The Overlooked Keys to a Healthy Gallbladder
Better Nutrition|January 2022
Keep your bile thin and free-flowing by focusing on supportive foods, supplements, and physical activity.
By Melissa Diane Smith. Photographs by Melissa Diane Smith and Getty Images

Q:A few weeks ago, I overate a fatty meal and experienced horrible pain. I went to the emergency room and found out I had a small gallstone. It passed on its own, but it left me wondering: Is there anything that I can do to help prevent the development of more gallstones?

A Gallstones are the most common form of gallbladder disease, a significant and costly health problem in our society. In fact, 10–20 percent of Americans will develop gallstones at some point in their lives, although the majority never develop symptoms.

For those who do experience pain, it’s likely that the gallbladder is sending out a major SOS. The conventional medical approach is gallbladder removal, which is necessary in certain cases, especially in cases of life-threatening infection. But “there’s no thought as to what got you there,” says George Papanicolaou, DO, a functional medicine physician at The Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox, Mass.

In contrast, functional medicine seeks to uncover the root cause that led to the formation of gallstones and approaches treatment from there— usually nutritional therapy to support optimal, healthy, free-flowing bile. “If you’re not getting what you need to make good bile, then you’re going to put your gallbladder under pressure,” explains Papanicolaou.

The Basics of Gallbladder Health

The gallbladder is a small organ located underneath the liver. Its main function is to store the bile produced by the liver and release it into the small intestine to digest fats and enable the body to absorb fat-soluble nutrients—such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, and essential fatty acids. Bile also plays an important role in detoxification, carrying away toxins and hormone metabolites from the liver, and benefiting the balance of bacteria in the microbiome.

Bile in the gallbladder is 95 percent water, and it’s also made up of cholesterol, bile acids, bilirubin, fats, amino acids, enzymes, and hormones. Gallstones start to develop when the compounds in the bile connect to each other and form hard particles or crystals. The body sees these crystals as foreigners and sends white blood cells to attack them, according to Papanicolaou. The white blood cells get broken down and become damaged, which form matrices around the crystals that greatly increase their formation. When the crystals get big enough, they become stones, and some of these grow so big that they get stuck in the duct that leads from the gallbladder into the small intestine.

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