According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 20 million Americans have gallstones-even if they don't know it. In fact, many people never experience symptoms or discomfort from gallstones, which can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball.
Sometimes, however, gallstones can trigger severe pain and other symptoms., and gallbladder removal is the treatment of choice in conventional medicine. There's no question that this surgery is necessary in many cases. When a patient's gallbladder is infected or severely inflamed, removal is a matter of life and death. But in other cases, gallbladder surgery may not solve the problem-and may even be a mistake.
Studies show that gallstone symptoms, which can include abdominal pain, nausea, indigestion, bloating, and gas, don't always disappear after surgery, although pain usually decreases significantly. One study, published in The British Journal of Surgery, found that 34 percent of patients still had some abdominal pain one year after their gallbladders were removed. And in other research from the British National Health Service, scientists found that some people without gallbladders still experienced diarrhea and bloating after eating fatty foods.
How Your Gallbladder Works
Medically considered non-essential-meaning we can live without it-the gallbladder is a holding tank for bile, a fluid made by the liver to break down fats in your digestive system. When you eat fat, the gallbladder contracts and releases bile through ducts that lead to the small intestine. There, bile breaks down fat so that you can absorb nutrients, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
If the gallbladder is missing, the liver continues to make bile; but without that reservoir, it may not be able to keep up with demand and fat digestion may become impaired. With or without a gallbladder, symptoms of insufficient bile include:
- Cravings for fried or fatty foods
- Not feeling satisfied after eating
- Craving sugar after a meal
- Itchy skin and eyes
- Dry eyes
- Headaches, especially pain in the right temple or on the right side of the head
- Pain or tension in the right fingers, hand, neck, or shoulder, or below the ribs on the right side
What Causes Gallstones?
"Gallstones really develop from a deficiency of bile," says Alexandria, Va.-based Eric Berg, DC (drberg.com), author of The 7 Principles of Fat Burning. In addition to breaking down fat in food, bile also breaks down cholesterol and other substances that can accumulate into stones. Most often, says Berg, a bile deficiency is caused by one or more of the following:
Stress: It raises levels of the hormone cortisol, which can deplete bile, says Berg. This is why abdominal bloating is typically worse late in the day and subsides overnight, while we sleep, he says.
Switching to a vegan diet: Saturated fat, not plentiful in a vegan diet, is one of the key triggers of bile production. In cultures that have been predominantly vegan for many generations, however, the body has adapted, says Berg.
High estrogen levels: According to Berg, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, pregnancy, or high intake of unfermented soy foods can cause estrogen to rise and thereby contribute to bile deficiency.
Low stomach acid: Because stomach acid activates bile production, low levels (due to taking antacids, for example) inhibit it, says Berg.
Processed foods: Preservatives and other toxic food additives, combined with a lack of detoxifying fresh vegetables, burden the liver and impair its ability to produce bile, says Berg.
If You Have Gallstones ...
Berg's clinical experience with thousands of patients shows that these steps help enhance bile production, relieve gallstone symptoms, and may also help to gradually dissolve gallstones, especially small ones.
1 Before or at the start of every meal, take a supplement of bile salts, which are made from purified ox bile. If you're vegetarian or vegan, there are no plant sources of bile salts, but taking concentrated beet powder can enhance your internal bile production.
2 Take supplements of stone root, an herb that helps to dissolve stones and is available in pills, tinctures, and tea form.
3 Eat some saturated fat, because it signals the liver to produce bile. Eggs, grass-fed meat, fatty fish, and coconut oil are good sources.
4 Eat seven cups of vegetables daily-half greens and half brightly colored (see "Best Veggie Choices," p. 54).
5 Avoid these foods because they are thought to aggravate gallbladder conditions:
- Nuts, nut butters, and peanuts
- Large, heavy, fatty meals
- Calcium carbonate, because it reduces stomach acid
6 If bile salts don't resolve your symptoms, you're most likely deficient in stomach acid, says Berg, who explains that stomach acid tells the liver to produce bile-with or without a gallbladder. Restore stomach acid by taking betaine hydrochloride (abbreviated betaine HCI or HCL), available in enzyme formulas.
If Your Gallbladder Has Been Removed ...
Follow the same steps above for those with gallbladders, but omit stone root and instead take a bile salt supplement before breakfast and then again before lunch and dinner if you have bloating or other symptoms. Once symptoms resolve, you can cut back by taking bile salt only before breakfast.
A Common Myth
"If you're overweight and have gallstones, your doctor will typically tell you to lose weight," says Berg, but this is faulty reasoning. Studies show that overweight people are more likely to have gallstones, but that doesn't mean the excess weight causes the stones. More likely, says Berg, a lack of bile production contributes to weight gain, because it interferes with healthy digestion and nutrient absorption, and makes you crave fried or sugary foods.
If you have gallstones, weight loss can aggravate the condition, because excess fat comes out through the liver and bile ducts. Therefore, taking bile salts is especially important during weight loss and can help prevent gallstone problems.
Berg recommends drinking this shake every day as an easy way to help maintain adequate levels of bile (with or without a gallbladder). Blending the kale helps break down nutrients, making them easier to absorb. And berries enhance flavor as well as provide more nutrients and fiber.
1 dense handful kale leaves +
1 handful frozen berries +
1 cup water
Blend ingredients 1-3 minutes, or longer, to make smooth shake. (Blending time depends upon blender's power.)
For gallbladder health, Berg suggests eating as much as 7 cups of vegetables daily-half greens and half brightly colored.
Best Veggie Choices
Whether you have a gallbladder or not, says Berg, greens improve the liver's ability to make bile by enhancing detoxification-and a liver that is less burdened with toxins works more efficiently. Greens also help to make bile thinner, which allows bile to flow more easily and also lowers the risk of gallstones. (Although rare, stones can still form in the liver and lodge in ducts even when the gallbladder has been removed.) Veggies that are particularly good at enhancing bile production include radishes, beets, beet tops, kale (see Kale Shake recipe, p. 56), broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
Vera Tweed has been writing about nutrition, fitness, and healthy living since 1997. She specializes in covering research and expert knowledge that empowers people to lead better lives. She is the author of numerous books, including Hormone Harmony and The User's Guide to Carnitine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine.