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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Secretory Functions of the Alimentary Tract

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Function of Bile Salts in Fat Digestion and Absorption

The liver cells synthesize about 6 grams of bile salts daily.

Function of Bile Salts in Fat Digestion and Absorption

The liver cells synthesize about 6 grams of bile salts daily. The precursor of the bile salts is cholesterol, which is either present in the diet or synthesized in the liver cells during the course of fat metabolism. The cholesterol is first converted to cholic acid or che-nodeoxycholic acid in about equal quantities. Theseacids in turn combine principally with glycine and to a lesser extent with taurine to form glyco- and tauro-conjugated bile acids. The salts of these acids, mainlysodium salts, are then secreted in the bile.

The bile salts have two important actions in the intestinal tract:

First, they have a detergent action on the fat parti-cles in the food. This decreases the surface tension of the particles and allows agitation in the intestinal tract to break the fat globules into minute sizes. This is called the emulsifying or detergent function of bile salts.

Second, and even more important than the emulsi-fying function, bile salts help in the absorption of(1) fatty acids, (2) monoglycerides, (3) cholesterol, and (4) other lipids from the intestinal tract. They do this by forming very small physical complexes with these lipids; the complexes are called micelles, and they are semi-soluble in the chyme because of the electrical charges of the bile salts. The intestinal lipids are “ferried” in this form to the intestinal mucosa, where they are then absorbed into the blood. Without the presence of bile salts in the intestinal tract, up to 40 per cent of the ingested fats are lost into the feces, and the person often develops a metabolic deficit because of this nutrient loss.

Enterohepatic Circulation of Bile Salts. About 94 per cent ofthe bile salts are reabsorbed into the blood from the small intestine, about one half of this by diffusion through the mucosa in the early portions of the small intestine and the remainder by an active transport process through the intestinal mucosa in the distal ileum. They then enter the portal blood and pass back to the liver. On reaching the liver, on first passage through the venous sinusoids these salts are absorbed almost entirely back into the hepatic cells and then are resecreted into the bile.

In this way, about 94 per cent of all the bile salts are recirculated into the bile, so that on the average these salts make the entire circuit some 17 times before being carried out in the feces. The small quantities of bile salts lost into the feces are replaced by new amounts formed continually by the liver cells. This recirculation of the bile salts is called the enterohepatic circulation of bilesalts.

The quantity of bile secreted by the liver each day is highly dependent on the availability of bile salts—the greater the quantity of bile salts in the enterohepatic cir-culation (usually a total of only about 2.5 grams), the greater the rate of bile secretion. Indeed, ingestion of supplemental bile salts can increase bile secretion by several hundred milliliters per day.

If a bile fistula empties the bile salts to the exterior for several days to several weeks so that they cannot be reabsorbed from the ileum, the liver increases its pro-duction of bile salts 6- to 10-fold, which increases the rate of bile secretion most of the way back to normal. This demonstrates that the daily rate of liver bile salt secretion is actively controlled by the availability (or lack of availability) of bile salts in the enterohepatic circulation.

Role of Secretin in Helping to Control Bile Secretion. In addi-tion to the strong stimulating effect of bile acids to cause bile secretion, the hormone secretin that also stimulates pancreatic secretion increases bile secretion, sometimes more than doubling its secretion for several hours after a meal. This increase in secretion is almost entirely secretion of a sodium bicarbonate-rich watery solution by the epithelial cells of the bile ductules and ducts, and not increased secretion by the liver parenchymal cells themselves. The bicarbonate in turn passes into the small intestine and joins the bicarbonate from the pan-creas in neutralizing the hydrochloric acid from the stomach. Thus, the secretin feedback mechanism for neutralizing duodenal acid operates not only through its effects on pancreatic secretion but also to a lesser extent through its effect on secretion by the liver ductules and ducts.


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