Bile is a greenish-yellow fluid that is essential for digesting fats and for eliminating worn-out red blood cells and certain toxins from your body. Bile is produced in your liver and stored in your gallbladder.

Eating a meal that contains even a small amount of fat signals your gallbladder to release bile, which flows through two small tubes (cystic duct and common bile duct) into the upper part of your small intestine (duodenum).

Bile reflux into the stomach

At the same time that bile flows into the duodenum, food enters your small intestine through the pyloric valve, a heavy ring of muscle located at the outlet of your stomach. The pyloric valve usually opens only slightly — enough to release about an eighth of an ounce (about 3.5 milliliters) of liquefied food at a time, but not enough to allow digestive juices to reflux into the stomach. In many cases of bile reflux, the valve doesn't close properly, and bile washes back into the stomach.

Bile reflux into the esophagus

Bile and stomach acid can reflux into the esophagus when another muscular valve, the lower esophageal sphincter, malfunctions. The lower esophageal sphincter separates the esophagus and stomach. The valve normally opens just long enough to allow food to pass into the stomach. But if the valve weakens or relaxes abnormally, bile can wash back into the esophagus.

What leads to bile reflux?

Bile reflux may be caused by:

  • Surgery complications. Most damage to the pyloric valve occurs as a complication of gastric surgery, including total removal of the stomach (gastrectomy) and gastric bypass surgery for weight loss.
  • Peptic ulcers. A peptic ulcer can block the pyloric valve so that it doesn't open enough to allow the stomach to empty as quickly as it should. Stagnant food in the stomach can lead to increased gastric pressure that refluxes bile and stomach acid into the esophagus.
  • Gallbladder surgery (cholecystectomy). People who have had their gallbladders removed have significantly more bile reflux than do people who haven't had this surgery.
Mar. 14, 2012