While many people are quite aware of the basic functions and location of the liver, the gallbladder is far less well known, unless you’ve suffered from gallstones. This small organ works in tandem with your liver and digestive system, storing and releasing bile that is crucial to well-functioning systems (1). While detoxes and flushes are all the rage these days, many are not what they are advertised to be, and some can often do more harm than good. However, there are a few detoxes that can be beneficial when safely overseen by a doctor. For those that will benefit from it, the Temecula Center of Integrative Medicine offers a safe, effective liver and gallbladder flush that can help remove toxins, buildup, and stones, and promote the body’s natural healing potential.
Gallbladder Function, Location, and Interaction with Other Organs
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ nestled directly under the right side of the liver (1). Its main function is to store the bile that your liver makes, release it when you eat, and then refill promptly to prepare for the next meal (1, 2). Bile is comprised of cholesterol, bilirubin, and bile salts, and its primary purpose is to help break down and digest dietary fats. As bile leaves the gallbladder, it enters other parts of the digestive system via the bile ducts, congregating in the small intestine to continue the digestive process (1, 2). A healthy gallbladder is able to empty and refill at a rate that keeps up with normal metabolism and aids in digesting each time you eat (3).
There are a few different mechanisms that can cause gallbladder dysfunction, each having to do with abnormal gallbladder emptying and improper cholesterol or bilirubin (a chemical by-product of the body breaking down red blood cells) levels.
The first is the formation of gallstones, which many people have and often cause no noticeable symptoms (1, 2, 4, 5). (However, even non-symptomatic gallstones can lead to issues further down the line, so it is never ideal to have gallstones formed or forming in your gallbladder.) Gallstones are lumps of hardened bile and cholesterol, often containing live, harmful bacteria and pathogens in the center (4, 5, 6). Since bile has such a high cholesterol content, when the body is healthy and functioning properly, it has many chemicals in the right concentration that can properly break down cholesterol. However, if there is an infection, disease, or too much cholesterol in the body, excess cholesterol may remain in the gallbladder, forming into crystals and then eventually cholesterol gallstones (4). About 75% of gallstones are cholesterol gallstones, making them by far the most common (1).
Alternatively, if there is an excess of bilirubin in the body (which occurs as a result of poor liver function), pigment gallstones may form. One last known contributing factor occurs if the gallbladder doesn’t empty fully or enough times per day. Bile may remain and become overly concentrated with either cholesterol or bilirubin, leading to gallstone formation as well (3, 4).
Some people only have one gallstone, and others have many. They can be as small as pebbles or as large as a golf ball, and when they reach a certain size and/or quantity can begin to cause a wide range of symptoms, including (1, 2, 4):
Upper right or mid-abdominal pain
Upper right abdominal pain that radiates to the shoulder or back
Nausea or vomiting
Pain after eating a high-fat meal
Fever or chills
Pale or greasy stools
Complications from Gallstones
Gallstones can cause further problems based on their location, whether they form in poor locations or travel and create a blockage.
Cholecystitis occurs when a gallstone becomes stuck in the neck of the gallbladder, affecting the gallbladder’s function by blocking bile movement and causing bile buildup (1, 4). This can result in swelling and inflammation in the gallbladder, creating the risk of severe pain, fever, and bloating, as well as other common gallbladder symptoms (1, 8). Gallstone pancreatitis is another condition caused by traveling gallstones. Because the gallbladder connects to multiple organs via the common bile duct to deliver bile, sometimes gallstones can travel along the ducts and reach other organs. If a gallstone reaches the pancreas, it can block the pancreatic duct, leading to inflammation and severe instances of the symptoms listed above (1, 9).
Lastly, although it is rare, another complication from gallstones is gallbladder cancer (1, 10). Likely due to the coinciding long-term irritation and inflammation, gallstones are highly linked to cancer.
Risk Factors for Gallstones
As in most other conditions, there usually isn’t one set cause that automatically leads to gallstones and poor gallbladder function. There are a large number of contributing risk factors that each increase the likelihood of developing gallstones and the progression of gallbladder diseases. Risk factors include (1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10):
Being over the age of 40
Having Native American, Hispanic, or Mexican heritage
Being overweight or obese
Living a sedentary lifestyle
Having diabetes, sickle cell anemia, or leukemia
Eating a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet
Not eating enough fiber
Losing weight very quickly
Taking medication that contains estrogen (oral contraceptives, hormone therapy, etc.)
Having liver disease
Having a chronic bacterial infection in the bile duct system, such as typhoid
Smoking, or exposure to other chemicals (such as those used in rubber and textile production)
A family history of gallstones or gallbladder cancer
Treatments to Improve Gallbladder Health
Conventionally, unless gallstones are causing symptoms, they are largely left alone and not given treatment (4, 7). If gallstones are causing symptoms or some of the disorders listed above, surgery to remove the gallbladder is the most common treatment prescribed, since the gallbladder is considered “non-essential.” Thus, the surgery is one of the most common procedures in America (7). However, there are a number of risks to removing the gallbladder, including infection, bile leakage, injury to the bile duct, injury to other surrounding organs, general surgery risks, or even ongoing symptoms such as changes to bowel habits, stomach pain, indigestion, diarrhea, jaundice, and high fever (11, 12). There are a few non-surgical options, such as oral medication and shock wave therapy, but these are rarely employed in conventional medical facilities unless there is a reason not to perform surgery (7).
Gallbladder and Liver Detox Protocol and Prevention
At Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine, we have some incredible gallbladder and liver detox protocols that a number of our patients have found success with. First, we work with you to rule out any risk factors or other underlying conditions, and to ensure that other organs, such as the kidneys and urinary tract, are working well and able to perform as the detox needs them to. It is important to do any detoxes or flushing protocols under a doctor’s care, where we can monitor your progress, prescribe lifestyle changes to support the program, and make sure that your body responds properly to the detox. Once we have determined whether this is something you could benefit from, we will tailor a detox protocol for you specifically, combining supplements and a mixture of liquids to help pass gallstones and restore gallbladder and liver health. Usually, the detox only lasts one day, though it may last longer or need to be repeated soon after in order to fully flush the system and remove all gallstones.
An important part of our detox protocol is preventing future gallstone formation. As always, a healthy diet full of high-fiber foods (like fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains) while minimizing processed foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and cholesterol will go a long way for your overall health, especially in terms of preventing gallstones (1, 4, 13). Eating healthy fats, like avocados, olive oil, and organic, wild-caught fatty fish like salmon will help the gallbladder empty regularly, promoting gallbladder health (13). Losing weight slowly, not skipping meals, maintaining a healthy weight, and not employing very-low calorie diets can also help prevent gallstones (1, 4, 13). Getting enough good quality sleep and exercising regularly will also help your overall health, and compound the good effects of a healthy diet.
If you are having abdominal pain, digestive upset, or feel that your liver or gallbladder are not functioning as they should, please reach out to inquire about our detox protocols! We would love to partner with you to determine the root cause of your symptoms and work together to achieve greater health and healing.
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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