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What the Gallbladder Does & How to Avoid Gallbladder Disease

So far in this series on digestive health, we’ve looked at the following topics:

  1. The Basics of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  2. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
  3. The Low-FODMAP Diet and Its Role in Treating IBS
  4. What Is the Gut Biome and How Does It Affect Our Health?
  5. What Is Fiber, and Why Is It Vital for Digestive Health?

This week I am going to talk about the gallbladder. Most people know we have one – mainly because so many people get theirs removed! But what exactly IS the gallbladder, and what does our body use it for? Moreover, what keeps it healthy and what makes it sick? We’ll be looking at all those things today.

What Is the Gallbladder and How Does It Help Us?

The gallbladder is a small sack connected to our liver that collects and stores bile. Bile is a dark green to yellow-brown substance made up of water, bile salts, fats, and bilirubin (a waste product of red blood cells).

Our bodies use bile as a kind of “detergent” to help us digest fats. The liver produces bile in small amounts, but larger quantities are needed when we eat a high-fat meal. That’s why the gallbladder regularly stores 1-2 ounces of more concentrated bile, so your body is prepared to deal with a fatty meal. When the cells of the digestive tract send out a signal that fat needs to be digested, the gallbladder will squeeze out the bile and release it into the small intestine.

Thus, a healthy gallbladder enables our bodies to digest food and absorb fat-soluble vitamins efficiently. It also helps lower cholesterol (cholesterol is eliminated through our bile), minimize toxins in the body, and maintain bowel regularity.

What Are the Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gallbladder?

The symptoms of gallbladder disease depend on the underlying cause and how long you have experienced symptoms. These can vary from mild nausea to severe pain, and can be constant or intermittent. The gallbladder may also contract vigorously against a blockage or stone. Depending on the cause of the blockage, a gallbladder episode can last hours to days.

Common symptoms of gallbladder illness include:

What Kinds of Health Conditions Are Associated with the Gallbladder?

There are several conditions that can make our gallbladder unhealthy, or be the result of an unhealthy gallbladder, the most common being gallstones. These are stones of varying sizes that form inside of the gallbladder. Small stones can be passed without much difficulty. However, if the gallstone is larger than the opening of the bile duct, it can get stuck and cause a backup of bile in the gallbladder. This causes pain, inflammation, nausea and, if severe enough, infection.

Some of the most common causes of gallstones are:

Cholecystitis is the technical term for inflammation of the gallbladder (“-itis” means inflamed/swollen), most typically caused by gallstones. If a stone blocks the release of bile, it puts pressure on the gallbladder walls, making them inflamed.

A chronically inflamed gallbladder can also lead to bacterial infection. When a stone blocks the bile duct, the gallbladder swells up and can rupture. When this happens, a bacterial infection can travel into the blood, resulting in septicemia. Symptoms of septicemia include abdominal pain and fever, and possibly nausea and vomiting. If not treated rapidly, septicemia can be deadly.

Polyps are growths of extra tissue inside the gallbladder. They only cause problems if they become too big/numerous and end up restricting the flow of bile out from the gallbladder.

Jaundice occurs when there is too much bilirubin in your blood, causing your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow. A blocked bile duct due to a gallstone is one common cause.

Finally, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can also be caused by a gallstone blocking the bile duct. Pancreatitis is extremely painful and can be deadly if not treated quickly.

Who Is Most Prone to Gallbladder Problems?

The textbook patient for a gallbladder problem is “female, fair, forty, fat and flatulent”. In other words, gallbladder problems occur more commonly in white menopausal women who are probably also experiencing digestive symptoms such as increased gas, bloating, and flatulence.

Apart from this, in my practice, I have also noticed a correlation between gallbladder symptoms and SIBO. Sometimes patients come to me saying they still experience abdominal pain even after they have had their gallbladders removed. It is only after we have diagnosed and treated SIBO that their symptoms completely resolve.

How Do You Test for Gallbladder Problems?

There are several standard tests for gallbladder disease, including:

Ultrasound – An abdominal ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images. It is one of the most frequently used tests to check for gallstones.

Blood Work – Inflammation in the gallbladder can sometimes show up in blood work as elevated liver enzymes, ALT, AST, or bilirubin.

Hida Scan (cholescintigraphy) – This is a test where a radioactive dye is injected into the vein. The dye allows a camera to take a picture of bile moving through the liver and gallbladder, enabling your doctor to diagnosis a gallbladder problem.

What Can I Do to Prevent Gallbladder Disease?

Most of the factors in gallbladder health are related to diet. So if you want to keep your gallbladder happy and healthy, you should:

Herbs and Nutrients That Are Good for Your Gallbladder

There are several natural supplements that can help keep your gallbladder healthy, as well as help your liver to process toxins and fats in your body:

Closing Thoughts

While it’s true that we can function without a gallbladder, many people who have had their gallbladders surgically removed continue to struggle with digestive problems for the rest of their lives. That is NOT to say, however, that having your gallbladder removed may not be necessary for you. Gallstones can cause chronic pain, inflammation, and infection; and, if left untreated, they can lead to life-threatening conditions, such a pancreatitis. If you are someone who, despite your best efforts, cannot fix your gallbladder symptoms through diet alone, surgery may be the wisest option. But for most people, the best way to ensure digestive health and overall wellbeing is to keep our gallbladders healthy.

If you or someone you know suffers with dietary or digestive problems, I invite you to drop me a line on the “contact us” page on this site and request a free initial consultation to discuss your needs. I treat patients locally at my practice in Issaquah, Washington, and worldwide via phone or Skype.

Next time, in the concluding article of this series on digestive health, we will look at treatment options for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can receive that article and all future publications on A Path to Natural Health.

“Health is a journey we travel over our lifetime.
Learn everything you can to make your journey a happier one.”

Dr. Maura Scanlan

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