Bilirubin is a degradation product of hemoglobin. When red blood cells (RBCs) have reached the end of their normal life span (approximately 120 days), they are destroyed in the spleen and liver. Hemoglobin that is freed in the process is further broken down into iron, protein, and protoporphyrin. Protoporphyrin is converted to bilirubin and released into the circulation. Bilirubin binds to albumin and is transported in the blood to the liver. This unconjugated bilirubin is insoluble in water and cannot be filtered through the glomerulus of the kidney.
Bilirubin is then conjugated with glucuronic acid in the liver. This conjugated bilirubin is water soluble and is excreted by the liver through the bile ducts and into the duodenum; bilirubin does not normally appear in the urine. However, if the normal degradation cycle is disrupted, as happens with cirrhosis, hepatitis, and other conditions that damage the liver, conjugated bilirubin will appear in the urine. Since conjugated bilirubin is not bound to protein, it is easily filtered through the glomerulus and excreted in the urine whenever the plasma bilirubin level is increased.