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Can Your Gallbladder Benefit From A Detox?

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

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.

Can Your Gallbladder Benefit From A Detox?

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).

Gallbladder Dysfunction

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

  • Jaundice

  • Fever or chills

  • Dark urine

  • Pale or greasy stools

  • Inflammation

  • Itching

  • Night sweats

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

  • Being female

  • Having Native American, Hispanic, or Mexican heritage

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Living a sedentary lifestyle

  • Having diabetes, sickle cell anemia, or leukemia

  • Being pregnant

  • 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