa is organized in rugae, similar to those of the stomach. There is no submucosa in the gallbladder wall. The wall’s middle, muscular coat is made of smooth muscle fibers. When these fibers contract, the gallbladder’s contents are ejected through the cystic duct and into the bile duct. Visceral peritoneum reflected from the liver capsule holds the gallbladder against the liver and forms the outer coat of the gallbladder. The gallbladder’s mucosa absorbs water and ions from bile, concentrating it by up to 10-fold.

Attribution

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This part contains content from OpenStax College, Anatomy and Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/14fb4ad7-39a1-4eee-ab6e-3ef2482e3e22@15.1.

SA Bos, M.D.

Lead Author