The Gallbladder: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Smallest Major Organ
by Rob Allanson
Hundreds of Thousands of Americans every year become more aware of their gallbladder when they are cut out in hospital operating rooms. Especially for Americans over 40, the gallbladder is the site of much pain and distress.
If you’d like to introduce yourself to your own gallbladder, first lean forward and breathe out. Now, take the four fingers of your right hand and push them firmly (but gently) up under the right side of your rib cage.
If you feel pain when you do this, you know two things: 1) that you have lots of company, and 2) that your liver and gallbladder are in less than ideal shape. Also, if you can’t fit your fingers in at least to the second knuckle, your liver is swollen, Your liver and gallbladder are partners. They live within the right side of your ribcage, grew up together, and are very attached. When one is happy, so is the other; and when one is sick, the other suffers also. The gallbladder’s main work is storing a liquid called bile, which the liver secretes, and then pumping the bile into the intestines as needed.
The gallbladder is our smallest major organ, a little three-to-four inch pouch attached to the bottom of the liver. Because it is mostly hidden behind the liver, the gallbladder is hard to feel unless it is swollen from sickness. A short tube (duct) leads from the lower, narrow end of the pouch to join with another bile-carrying tube from the liver. At this meeting the two become one larger tube that attaches to and empties into the first section of intestine below the stomach. The larger tube is called the common bile duct, while the first section of intestine is called the duodenum (either du-ah’-den-um or du-o-dee’-num).
In both their form and function, the liver and gallbladder are opposites. Like yin and yang, they are complementary/antagonists, which means that because they are totally opposite, they need each other, balance each other, and work well together.
The liver is big, the gallbladder small. The liver is solid, the gallbladder hollow. The liver filters and processes material, while the gallbladder stores it. The liver hardly moves at all, while the gallbladder contracts regularly. Also, some people like to eat levers, but my mother never served me a gallbladder when I was a kid.
Bile is a thick, yellowish, bitter, alkaline fluid. It is often described as greenish orange, although in sickness it may turn black. The Latin term was bilis, the old Anglo-Saxon word was galla, and the Greek word chole. Bile used to be called choler, then later gall. To be bilious or choleric means to be irritable, cranky, angry, or bitter. To have gall is to be impudent or impertinent. The liver and gallbladder have long been associated with these emotions. According to traditional Oriental facial diagnosis, the liver and gallbladder show their condition on the face between the eyebrows. Americans often have a vertical line in this space called a ‘liver line,’ which is commonly known to indicate a short temper.
Bile is made up of three main ingredients. Bile salts are the main active component and are made by the liver from cholesterol, which is a fatty substance used in many ways by the body.
Bile is needed for digestion and acts mainly on fats and oil. Fats and oils are chemically identical, the main difference being that fats are solid at room temperature and come mainly from animal foods, while oils are liquid at room temperature and come mainly from plants.
Fat and oil are not digested until they come into the duodenum from the stomach. In order to be absorbed through the intestinal wall into the blood, all foods must be broken down into small molecules. This process is called digestion. (In Latin di means two, and gest means movement, as in gesture. So digestion means to move apart, or split.)
When fat and oil enter the intestine they are in the form of large drops, which are conglomerations of fat molecules. These fat molecules must be broken down into o smaller molecules by enzymes, which are special protein molecules that act as catalysts and speed up chemical processes.
Our intestines contain special enzymes that split fat molecules, but these enzymes can work only on the outside of the fat drops. If the large drops are broken down into smaller droplets, the enzymes have an easier job. Bile dissolves the fat drops into thousands of tiny droplets that float around in liquid. This liquid is called an emulsion, and bile salts are an emulsifier that breaks up fats and oil on the skin and hair. If we refrain from taking in too much fat and oil, soap isn’t necessary.
Without bile, fat and oil can’t be digested or absorbed well. If for some reason bile flow is blocked, unabsorbed fat may come out with the stools, a condition called steatorrhea (stear: fat; rhea: flow). Eighty percent of the bile salts are reabsorbed at the end of the small intestine and returned to the liver to be used again.
Another function of bile is to activate enzymes, which are secreted in a dormant state. Opposites tend to stimulate each other, and the strongly alkaline bile activates some major enzymes which are acidic.
The second major component of bile is a pigment called bilirubin, a waste product that the bile carries to the intestines which remove it from the body. Bilirubin is a yellowish pigment although it can become greenish when acted on by certain bacteria in the intestines. Bile gives stools their familiar brownish color, but if bile flow is blocked they become grayish-white.
Bilirubin comes from dead red blood cells. We have around 35 trillion of these oxygen and carbon dioxide carriers in our blood, and each one lives for about four months. Old red blood cells are attacked and destroyed in the spleen by white blood cells, which also rid the body of armful bacteria.
Dead red blood cells are carried to the liver at the rate of about three million per second and salvaged for parts. The iron and protein parts are saved and used again, while the bilirubin is discharged into the bile.
If for some reason the bilirubin doesn’t make it to the intestines, it backs up into the liver and blood and turns the skin and eyeballs yellow. This problem is called jaundice and arises in one of three ways:
- If the liver is sick, as in hepatitis (hepa: live; itis: inflammation), then it can’t process the bilirubin, which accumulates and enters the blood.
- If the spleen becomes overactive, it may begin the wholesale slaughter of red blood cells, sending so many to the liver that the liver can’t handle them, and again the excess goes to the blood.
- The third main ingredient of bile is a general load of waste and toxins (poisons) that the liver has filtered out of the blood. The liver is the body’s main blood purification center and is responsible for detoxifying and eliminating drugs, synthetic chemicals in our food, alcohol, caffeine, and many other harmful products.
The liver filters these pollutants from the blood by changing them into compounds the body can eliminate. Then it either puts them into the blood where they will be picked up by the kidneys and sent out with the urine, or it dumps them into the bile. When there is an overload of such wastes in the blood, the bile becomes very toxic and causes a host of problems.
The liver secretes between a cup and a quart of bile a day. Between meals some bile goes into the intestines, but most is stored in the gallbladder, which can hold about two ounces. When the acid contents of the stomach, especially fats and oils, enter the intestines, the gallbladder contracts and sends the bile into the intestine where it breaks up fats and oils into small droplets and activates enzymes.
Once we understand that the bile is made up mostly of cholesterol and that it deals mainly with digesting fats and oil, we realize that the condition of the gallbladder is directly dependent on our consumption of oil and fat.
The average adult American now eats about 300 pounds of dairy food each year. Not counting the water content, milk is 28 percent fat; yogurt, 15 percent; American cheese, 50 percent; and butter, 95 percent. Over 200 pounds of meat are also eaten. One thing that many people don’t realize is that flesh in general has at least as much fat as protein. Again, without counting the water, eggs are 43 percent fat; hamburger, 53 percent; bacon, 85 percent; chicken, 48 percent; tuna, 13 percent; and haddock, 5 percent. Added to these elements in our modern diet is about 35 pounds of pure fats and oil.
Besides being incomplete foods nutritionally, fats and oil are highly concentrated fuels, with a chemical structure similar to petroleum and rubber. When they are burned in the body they give off more than twice as much energy as either carbohydrates or protein.
A little goes a long way, and with the quantities being eaten today, it’s no surprise that there is plenty left over. This stored excess is the major reason why most people are overweight. To use all the fat and oil that most people are eating would require a vigorous and active life. Central heating, cars, television, and office work do little to encourage the burning off of excess food. These fats and oils eventually become acid in the body, producing waste products and contributing to an overall unhealthy condition.
The biggest problem that can happen with the gallbladder is gallstones. These are stones that form in the hollow of the gallbladder and vary in size from tiny sand-like grains to solid rocks that fill the entire organ.
The great majority of gallbladder sufferers have stones, whether ornot their problem is being caused directly by the stones. For instance, gallbladder cancer accounts for about 6 percent of all cancers and has a very high fatality rate. In 90 percent of gallbladder cancers, gallstones are also present.
Usually gallstones are almost solid cholesterol and will not show up on an x-ray. In order to detect them, dye is injected into the gallbladder to provide a dark background against which the stone will appear. In one out of four cases there is also calcium present with the cholesterol that allows the stones to show up on a regular x-ray without using dye. In such cases, we can suspect that the person has been eating dairy foods, which have much calcium compared to other fatty foods.
Cholesterol, like other fatty matter, does not dissolve in water, But thanks to the bile salts, warmth, and high alkalinity of the bile, the cholesterol is normally kept from solidifying in the gallbladder. However, if the composition of the bile becomes weakened or too overloaded with cholesterol, then stones may form.
A special word should be said here about cold liquids. The average American drinks two quarts of liquids a day, and aside from coffee, tea, or cocoa, most of this liquid is taken cold. The average refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees F., which means that most people, every day, are drinking at least one and a half quarts of liquid that is 60 degrees colder than their insides. When swallowed, liquids reach the inside of the stomach in about three seconds. Even with food in the stomach, it has been discovered that liquids will quickly pass around the food mass and settle at the bottom of the stomach and intestines.
We are all familiar with how butter and other fats harden in the cold and melt in the heat. Cold liquids and food have the same effect on internal fat and mucous deposits: they tend to harden and solidify these fats, encouraging the formation of stones. Especially affected are the organs that surround the stomach areas: the kidneys, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.
An estimated 50 percent of the people who have gallstones will not notice any symptoms. When stones and the accompanying irritation of the gallbladder begin to interfere with the flow of bile, pain, belching, indigestion, and gas may begin to show up an hour or so after meals, especially high-fat meals.
The worst happens when a stone gets into the tubes leading from the gallbladder to the intestine. Then, when the gallbladder and tubes contract and try to expel bile, the pain that results is terrible. As one surgeon said, ‘…it is generally agreed that there is no pain more severe than that caused by stones.
If the stone does not pass through into the intestine, it can either block the flow of bile to and from the gallbladder, or, if it travels far enough, it will block the common bile duct. Since the common bile duct carries bile from both the liver and gallbladder to the intestine, no bile will reach the intestine if the common bile duct is blocked by a stone.
In such a situation the following results occur: fats go largely undigested; bile backs up into the liver and blood causing the eyes and skin to become yellow(jaundice); the bile stagnates and concentrates in the gallbladder, irritating the walls and causing inflammation and possibly gangrene.
Since M.D.’s know neither what causes gallstones nor how to prevent or dissolve them, they can only conclude that if they take out your stones, you’ll just make more and have the same problem later. This kind of reasoning in the dark is logical in this way and the same kind of logic says that it’s much safer to operate on a young person than on an old one.
What results is the only gallstone treatment available from modern medicine today-namely, removal of the gallbladder. People can still get around without their gallbladders, since the liver will, after a fashion, be able to supply enough bile on its own to keep things moving.
In 1975, 750,000 gallbladders were taken out in the U.S. It’s estimated that by the age of 40, one out of three women and one out of eight men now have gallstones. An estimated 30 percent of old people have them. Gallbladder trouble is the fifth leading reason for hospital admission, and gallbladder surgery is our third most common operation.
Women are four times more likely to develop gallstones than men, and the problem is especially likely to occur if they are taking either birth control pills (common practice before menopause) or female hormones (common after menopause). The typical gallstone sufferer is usually described in terms of the four F’s: fat, fair, female, and forty. Blonds, in this case, have less fun, since blonds and Caucasians are gallstone prone. The typical gallbladder patient is known to like rich, fatty food.
Doctors have rarely tried changing the patient’s diet in order to heal this sickness. They approach the body and its working on the chemical level alone. Yet what could possibly have a more powerful influence on the body’s chemistry than the three pounds and two quarts of food people take in every day?
Many people have cured their gallstones and other gallbladder problems simply by switching from the modern diet high in fats, oils, and cold drinks to a traditional diet centered around grains and vegetables. This change restores the body’s chemistry to a healthy state, and from this the body proceeds to eliminate all unwanted growths and correct any weaknesses that may have developed.
More specifically, to dissolve gallstones and restore the gallbladder to a clean and happy condition, the following can be recommended:
- Eliminate fatty, sticky, and oily foods, including any foods that tend to create mucus like nut butters, sweet, and excessive use of flour.
- Eat a diet close to the standard macrobiotic diet, with a slightly larger emphasis on longer cooking, more saltiness, and foods such as burdock root, pumpkin, and fall squashes.
- To help dissolve stones, mucus, and fat deposits, apply ginger compresses regularly, eat daikon radish preparations, and drink mugwort tea.
In the event of pain when either a gallbladder or kidney stone is being passed, a hot pack such as a ginger compress, hot water bottle, or a towel soaked in hot water can be applied to the painful area. In addition, drink several cups of a hot, neutral liquid such as water, kukicha twig tea, or grain tea. Together these will increase circulation and open the tubes so that the stone can more easily pass.
Any troubles or pain we may have are just a kind message to us that we need to change our ways.