By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
Today’s topic is on food for a healthy gallbladder, and I’ll start with the basics first. I know a lot of people who struggle with gallbladder issues, and many of them will probably need it removed surgically. This blog is for folks who want to know a bit more about the gallbladder and what foods they should eat and what foods they should avoid.
The gallbladder is a tiny organ nestled underneath our livers. It’s purpose is to store bile which it releases during and after meals since bile aids in the digestion of fats. The more fat and sugar in our diets, the more our gallbladder works, which unfortunately for our taste buds, increases our risk of getting gallbladder disease. Gallbladder disease usually refers to general inflammation of the gallbladder and bile ducts or to gallbladder stones, which are mostly made of cholesterol.
Those of us accustomed to the uber-fattening, overly-processed western diet are at an even higher risk of some form of gallbladder disease, and this trend is happening more frequently around the globe. One study out of Saudi Arabia showed that the prevalence of gallstones increased significantly over the years as the daily consumption of total calories, fat and sugar increased, 81%, 197% and 164% respectively. The researchers noted a significantly higher rate of surgeries to remove the gallstones, a phenomenon that could not be explained by changing demographics. Their results also correlated with a decrease in dietary fiber intake. Food for a healthy gallbladder MATTERS.
Once the gallbladder becomes symptomatic, it can be a constant frustration, so sometimes the best relief is getting it removed via surgery. A common symptom is pain in the right upper, abdominal quadrant that radiates to the shoulder. Usually the pain gets worse after meals, since that’s when the gallbladder is working the hardest, and usually the pain worsens in proportion to how sweet or fattening the meal is.
After we eat, our gallbladders release bile that travels down bile ducts and into our small intestines. If our bile ducts are inflamed or if there is a gallstone lodged in the ducts and hindering the passage of bile, the usually joyful process of eating becomes painful.
This reminds me of a conversation between a doctor and a patient:
Doctor: When was the last meal you enjoyed?
Patient: Oh, it’s been a bile.
Other symptoms can be any of the ambiguous gastrointestinal ones, like vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, gas, or constipation. In medical school, I was taught the “5 Fs” which refer to the most common subgroup of people with gallbladder disease. Those “5 Fs” are fat, fertile, female, fair and forty. While this was more of a “buzz phrase” for The Boards, if those “5 Fs” apply to you and you’re experiencing pain during/after eating, you may want to see your doctor and rule out a gallbladder problem.
Other risk factors that may predispose someone for gallbladder troubles are: 1) Someone over the age of 60 2) Someone who struggles with frequent constipation, since slow intestinal transit time is an independent risk factor for gallbladder disease 3) Someone who loses a lot of weight rapidly 4) Someone of Mexican or Native American heritage 5) Someone receiving hormone replacement therapy, as estrogen seems to increase stone formation and 6) the Western diet, as already mentioned, but I will list food for a healthy gallbladder below.
If you’re already experiencing symptoms or wondering if your gallbladder is acting up, you can go to your doctor’s office for an ultrasound, a quick, diagnostic test, that will either rule in or rule out gallbladder disease. If gallbladder disease is discovered, you’ll probably be given the option to have your gallbladder taken out via a laparoscopic procedure, which usually proves curative, although there are people who continue to complain of pain even after surgery.
There are also many people running around with asymptomatic gallstones, and the current guideline is to let them alone as long as they aren’t creating any problems. And there are many people with the above-mentioned risk factors, so for these populations and anyone else interested in preventive care for the gallbladder, here is a list of tips and food for a healthy gallbladder:
1) Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day to keep the bile in your system more fluid and less likely to solidify to form stones. More fluid bile will help you digest fat better and decrease the risk of constipation, which, by itself, can lead to gallstone formation.
2) Lose weight, but don’t lose it FAST, as that’s a recipe for gallbladder problems. Crash dieters, I’m looking at you.
3) Because bile is composed mostly of cholesterol, consider decreasing your fat intake to 25% of your daily calories. The more fat in your diet, the worse your gallbladder pain will be. It’s that simple. Also, eating a lot of sugar can make gallbladder issues worse, so I’d reduce sugar in your diet as well.
4) Try adding Curcumin to your diet, as some animal studies show that it inhibits gallstone formation. I wrote a whole blog on Turmeric recently ( which contains Curcumin) , and hope you guys check it out. Turmeric is really a rockstar, and I would advise getting it in your diet rather than taking a supplement.
6)Take 200 mg of Vitamin C daily. Animal studies and a few studies involving humans show that Vitamin C supplements may help prevent bile stones. ( That said, if you’re eating a ton of fruit in your diet, you may not have to supplement.)
7) Try adding dandelions to your diet. There’s not a lot of mainstream science on this, however some evidence ( and herbalists who swear by it) shows that it may help improve gallbladder ( and liver) issues by encouraging the flow of bile.
8)You can try supplementing with fish oil, or just eating more fish in your diet. Several animals studies have shown that fish oil helps prevent gallbladder stones.
9) Learn what your “Problem Foods” are and avoid them. The most reported, offensive foods for the gallbladder are: eggs, turkey, milk, caffeine, nuts, oranges, and red meat. This list will obviously vary from person to person, so start keeping track of your trigger foods so you can recognize patterns and such.
10) Add more fiber to your diet. Seriously, it’s never a bad thing to add more fiber and the Western diet is fiber-starved. It will help with constipation issues too, which is a healthy move for the gallbladder.
11) Try a Castor Oil pack: If constipation is a big issue for you, I first recommend boosting your fiber and water intake. I also recommend yoga and exercise, as that can help get things moving. If you’ve done those things and want to try something else, take a cloth and pour castor oil on it. Cover your abdomen with the cloth, wrap plastic around your abdomen and place a heating pad on top of the cloth. Let it sit for 60 minutes.
12) Try supplementing with Lecithin: Lecithin is a collective group of phospholipids in oil. Sunflower oil and Soya beans have high amount of lecithin. Some research indicates that it has an ability to emulsify bile. That means it makes bile less viscous, less stagnant and more fluid, all of which would serve to decrease the risks of gallbladder stones and gallbladder disease.
13) Try acupuncture. This is not my area of expertise, but lots of folks write me and swear by it. I’m sure an acupuncturist can fill you in on the details.
Since I discussed food for a healthy gallbladder, let’s talk about those popular fasts and flushes:
There is no published, peer-reviewed, solid research to consistently say that fasts or flushes decrease your risk of gallbladder disease and improve gallbladder health. That said, common sense tells us that a scheduled, safe fast allows the gallbladder to rest and restore itself. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of gallbladder flushes, and the lack of published research for their efficacy could be due to the lack of funding put into alternative therapies overall. If you’re going to try a fast or a flush, please be smart about it. You want to make sure it’s safe and that you don’t deplete your electrolytes to unsafe levels, create a hypoglycemic/ hypotensive state or become dehydrated. ( I’ve actually seen that happen.) There are myriad flushes out on the natural health market, but 95% haven’t been evaluated and lots of times they are scams created by people only interested in making money. So, be careful if you do go the fasting/flush route, and remember that you are much better off making long-lasting lifestyle changes that are proven to work.
Thanks for reading, gang. Again, this is a basic overview of health and your gallbladder, but I’m confident that there is useful information in here that you can use. Feel free to check out some of my other blog links below, and definitely check out my health podcast, Causes or Cures! I’ve been lucky to feature some amazing doctors and researchers in their field and if you listen, you’ll not only learn a lot, but you can feel confident about the validity of the information you receive. Also, say Hi on Instagram! 😉