The gallbladder is a small pouch/sac under the liver that releases bile into the gut in order to emulsify/disperse fats, so that digestive enzymes can break the fats down for optimal absorption. ‘Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder’ (NHS website).
Whilst it is estimated that between 10-15% of the UK population present with gallstones, the vast majority are symptom free (Royal College of Surgeons). If however gallstones move from the gallbladder to other areas such as the bile duct, it is possible for the stone to cause a blockage. This can stop the gallbladder emptying, as well as occasionally causing inflammation of the liver and/or pancreas. This can cause severe pain under the right rib cage, which commences suddenly and lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours. Other symptoms include pain in the right shoulder and/or between the shoulder blades, nausea/vomiting and jaundice.
It has been said that ‘you do not need a gallbladder to live’. Whilst this is technically true, it is important to remember that the gallbladder is not a design flaw of the human body and has an important role to play in digestion and maintaining the optimal health and function of the digestive system. Removal of the gallbladder can lead to accumulation of bile in the liver (which can cause its own issues) along with alterations in the balance of the gut bacteria possibly contributing to the development of Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). Unless the underlying reasons for the production of gallstones are addressed, it is possible that stones may appear in the liver/bile ducts even without a gallbladder.
Modern medicine will either prescribe painkillers and a low fat diet (which can make the situation worse in the long term) in mild and infrequent cases or surgery. The complete removal of the gallbladder via surgery (cholecystectomy) is performed around 67,000 times per annum in the UK, costing £112 million (NICE 2014 data). Whilst surgery may be unavoidable in certain situations, the removal of the gallbladder should be avoided if at all possible.
Clinically, I have experienced a number of clients completely resolve their regular gallbladder attacks by changing diet (removing inflammatory foods), resolving imbalances in the microflora/healing ‘leaky gut’ and using if appropriate natural agents to help stimulate bile flow or supplementing with bile itself.