You likely haven’t thought much about your gallbladder, unless something goes wrong with it, and then it’s a big deal. The gallbladder has an important role in your GI tract and can cause a lot of unpleasant symptoms if it’s not working properly, some even life-threatening. Gallbladder dysfunction can be from a few different reasons, but the most common reason is gallstones.
So, what are gallstones you ask? Well, you’ve come to the right place because we’re about to take a trip through the liver and into the gallbladder to explore all about this tiny organ.
What is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small organ tucked underneath the liver used to store bile. Your liver constantly makes a liquid called bile that drips into the gallbladder until it’s needed to break down food for digestion. Bile is primarily made of cholesterol, bilirubin, and bile salts.
When food enters the stomach, hormones are released that cause the gallbladder to contract and release bile into the small intestine to help break down dietary fats. Once emptied, the pouch deflates until it’s filled again with bile from the liver.
The main functions of the gallbladder are to break down dietary fats for digestion, absorb vitamins from food, and remove toxic wastes from the body.
Complications with the Gallbladder
Gallbladder complications are quite common and becoming more prevalent in healthcare. Inflammation to the gallbladder, called cholecystitis, can be caused by trauma, illness, infections, tumors, and most commonly, gallstones.
Gallstones form inside the gallbladder from either too much cholesterol, too much bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. Other reasons can include problems with emptying, causing bile to stay stagnant for too long. Bile is released with incoming food, but if the stones are blocking the exit door, known as the common bile duct, a backup can occur resulting in symptoms like pain and nausea.
Other conditions that can affect gallbladder function are polyps, which can be cancerous, and cancerous tumors. Having gallstones does increase the risk for gallbladder cancer.
If you’re having issues with your gallbladder you may experience some of these symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Pain that comes and goes
- Mild-Moderate Pain in Upper Abdomen, right side, or between shoulder blades/right shoulder
- Acid Reflux
- Diarrhea/Change in Stool: Gray/Clay-colored
- Severe Intense pain mid-right side of the abdomen or back/shoulder
- Constant Unrelenting Pain
- Jaundice: yellowing of skin/eyes
- Discolored Dark Urine
- Fever & Chills
Who’s at Risk?
Some people at more at risk than others for gallbladder issues. Since gallstones are so common, it’s important to review who is at an increased risk, but keep in mind anyone can develop gallbladder issues.
- +40 years old
- Being Sedentary
- Eating a High Fat and High Cholesterol Diet
- Eating a Low Fiber Diet
- Having Diabetes or Liver Disease
- Rapid Weight Loss
Being on cholesterol-lowering medications, like statins, can actually increase the risk for gallstones since these medications help to remove cholesterol from the body by bringing it back to the liver to be excreted through digestion.
Do You Need a Gallbladder?
Typically, the standard treatment for gallbladder disorders, if symptomatic, is to surgically remove the gallbladder. You can live without this pouch, but you no longer have a reservoir of bile needed to help digest fatty foods. Therefore, you may experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, especially after eating a fatty meal.
When you no longer have a gallbladder, you can experience diarrhea, gas, abdominal cramping, and weight changes, especially with a high-fat meal since you don’t have the bile stored to help break it down. However, these symptoms can be managed with diet changes, are likely to resolve in time, and have a low risk for any long-term serious side effects.
After removal of the gallbladder, or if you want to help prevent gallstones, it’s best to avoid/limit fatty, greasy, fried foods and sauces like gravy and alfredo. Increase fiber in your diet with whole grains, beans, nuts, and fresh fruits & vegetables. Eat smaller more frequent meals and avoid foods that irritate your gut.
Cleansers and herbs like milk thistle for gallstones or liver conditions may help, but more research is needed. If you choose to treat mild symptoms at home, it may help, but if you have gallstones, you’re likely to have repeat episodes. To help prevent future episodes you should treat the underlying problem, like lowering cholesterol, losing weight, and changing your diet. However, chronic inflammation in the gallbladder can lead to permanent scaring which can disrupt blood flow and lead to gangrene. If left untreated, gallbladder problems can be life-threatening, therefore it’s best to have it checked out by your healthcare provider.
Want to learn more about how liver disease can affect the gallbladder? Learn about Fatty Liver Disease.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.