This article is dedicated to the excavated gallbladders in the world that could not remain intact despite their human’s best efforts.
I started having gallbladder issues in 2019. The first time I had an attack, I went to the emergency room, not knowing what was happening to my body. It was alarming, and the pain was comparable to natural childbirth in intensity and severity. They gave me some morphine (which came back up), did a quick scan of my abdomen, and sent me on my way with the direction to seek a surgeon. Long story short, I chose not to see the surgeon. I understood the importance of a gallbladder and its function in our bodies, having lived in the natural products industry for 14 years. However, I didn’t want it removed without trying alternative methods first.
It wasn’t until I had a second attack that I visited a gastroenterologist. This one left me crippled on the floor and sobbing in severe pain while my little girl called her grandma to come help me. My mom took me to Instacare this time instead of the ER, where testing confirmed my gallbladder was the culprit behind the severe abdominal pain I was experiencing. I was diagnosed with chronic cholecystitis or gallbladder inflammation.
The GI Doctor
My first doctor appointment went well. By the time I was able to see him in his office, I had my gallbladder health under control. I practiced intermittent fasting, took ox bile, enzymes and digestive bitters, and ate healthier. Surprisingly, my doctor was happy with my steps and encouraged me to continue forward. He also understood the importance of the gallbladder for health and — even though he agreed it’s not a vital organ needed to live — he preferred to make preventative efforts where possible. He also prescribed me ursodiol to help break down the stones in my gallbladder, which I took as needed.
Flash-Forward to 2021
In December 2021, my gallbladder flared up again. It wasn’t just an attack every few weeks. It was almost daily. I was up from 3:00 - 8:00 am, vomiting due to the intense pain in my right side. I was losing sleep and too scared to eat anything.
After the second week of the attacks, I called my GI’s office again and scheduled an appointment to talk to the doctor about next steps. This time he recommended a cholecystectomy, a surgery to remove the gallbladder. I’d tried to keep my gallbladder healthy for two years, utilizing every tool under my belt to achieve wellness. He congratulated me on my best efforts, but keeping my gallbladder wasn’t in the cards. Considering my family history, I’m not sure it ever was. I have five close relatives who have had their gallbladder removed: two of my uncles, my dad, my grandma, and her twin sister. I also met at least three of the five F’s criteria: female, fertile, forty, fair, and fat (information courtesy of a radiological technician). If you didn’t know, the more F’s you have, the more likely it is you will have your gallbladder removed.
Much to my dismay, I scheduled an appointment with the surgeon to discuss gallbladder removal. I asked him if gallbladder health issues were genetic, and he replied they were not, even with my family history. It turns out one out of three people have their gallbladders removed.
I had surgery to remove my gallbladder on March 15, 2022. I’d never had prior surgery nor had I ever been under anesthesia, and I was very nervous. Luckily, I did have the most amazing medical team helping me through the entire process. They made me feel safe, secure, and comfortable. Everything went smoothly, and I was able to get a picture of my gallbladder, which was 2-3 times the average size. A cholecystectomy is an outpatient surgery, and recovery requires pain medications and rest. The first few days were the hardest, and I had to be monitored for 24 hours. I wasn’t able to lift anything over ten pounds for four weeks. After that, my diet wasn’t restricted, but I still took precautions and ate small portions (primarily simple carbohydrates and brothy soups), to ease back into eating.
How to Know Your Gallbladder is Acting Up
First, seek the advice of a medical professional to rule out other causes. Many things can cause pain on your right side. Gallbladder attacks occur on the right side of your body, just under the bottom of your rib cage. They often occur after eating fatty, greasy, or high-cholesterol foods. If you press on the area and it’s painful, your gallbladder may be aching and inflamed. This is different from kidney stone pain, which is in your lower back and increases in intensity when the stone is moving. Gallbladder pain is continuous, remaining constant until the attack is over. Other signs include nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, skin and eye yellowing, dark or tea-colored urine, and light or clay-colored bowel movements (University of Utah Health, n.d.). Should you experience chills, fever, intense pain, or yellowing of the skin or eyes, seek medical help immediately.
Why Gallbladders are Important
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located below your liver in your upper right abdomen. It is critical for digesting fats and proteins, especially red meats. Gallbladders store your liver bile and release it when food starts through your intestines. The liver bile is much weaker without a gallbladder, and it’s hard to eat fatty or protein-dense foods. These foods can then push through your system, which may cause digestive distress, so it is essential to aid the body with digestive supplements.
How to Help Your Gallbladder or the Absence of One:
If you experience gallbladder discomfort or are missing a gallbladder entirely, I highly recommend the following:
- Intermittent fasting, which involves eating within a specified time frame during the day. I started eating around 11:00 am and stopped eating by 8:00 pm. Fasting allows my body to go through detoxification and gives the body a break from digesting foods, allowing for organ cleanup. After my initial two attacks, I did pair this with 24-48 hr fasting, where I consumed only water with electrolytes.
- Fasting is excellent for overall health, regardless of the health concern. You can fast with or without a gallbladder.
- Note: intermittent fasting or fasting of any kind is not recommended for anyone with a history of an eating disorder.
- Digestive enzymes are critical for easing the burden of digestion on your liver and gallbladder. Our bodies make enzymes; however, as we age, they start to decline. An enzyme supplement can help digestion and take some of the burdens of digesting fats or proteins from the gallbladder. You want to take a capsule about 10 minutes before each meal. In the 2023 Almanac titled “The Top Five Supplements Everyone Should Take,” I wrote another article about how your body uses enzymes.
- Ox bile has been around for centuries and was first documented for use in the Chinese Materia Medica, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) reference (Wang & Carey, 2014). Ox bile acts like gallbladder bile and is very similar in its function. It helps break down fats and proteins. If you are experiencing gallbladder discomfort or lacking said organ, ox bile is for you.
- Bile salts generally contain ox bile and a few other components to aid digestion. Brands include Jarrow Bile Acid Factors and Dr. Berg’s Gallbladder Formula.
- Bitters are critical for digestive health but often overlooked. When you consume bitters, you will produce more enzyme-rich saliva to help digest your foods, including higher production of gastric juices (Brennan, 2021). These enzymes help break down the foods you consume. Those garnishes on your plates of food when you go out to eat actually serve a purpose!
- Other helpful supplements include Dr. Christopher’s Liver and Gallbladder Formula and Complete Natural Products Gallbladder Complete.
If you’re struggling with gallbladder health concerns, give some of the above tools a shot. I did, and while it may not have worked out for me, it could work for you.
Wishing you all the best in health and wellness!
Brennan, D. (2021, October 25). Digestive Bitters: Benefits, Risks and More. WebMD. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/what-to-know-about-digestive-bitters
University of Utah Health. (n.d.). Gallbladder Pain: Cause, Symptoms, & Treatment. University of Utah Health. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://healthcare.utah.edu/general-surgery/gallbladder/
Wang, D. Q., & Carey, M. C. (2014, August 7). Therapeutic uses of animal biles in traditional Chinese medicine: An ethnopharmacological, biophysical chemical and medicinal review. NCBI. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4123376/