Unless you’ve had an acute gallbladder attack, you’ve probably never given much thought to your gallbladder. Yet the gallbladder plays a critical role in digestion, energy production, blood sugar balance, weight management, immune system, hormone health. And suboptimal gallbladder function is one of the most common chronic issues we see coming from our modern lifestyle. The more I learn about this system, the more I’m impressed by the sophistication in its design and the far reaching effects it has on our health.
Clues your gallbladder isn’t functioning optimally
If you’ve experienced an acute gallbladder problem you’re likely familiar with the right-sided abdominal pain just under the ribcage. This pain can also be felt towards the back as well and can radiate to the shoulder blades. Pain can range from a recurrent dull and achy pain or twinges to intense sharp pain. But many of the symptoms of suboptimal gallbladder function is more subtle: indigestion (like nausea, bloating, gas) after eating, bitter taste in the mouth; floating or greasy stools, constipation and/or diarrhea and changes in stool colour. Fatigue, difficulty losing weight, high cholesterol or weak immune function can indicate gallbladder issues. Toxicity symptoms (without known toxic exposures) like skin itch, rash, headaches, body pain, slow thyroid function and chemical sensitivity are also possible indicators.
The gallbladder holds bile until it’s needed
Every day the liver makes about 1 litre of greenish fluid called bile which contains cholesterol, bile acids/salts, bilirubin, water, minerals. Bile is stored in a little sac located just under the liver, called the gallbladder. Here it’s stored and concentrated until digestion signals the gallbladder to contract and causes bile to flow into the small intestine.
Bile’s many roles: digestion, detox, gut and energy balance
Bile helps to emulsify fats in our food, a critical step in being able to absorb the fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) from our food. At the same time, when bile enters the intestines it helps to control the growth of “bad” bacteria to maintain balance in our gut flora. Byproducts of toxins and cholesterol from the liver are also carried in the bile and are eliminated via the bowels. Lastly, bile helps us balance blood glucose by maintaining proper carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
No gallbladder? Your bile’s still working hard!
Even if you don’t have a gallbladder anymore, bile is continuing to be made and used for all of these important functions. Without the gallbladder however, it is more difficult to control the flow of bile so you may get bile irritating your intestines between meals or not have enough bile with meals, this can often lead to indigestion.
Gallbladder dysfunction can range from the mild, chronic issues of sluggish bile flow to sudden and acute inflammation of the gallbladder.
Here are 3 common causes of gallbladder issues:
Due to our increasingly estrogenic toxic environment, estrogen containing medications like oral contraceptives and factors contributing to excess weight, high estrogen activity is common to see in our population. Women in perimenopause (typically 30s to 50s) are particularly susceptible to estrogen dominance which leads to unwanted hormone symptoms such as heavy periods and reducing bile flow. Avoiding hormone disrupting chemicals and adding nutrients for estrogen clearance can help reduce the burden on the liver and rebalance hormones while improving bile flow.
Digestion impacts bile flow as well. The gallbladder relies on the strong acidic quality of stomach acid to signal bile flow. If stomach acid is weak due to stress, acid reflux medications or bacterial infections, bile flow is impeded. Food sensitivities may play a part here as well – consider investigating eggs, pork and coffee if you suspect gallbladder/bile issues. Eating bitter tasting foods and taking digestive bitters with meals can be very helpful in cases where digestion is weak.
Insulin helps us to maintain our blood glucose in a narrow range while also being responsible for storage of extra energy, including in the liver. High cholesterol, fatty liver, blood sugar dysregulation and difficulty losing weight can all be related to high insulin and risk of poor bile flow. Keep in mind that insulin can be an issue, even before changes in blood glucose are observed, so testing insulin levels can be helpful to maximize nutritional and exercise modifications.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, timing is everything. Every 2 hours, Qi, or energy floods through different organ systems at a specific time in a specific order. Between 11pm and 1am the Gallbladder system receives this extra energy for its repair and recovery. However, if we’re awake during this time, this extra energy instead goes to giving us that “second wind”. Overtime, this can hinder the function of this important organ system. Aim to sleep before 11pm for optimal Gallbladder health.
If you know you have “thick” bile, gallstones or gallbladder pain, work with a practitioner to support bile quality, bile flow and digestion. Even if you have had your gallbladder removed, your practitioner can help to support your digestion, prevent nutrient deficiencies and address the factors that led to the gallbladder removal. Stones (and pain) can return even in the absence of a gallbladder.
Bile plays a key role in gut health, hormone balance, metabolism and detoxification. Improving gallbladder function can benefit your digestion, skin health, energy levels, cholesterol and healthy weight.