The gallbladder stores bile, a fluid that helps us digest fats. Bile is made at a steady rate by the liver, which sends it to the gallbladder to be stored and released when you eat a fatty meal. It’s made mostly of cholesterol, and is a major way the body gets rid of excess cholesterol.
But for many of us this system does not work so well. Gallstones are common — an estimated 20 million Americans harbor them, and there are 700,000 surgeries every year to have them removed. Several theories exist about why so many of us develop gallstones. There is a genetic link, and gallstones are associated with hormone replacement therapy and some other medications.
All the blood that drains from the digestive tract goes directly through the liver, which is responsible for removing toxins (including medications) as well as capturing any bacteria. The liver has been described as “the oil can of the body” because of this function. Once any impurities are collected and made less toxic by the liver, they are then deposited with bile into the gallbladder, to be eliminated through the bowels. Despite the fact that the liver has processed them, some medications have been shown to interfere with bile production, and likely contribute to gallbladder inflammation.
But as with a lot of digestive problems, lifestyle is a major factor in their development. Gallstones are associated with a sedentary lifestyle, sugar and meat consumption, low vegetable consumption and eating processed foods, especially fats — including hydrogenated fats, “vegetable oils” and fats used for frying.
Most so-called vegetable oils are not from vegetables at all, but highly processed seed oils that were consumed in relatively small quantities until recently, when the process of chemical extraction made them cheaper to produce. This is especially true of canola, soybean, and corn oils.
Poor fat digestion due to impaired gallbladder function is more common than actual gallstones. The same dietary problems that lead to stones are also thought to thicken the bile, making it less effective at doing its job of dissolving dietary fats, and inflaming the gallbladder itself. Many patients have vague pains in the right upper abdomen, sometimes associated with eating, which may be due to an inflamed gallbladder; this can happen without any actual stones being present. Another symptom may be constipation; if the bile is not present in enough quantity to emulsify the fats, it slows digestion. Also, some patients with chronic right shoulder or upper back pain will only find relief when gallbladder function is restored to normal.
A natural food used to improve gallbladder function is beets. In our office we use a supplement composed primarily of beet concentrate.
To prevent gallstones, avoid highly processed foods, especially the fats, minimize medication use, maintain a healthy weight and stay active. Of course, this is the same advice for preventing heart disease, diabetes and every other chronic disease. Even when stones are already present, natural, drug-free treatments are a great first-line treatment before trying more aggressive therapies.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.