Bilirubin is a yellow compound generated from destroyed hemoglobin. Its yellow color is responsible for yellow skin in jaundice, and the yellow hue of urine and feces. Bilirubin also has some very beneficial antioxidant properties. Read this post to learn more about its effects on the body and how to manipulate bilirubin levels to your advantage.

Bilirubin Definition

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Bilirubin is a yellow compound that is a breakdown product of heme from hemoglobin in red blood cells.

Bilirubin and its breakdown products give the yellow color in jaundice patients, urine, and feces.

Bilirubin is one of the most toxic natural breakdown products in the body (R).

Bilirubin tests (TBIL and DBIL) are part of blood test panels to assess red blood cell breakdowns and liver function and are usually presented as conjugated and unconjugated bilirubin.

Unconjugated bilirubin is not water-soluble until the liver conjugates it by adding a sugar group. The conjugated bilirubin is then secreted as part of the bile in the stool and urine.

Bilirubin Range (and optimal levels)

Bilirubin reference or normal range is 0.2 – 1.2 mg/dL for total bilirubin (TBIL), and 0.1 – 0.4 mg/dL for direct or conjugated bilirubin (DBIL)  (R).

In the absence of liver disease, higher levels of bilirubin within the reference ranges are beneficial because bilirubin is a potent antioxidant with cell-protective roles in complementary with glutathione (R, R2).

Bilirubin is associated with functional independence in older people (R).

A cohort study among 4,303 adults 60 years and older found that total bilirubin levels of 0.5 – 0.7 mg/dL is associated with the all-cause lowest mortality rate (R). People with bilirubin levels of 0.8 mg/dL and above had slightly (but insignificantly) higher mortality rate than those with bilirubin 0.5 – 0.7 mg/dL.

A large cohort study found that the higher bilirubin levels generally correlate with lower all-cause mortality (R).

Many correlational studies have shown that elevated levels of bilirubin within the reference range may have some positive effects.

Excess Bilirubin & Diseases

1) Excess Bilirubin Causes Brain Problems

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Newborn jaundice is a common problem because the baby’s liver may take some time to fully function after birth. Without other health problems, this condition typically goes away on its own and is often treated with UV exposure (R).

Excess bilirubin in a newborn may lead to an accumulation of bilirubin in certain brain regions. This can cause irreversible damage to the brain, causing various brain deficits, seizures, abnormal reflexes, and weird eye movements. This rare type of neurological injury is called kernicterus (R).

Neonatal exposure to high levels of bilirubin can cause severe motor symptoms and cerebral palsy. Exposure to moderate levels of unconjugated bilirubin can also cause damage to the developing central nervous system (R).

2) Excess Bilirubin Is Associated with Deafness in Newborns

The auditory pathway is the most sensitive part of the central nervous system to bilirubin-induced toxicity. High blood bilirubin levels can cause damage to the auditory system as well as the brainstem (R).

Excessive bilirubin levels are associated with deafness in infants (R).

Only bilirubin levels ≥10 mg/dL above a threshold were associated with a statistically significant increased risk of Sensorineural Hearing Loss (R).

3) Excess Bilirubin May Damage the Liver

High plasma concentrations of bile acids (BA) and bilirubin can cause liver damage (R).

What Increases Bilirubin

1) Alcohol

Moderate alcohol consumption may increase concentrations of blood bilirubin in nonsmokers. Total blood bilirubin concentration increased significantly after drinking (R).

Total serum bilirubin increased significantly after drinking from baseline to 24h in non-smokers (from M = 0.38 to M = 0.51) (R).

2) Exercise

Exercise training significantly increases blood bilirubin levels. However, this effect only occurs with high doses of exercise training (R).

3) Fasting

Fasting can increase bilirubin levels due to reduced intestinal mobility (R).

Short periods of fasting increases unconjugated bilirubin concentration in patients taking atazanavir (R).

The average bilirubin concentration before the fasting diet was 2.31 mg/dl and it was 3.84 mg/dl after (R).

4) High Fat Intake

An increase of intravenous lipid (fat) intake in infants less than 28 weeks old leads to an increase in unbound bilirubin. The higher fat intake leads to more free fatty acids in the blood, which increases bilirubin in the infants (R).

5) EGCG

EGCG increases bilirubin secretion. Hence, green tea consumption will increase bilirubin levels (R).

6) Antituberculosis drugs

The use of antituberculosis drugs increases bilirubin levels (R).

7) Tylenol

Paracetamol (acetaminophen/tylenol) increases bilirubin levels (R).

8) Antibiotics

Prolonged used of certain antibiotics may lead to increased bilirubin levels in rats (R).

9) Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth and Abnormal Gut Movement

Low movement of the intestines and small intestine bacterial overgrowth may contribute to increased levels of unconjugated serum bilirubin, as well as gallstone formation (R).

10) Blood And Liver Diseases

Excessive levels of unconjugated bilirubin may indicate certain problems with the liver, or that there is a high level of red blood cell breakdowns. Whereas, too high levels of conjugated bilirubin might indicate obstruction of bilirubin excretion to the gallbladder (R).

Why is Your Bilirubin High?

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These are not necessarily in the order of likeliness.

1) Liver Problems

Excessive levels of unconjugated bilirubin may indicate certain problems with the liver, or that there is a high level of red blood cell breakdowns. Whereas, too high levels of conjugated bilirubin might indicate obstruction of bilirubin excretion to the gallbladder (R).

2) Lower Bile Excretion

Bilirubin is excreted in the bile, so if you have lower bile excretion, it might increase bilirubin.

3) Less UGT Enzymes

There are a bunch of enzymes in the UGT family (glucuronosyltransferases) that reduce bilirubin, and if you have lower levels of these, it will cause higher bilirubin.

UGTs normally convert unconjugated bilirubin to conjugated bilirubin that can be excreted into the gastrointestinal tract.

In addition to its capability in xenobiotic detoxification, UGT1A1 plays pivotal roles in the clearance of bilirubin (R).

Reduction in UGT1A1 expression is associated with Gilberts’ syndrome characterized by mild, unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia in the absence of liver disease.

The GG genotype in rs4124874 causes less UGT1A1 and showed a significantly higher frequency in patients with Gilbert’s syndrome (58%) than in healthy volunteers (17%) (R).

4) Lower Glucuronidation

Bilirubin is glucuronidated in order to be excreted, so low glucuronidation may increase bilirubin.

5) Gut Dysbiosis

If you have gut dysbiosis, you may have high levels of the enzyme Beta-Glucuronidase, which can decrease glucuronidation.

6) Slowed Gut Flow

Bilirubin levels increase when gut flow (motility) is reduced (R).

7) Lower NRF2

The UDP-glucuronosyltransferase (UGT) family catalyze the conjugation of a glucuronic acid to drugs, chemicals, and toxins, making them more water-soluble and readily excreted.  Nrf2 has been shown to induce UGT1A1 and UGT1A6.

8) Inflammation and Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress and inflammation can also increase bilirubin by breaking down red blood cells, which turn into bilirubin (from hemoglobin).

Red blood cells are disposed of in the spleen when they get old or damaged. This releases hemoglobin, which is broken down to heme. The heme is then turned into unconjugated bilirubin in the spleen. This unconjugated bilirubin is then bound to albumin and sent to the liver.

9) Heme Oxygenase – 1

Heme Oxygenase -1 increases bilirubin by breaking it down, and some people might have higher levels of this enzyme.This produces biliverdin, iron, and carbon monoxide.

Induction of heme oxygenase may be a general response to oxidant stress, and increasing bilirubin levels could provide a major cellular defense mechanism against oxidative damage (R).

10) Lower CAR (Constitutive Androstane Receptor)

CAR regulates the genes that transport bilirubin out of the body and is, therefore, regulates the amount of bilirubin, making sure it never gets high enough to become toxic (R).

People with high bilirubin may have lower levels of CAR activation.

CAR has been shown to induce multiple UGT enzymes and other enzymes that detox bilirubin.

Polymorphism analysis of the UGT1A1 genes revealed that a SNP located within the CAR-responsive region displayed significantly higher frequency in patients with Gilbert’s syndrome (58%) than in healthy volunteers (17%) (R).

11) Low PXR

PXR helps detox products such as bile and bilirubin (R), so if you have Gilbert’s Syndrome, you may not have enough PXR.

Removing bile can help prevent cholestasis (R).

PXR has been shown to induce the expression of multiple key components in the clearance pathway of bile and bilirubin, including UGT1A1, OATP2, GSTA1 and 2 and MRP2 (R).

Consistent with the pattern of gene regulation, activation of PXR in mice has been shown to prevent experimental hyperbilirubinemia (R).

12) Higher Hemoglobin

Obviously, higher hemoglobin levels can also contribute to increased bilirubin.

13) Light Deficiency

Blue light breaks hemoglobin down and if you aren’t getting enough light, it will increase bilirubin. Light allows the excretion of unconjugated bilirubin in bile because light makes it more soluble.

14) Higher Monocytes in Spleen

High monocytes in spleen may increase bilirubin because they break down into it.

Why Babies Have Higher Bilirubin

50-60% of newborns have high bilirubin.

Babies have higher bilirubin because of lower levels of this enzyme.  Before birth, this enzyme is actively decreased, since bilirubin needs to remain unconjugated in order to cross the placenta to avoid being accumulated in the fetus. After birth, it takes some time for this enzyme to gain function.

Babies also have a shorter life span of fetal red blood cells.

Last, babies have relatively low conversion of bilirubin to urobilinogen by the intestinal flora, resulting in relatively high absorption of bilirubin back into the circulation.

They lack the intestinal bacteria that facilitate the breakdown and excretion of conjugated bilirubin in the feces (this is largely why the feces of a neonate are paler than those of an adult). Instead the conjugated bilirubin is converted back into the unconjugated form by the enzyme β-glucuronidase (in the gut, this enzyme is located in the brush border of the lining intestinal cells) and a large proportion is reabsorbed through the enterohepatic circulation.

How to Lower/Reduce Bilirubin

1) Phototherapy

Phototherapy reduces the high levels of bilirubin in infants and helps stop jaundice. However, there are side effects to this therapy, and the bilirubin levels can rebound (R).

2) Anthocyanins

Anthocyanins (pigments) from the Aronia melanocarpa plants can reduce the concentration of bilirubin in the blood (R).

3) Zinc

Zinc salts can bind to bilirubin. In rats, zinc salt administration greatly lowers bilirubin levels in the blood. This is due to inhibition of enterohepatic circulation of bilirubin (R).

4) Taurocholic Acid

Taurocholic acid decreases intracellular bilirubin levels in mice (R).

5) Fish Oil

Additionally, triglyceride (cholesterol) levels can influence bilirubin levelsFish oil can lower cholesterol levels, which in turn lowers bilirubin levels (R).

6) Estrogen

Estrogen can lower bilirubin levels in women. Oral contraceptives, containing estrogen and progestin, as well as postmenopausal estrogen use, decreased bilirubin levels (R).

7) Aspirin

In rats, aspirin lowers bilirubin levels post-surgery (R).

8) The UGT1A1 gene

The UGT1A1 gene and its variants are associated with lower bilirubin levels (R).

Subjects who ate diets containing vegetables or citrus had significantly lower bilirubin compared to subjects that did not eat any vegetables. In individuals with the UGT1A1 genotype, vegetable and citrus fruit consumption can lower bilirubin levels (R).

9) Stem Cell Therapy

Adult-derived human liver stem/progenitor cells (ADHLSC) can also reduce bilirubin levels in rats with high bilirubin levels (R).

10) Gut Bacteria

Microflora from the human gut can degrade bilirubin.

In cell cultures, Clostridium perfringens reduces bilirubin ditaurate levels (R).

Other species that can reduce bilirubin include Clostidium difficile, Clostidium ramosum and possibly Bacillus fragilis (R)

Health Benefits of Higher Levels of Bilirubin (within range)

1) Higher Bilirubin Levels Are Associated with Lower Heart Disease Risk

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Higher levels of bilirubin in elderly individuals are associated with lower risks of disabling diseases like stroke and heart diseases (R).

High levels of blood bilirubin also reduce the risk of certain heart diseases (R).

Among individuals with high blood pressure, ones with high bilirubin levels were less likely to die from heart diseases (R).

High serum bilirubin may decrease the risk of high blood pressure by working as an antioxidant in the blood vessels (R).

2) Higher Bilirubin Levels Are Associated with Lower Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Certain genetic mutations in the UGT1A1 gene, encoding a bilirubin metabolizing enzyme, is associated with reduced risks of type 2 diabetes in a diabetic-prone people on Norfolk Island. In addition, the study found that the higher bilirubin is among these people, the less likely they are to get diabetes (R).

3) Higher Bilirubin Levels Are Associated with Lowered Inflammation in COPD and Migraine

COPD is an inflammatory disorder associated with oxidative stress. Blood bilirubin has potent antioxidant actions, and higher concentrations can protect against oxidative stress. In middle-aged smokers, bilirubin lowered COPD disease severity and helps stop its progression (R).

Migraine patients who have higher CRP, an inflammatory marker, have lower total bilirubin (R).

Low serum bilirubin is associated with increased hsCRP in insulin resistant and type 2 diabetic people (R).

4) Higher Bilirubin Levels Reduce Death Rates

People who had higher levels of bilirubin had a lower risk of lung cancer and mortality. Low levels of blood bilirubin correlated with higher risk of lung cancer and death in male smokers (R).

Compared with male smokers in the highest bilirubin group (>1 mg/dL), those in the lowest bilirubin group (<0.75 mg/dL) had 55% and 66% increase in risks of lung cancer incidence and mortality, respectively (R).

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9 COMMENTS

  • Michael

    Start eating high cholesterol, and or fatty foods…

  • Bruce

    I have a question please. Is there a level at which one should be looking for answers and thinking they have a health issue? As an example, what if the Total BR is 2.5 or 2.9. is that considered a big deal? Thanks.

  • Sebastian

    Hi Danielle,

    Thank you for your kind and interesting reply. I’m sorry that you had this condition and I’m really happy that you made so much progress. Maybe you have an e-mail address so you we can discuss this further. My brainfog and fatigue is very bowel related, as I have confirmed dysbiosis and candida issues. My brainfog got worse since using biofilm enzymes and antimicrobial herbs which indicates that there is in fact a dysbiosis problem.
    Sure the pancreas and the gallbladder are involved as well. It all get’s better when I’m fasted and it gets worse after eating. I have been to numerous doctors in the last 4 years and I lost my job due to the brainfog/dizziness.
    Anyway, before taking such a big step as taking out the gallbladder, I would be interested in why gallbladder issues would be there in the first place. Gallbadder issues are very common. Once taken out, it can’t be put in.

    I never had a HIDA scan and I will ask my doctor for one. I agree with you that ,,IBS” does not exist, but dysbiosis or SIBO does. Might that be an underlying cause for gallbladder issues. Impaired detoxification due to endotoxins could lead to all kinds of problems. I’m just asking because seldom I hear from people that taking out their gallbladder takes away all of their issues. But it happened for you I guess 😉

    Anyway, my email is [email protected] . Any advice is much appreciated. I’m sorry If my writing is bad.

    Regards

  • Paul

    Some 45 years ago, I was diagnosed with Gilbert’s Disease. Now, I understand that they’re calling it a syndrome or anomaly, and that it’s benign. Well, all my life, I’ve suffered from IBS, lethargy or daytime sleepiness and depression. So, is it benign, really or is it a disease as it originally was 45 years ago?

  • Danielle

    Hi Sebastian,
    I wanted to give you some advice because what you are experiencing sounds similar to mine. There could be many explanations, but try and at least ask your doctor for a Hida Scan. That’s where I would go first no hesitation. I had the same issue and for years doctors told me I had Ibs and I really thought that’s what I had, until it got so severe I couldn’t function. Some people take four years or more to diagnose, but a hida scan will tell you the function of your gallbladder. I never had stones or anything show on images, but sure enough when I had a hida scan I had a very low ejection fraction rate and when they took it out my gallbladder was basically dead. When I saw the surgeon before the operation and he asked me my history I told him I had Ibs, he said he never believes a patient has Ibs until they’ve had their gallbladder tested. I had mine taken out a few months ago…no more Ibs. I was jaundice a very long time so I’m still having jaundice issues although finally everything else has resolved after years. Also, another very unusual condition that can cause jaundice with similar issues are sickle cell disease, pancreas function, bile duct functions, ebv acalculous related cholecystitis, hepatitis, vascular disease and a few more, but those are main causes of jaundice with symptoms. I was on my deathbed before I finally got the right diagnosis and procedure to save my life and I’m only 29. It took me so long to recover because it took so long and I was in such poor condition when someone finally figured it out. I never even knew what the gallbladder did or would have ever suspected it as the culprit so I hope to help others and bring awareness so others may not end up like I did at 97 lbs fighting for my life waiting for an operation because it can commonly take over 3 months to get the operation. Some people will also advice doing cleanses etc, but from experience, do what your doctor and surgeons tell you. Gallbladder issues do not normally resolve without the operation and it may be only mild and occasionally, but it will always come back and the more it comes back the harder it is each time. Wishing you very well. I had lots of labs done over the 4 years. If you would like to talk to me any further or have questions please let me know.

  • Angela

    I have chronic LOW bilirubin (yes, I know the reference range starts at 0.0, but I am just barely over 0.0) and cannot find any information on how to raise it. I also have MTHFR C677TT. Even though I have been treating it with a bevy of supplements for more than a year, including Rx Deplin, my bilirubin level won’t go up anywhere near “normal.” Any ideas? I can find scientific studies linking low bilirubin to CAD (not surprising, given that MTHFR and CAD are chums), but this seems to be a problem no one else has.

  • Sebastian

    What about always having elevated bilirubin levels (up to 1.9 mg/dl) without having liver disease? But then again, I have fatigue, joint pain and chronic brain fog and constant eosinophilia without knowing the cause. History of IBS. I also have dark, ,,dirty” blood according to my physician. I have an account on selfdecode, are there genes I can look into for the high bilirubin levels?

    Regards

    1. Natcha M

      Hi Sebastian. High bilirubin is correlated with good health and long lifespan, but does not mean that it “causes” good health. The post carefully worded it that way. Check out UGT1A gene on SelfDecode.

    2. Giuditta Del Vecchio

      You might have Gilbert’s Syndrome

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