Hey all! Since in America, it is Super Bowl ( or Super Bowel) time, I figured I’d post a blog on digestion, or specifically one about the gallbladder, so here it goes:
The gallbladder is a tiny organ nestled underneath our livers. It’s purpose is to store bile which it releases during and after meals since bile aids in the digestion of fats. The more fat and sugar in our diets, the more our gallbladder works, which unfortunately for our taste buds, increases our risk of getting gallbladder disease. Gallbladder disease usually refers to general inflammation of the gallbladder and bile ducts or to gallbladder stones, which are mostly made of cholesterol.
Those of us accustomed to the uber-fattening, overly-processed western diet are at an even higher risk of some form of gallbladder disease. Recent research in the Middle East highlights this critical diet/gallbladder link. The studies showed that as Middle Easterners shifted from a nomadic way of life feasting on unprocessed, natural foods to a more coach potato lifestyle involving heavy consumption of traditionally western meals, there was a 600% increase in the incidence of gallbladder surgery. YUCK! We absolutely are what we eat!
Once the gallbladder starts being symptomatic, it can be a constant frustration, so sometimes the best relief is getting it removed via surgery. A common symptom is pain in the right upper, abdominal quadrant that radiates to the shoulder. Usually the pain gets worse after meals, since that’s when the gallbladder is working the hardest, and usually the pain worsens in proportion to how sweet or fattening the meal is.
After we eat, our gallbladders release bile that travels down bile ducts and into our small intestines. If our bile ducts are inflamed or if there is a gallstone lodged in the ducts and hindering the passage of bile, the usually joyful process of eating becomes painful.
Other symptoms can be any of the ambiguous gastrointestinal ones, like vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, gas, or constipation. In medical school, we’re taught the “5 Fs” which refer to the most common subgroup of people with gallbladder disease. Those “5 Fs” are fat, fertile, female, fair and forty. If those “5 Fs” apply to you and you’re experiencing pain during/after eating, you may want to see your doctor and rule out a gallbladder problem.
( Trust me, if you get Gallbladder disease, you’ll add another F-word. 😉 )
Other risk factors that may predispose someone for gallbladder troubles are 1) Someone over the age of 60 2) Someone who struggles with frequent constipation since slow intestinal transit time is an independent risk factor for gallbladder disease 3) Someone who loses a lot of weight rapidly is at a higher risk for gallstones 4) Someone of Mexican or Native American heritage 5) Someone receiving hormone replacement therapy, as estrogen seems to increase stone formation and 6) the Western diet, as already mentioned.
If you’re already experiencing symptoms or wondering if you’re gallbladder is acting up, you can go to your doctor’s office for an ultrasound, a quick, diagnostic test, that will either rule in or rule out gallbladder disease. If gallbladder disease is discovered, you’ll probably be given the option to have your gallbladder out via a laparoscopic procedure, which usually proves curative, although there are people who continue to complain of pain even after surgery.
There are also many people running around with asymptomatic gallstones, and the current guideline is to let them alone as long as they aren’t creating any problems. There are also many people running around with the above mentioned risk factors, so for these populations and anyone else interested in preventive care for the gallbladder, here is a list of tips for a healthier gallbladder:
1) Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day to keep the bile in your system more fluid and less likely to solidify to form stones. More fluid bile will help you digest fat better and decrease the risk of constipation, which, by itself, can lead to gallstone formation.
2) Lose weight, but don’t lose it FAST, as that’s a recipe for gallbladder problems. ( This tidbit should decrease the temptation of crash diets and such.)
3)Because bile is composed mostly of cholesterol, you really, really want to decrease your fat intake to 25% of your daily calories. The more fat in the diet, the worse your gallbladder pain will be. It’s that simple. Also, eating a lot of sugar can make gallbladder issues worse, so I’d reduce sugar in your diet as well.
4)Take a calcium supplement dosed at 500-700 mg/ day. Research shows that women who take calcium supplements have a lower incidence of gallstones.
5) Try Curcumin— it increases the solubility of bile. I wrote a whole blog on Turmeric recently ( which contains Curcumin) – check it out. If bile is more soluble it will flow better and is less likely to clog the bile ducts and create inflammation. You can either start cooking with Turmeric or actually purchase the Curcumin capsules.
6)Take 200 mg of Vitamin C daily. One study showed women who have more vitamin C in their bloodstream have lower levels of gallstones. ( But, honestly, if you’re eating a ton of fruit in your diet, you may not have to supplement!)
7) Add artichokes and dandelions to your diet. They help the gallbladder release stubborn and stagnant bile. You can also try supplementing with artichoke extract.
8) Supplement with Fish Oil capsules, as there is research indicating it decrease the production of cholesterol.
9) Know your “Problem” foods. The most reported, offensive foods for the gallbladder are eggs, turkey, milk, caffeine, nuts, oranges, and red meat. This list will obviously vary from person to person, so keep track of your OWN trigger foods and avoid them!
10) Add more fiber to your diet. Seriously, it’s never a bad thing to add more fiber and the Western diet is fiber-starved. It will help with constipation issues too, that can lead to gallbladder disease.
11) Try a Castor Oil pack: If constipation is your issue, take a cloth and pour castor oil on it. Cover your abdomen with the cloth, wrap plastic around your abdomen and place a heating pad on top of the cloth. Let it sit for 40 to 60 minutes.
12) Try supplementing with Lecithin: Lecithin is a collective group of phospholipids in oil. Sunflower oil has a high amount of lecithin, as does egg yolk, and certain soy and animal products. You can also take lecithin in capsule form. Some research indicates it lowers cholesterol and therefore the formation of gallstones, however it’s biggest selling point is its ability to emulsify bile. That means it makes bile less viscous, less stagnant and more fluid- all of which would serve to decrease the risks of gallbladder disease.
13) Milk Thistle: You can try this as a supplement. It’s commonly added to liver and gallbladder detox formulas.
14) A quick note on Fasts and Flushes: For the gallbladder, there is no published, peer-reviewed, solid research to consistently say that fasts or flushes decrease your risk of gallbladder disease and improve gallbladder health. That said, common sense tells us that a scheduled, safe fast allows the gallbladder to rest and restore itself. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of gallbladder flushes, and the lack of published research for their efficacy could be due to the lack of funding put into alternative therapies overall. If you’re going to try a fast or a flush, please be smart about it. Let your doctor know. You want to make sure it’s safe and that you don’t deplete your electrolytes to unsafe levels, create a hypoglycemic/ hypotensive state or become dehydrated. There are a lot of flushes out on the natural health market, but many haven’t been evaluated and lots of times they are scams created by people only interested in making money. So just be careful if you do go the fasting/flush route. A simple flush is a combination of olive oil and lemon juice and sipping it throughout the day. Yes, that sounds like salad dressing, and some alternative health practitioners add herbs to spice it up a bit.
14) Try Acupuncture! Lots of people swear by it.
Hope this helps! Be kind to your gallbladder, and it will be kind to you 🙂
dr. eeks. 🙂