The gallbladder is a pear shaped organ that is tucked away in your abdomen next to your liver and is around 7-10cm long. The prefix gall translated means bile which is what this small organ stores after bile is produced from specialist cells within the liver. Although a small organ it has a huge role to play when it comes to us digesting our food. Without bile we could not digest fats. Before you say that it would be a good thing if we couldn’t digest fats, you have to realise that they are essential to our health and wellbeing.
Different organs within our body have different prefered sources of energy. Our heart prefers fatty acids and poorly accesses carbohydrates as fuel, our kidneys use a blend of fats and carbohydrates, our liver wouldn’t function without fats and when we eat fat in our diet the liver gets first pick of the fats to enable its important functions within the body and although the brain cannot access energy from fats the metabolic activities of the liver are essential for providing fuel to brain, muscles and other peripheral organs which rely on carbs (glucose). Also any of you who love to exercise or who are active, our body has stores of glucose within the liver and muscles but when these have been used up (whether this is running, canoeing or whatever your passion) then our fat deposits are then accessed to get the energy required.
The gallbladder acts as a storage vessel for bile produced by the liver. Bile is produced by hepatocytes cells in the liver and passes through the bile ducts to the cystic duct. From the cystic duct, bile is pushed into the gallbladder by peristalsis (muscle contractions that occur in orderly waves). Bile is then slowly concentrated by absorption of water through the walls of the gallbladder. The gallbladder stores this concentrated bile until it is needed to digest the next meal.
Foods rich in proteins or fats are more difficult for the body to digest when compared to carbohydrate-rich foods. The walls of our stomach contain sensory receptors that monitor the chemical makeup of the food which we eat. When these cells detect fats, they respond by producing the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK enters the bloodstream and travels to the gallbladder where it stimulates the smooth muscle tissue in the walls of the gallbladder. The contraction of smooth muscle forces bile out of the gallbladder and into further ducts within the digestive system where it breaks the fats into smaller masses for easier digestion.
Gallstones occur when bile, which is normally fluid, forms stones. Gallstones commonly contain lumps of fatty (cholesterol-like) material that has solidified and hardened. Sometimes bile pigments or calcium deposits form gallstones. Sometimes just a few small stones are formed; sometimes a great many. Occasionally, just one large stone is formed. This condition is excruciatingly painful and symptoms include: extreme tenderness in the upper right abdomen, dyspepsia, flatulence, vomiting, sweating, thirst and constipation. Prolonged obstruction of the bile ducts can cause jaundice (where the skin turns yellow). Pain should be evaluated by a competent authority such as a GP or hospital as large stones may require surgery.
About one in three women, and one in six men, form gallstones at some stage in their life. Gallstones become more common with increasing age. The risk of forming gallstones increases with pregnancy, obesity, rapid weight loss, having a close relative with gallstones, diabetes and if you take certain medicines such as the contraceptive pill. Being vegetarian and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce the risk of forming gallstones.
Herbal medicine is used therapeutically in this condition to increase the flow of bile, disperse wind and reduce the painful spasms experienced. Herbal medicine can also be used to prevent infection and gallstone formation.
Diet is the number one reason for a poorly functioning gallbladder. Don’t let anyone tell you that diet has no relationship to the gallbladder. Ample research tells us that our diet not only affects every cell in our body but obviously those of digestion. Even before the insulin link to the gallbladder was discovered just a few years ago many physicians recognized the importance of diet on metabolism:
1) Bad fats – these include the obvious partially hydrogenated “trans” fats but also those refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils that so many think are good to eat – corn, soy, canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, cottonseed, and grapeseed. Deep fried foods are especially terrible for your gallbladder. Stick with the good fats please – coconut, eggs, extra virgin oil, fish and flax, butter and heavy cream (moderation) and raw nuts and seeds.
2) Refined carbohydrates – these, along with the bad fats, are where the oxidation (free radical damage) and the inflammation comes from, and it can take its toll on the gallbladder because its effect on cholesterol. Refined carbohydrates include white pasta, white rice, supernoodles (which are deep fried and therefore 20% fat!!!), white breads etc. Carbohydrates break down to sugar and therefore sugars should be included in this category – high fructose corn syrup – it’s one of the worst!
3) Smoking – Unhealthy for your entire body and really takes its toll on the gallbladder too.
4) Excess caffeine – yeah too much caffeine can stress out the gallbladder. How much is too much? That depends on the individual. For some it may be three cups of espresso and for another it may be one ounce of chocolate per day. If you’re having gallbladder problems stop all caffeine until it’s better. People can experience caffeine withdrawals including painful headaches. If you feel that you need to cut out caffeine do so gradually by eliminating one cup/source each week so that your body becomes accustomed to the accessible levels.
5) Alcohol – again this is individualized but obviously too much alcohol is not healthy for your liver, gallbladder, or the rest of your body, what is more is that alcohol is high in sugar and can increase weight gain as well as impacting on the health of your liver.
6) Apartame (Nutrasweet) and other sweeteners (all of which are neurotoxic and possibly cancer causing) – this one is huge and there seems to be a clinical correlation between people who intake a high amount of diet products and have their gallbladder removed.
7) NSAIDS – and other anti-inflammatories can take their toll on the liver and gallbladder. Other meds can too but NSAIDS more often, especially for chronic users.
8) Birth control pills (BCP), hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and yes even the intrauterine device (IUD) – hormonal regulation and metabolism is a major factor when it comes to the liver and even the gallbladder – that’s why the females who are still fertile are part of the medical risk factor. Oestrogen dominance has a huge impact on the health of the gallbladder. Considering that oestrogen and the mineral copper closely parallel one another, many women have copper toxicity problems due to estrogen dominance and then gallbladder problems because some of those bile salts are copper salts – that’s where the bile gets its green color from – copper! You don’t have to be on The Pill or taking hormones to have a gallbladder problem related to your hormones – it can be from inefficient hormonal detoxification. Guys too – you can have testosterone and oestrogen problems.
If you’re having gallbladder problems and it’s not an emergency situation, (let’s all use common sense here), then the first thing to do is to change your diet and lifestyle and assess your risk factors.
Lemons and beets are great foods for your liver and gallbladder – they help to keep bile healthy and non-viscous. So eating these foods regularly can be beneficial.
During an uncomfortable, “attack” you can try sipping some lemon juice. Take one-half of a fresh squeezed lemon and mix it with about 6oz of water and sip it (don’t gulp it down) over the next 30 minutes. If it works, keep doing it until you’ve received full relief. Ginger works well too for some people, but more for nausea. Try to use real ginger root not those rolled in a lot of sugar. You can add it to a smoothie or juiced drink.
You can also try a cold pack over the area of your gallbladder – the upper right quadrant of your abdomen. Place the cold pack about half way over your ribs and half over the abdomen. Don’t put ice directly on your skin or you may burn – but wrap in a paper towel or put over your clothing. Leave the ice on long enough to get a “numb” feeling and depending on the relief you get from it. If any area of your skin in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen feels warm to the touch, that is exactly where you should try to cool it down.
Obviously with the recommendations here if you keep having to do the same things over and over (ice or lemon juice) then you’re not figuring out the problem and just getting by with temporary relief. If the pain gets worse and worse – either that same day or with each subsequent attack – you should seek medical attention.
If you would like herbal support for your gallbladder health do not hesitate to contact me: http://www.herbsforhealthandwellbeing.co.uk where you can have a full consultation, receive an individualised prescription tailored to your needs and personalised dietary and lifestyle advice.