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Gallbladder: Function, Problems & Healthy Diet

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The gallbladder, shown in red, lies beneath the liver within the torso.
Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki | Dreamstime

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located under the liver on the right side of the abdomen. It is used to store bile, a yellowish-brown fluid produced by the liver and used to break up and digest fatty foods in the small intestine.

Though its function is to help with digestion, the gallbladder is part of the human biliary system (organs and ducts involved with the production, storage and transportation of bile). The gallbladder is not absolutely necessary for human survival, as bile can reach the small intestine in other ways.

Gallbladder problems

Some problems associated with the gallbladder are gallstones, gallbladder attack, and gallbladder disease. Gallbladder pain is usually caused by biliary colic, gallstones, pancreatitis and cholangitis.

Gallstones

Gallstones form when substances in the bile (such as cholesterol, salts and calcium) solidify into particles. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.

Gallstones can block the gallbladder ducts so that bile cannot reach the small intestine as effectively. This may prevent the gallbladder from doing its job and can lead to other gallbladder diseases. It can also lead to gallstone pancreatitis (when the pancreas becomes inflamed because a gallstone is blocking its duct).

Factors that contribute to the risk of gallstones include obesity, high-fat or high-cholesterol diets, diabetes and taking medicines with estrogen. Women, people over 60, Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are also at a higher level of risk.

 

Gallbladder attack

A primary symptom of gallstones is a gallbladder attack. This usually occurs soon after eating. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, gas, belching, and pain in the abdomen, back, right side of the chest, under the right arm, and on the right shoulder blade. The pain may be acute or dull, and may last for one to four hours. Gallbladder attacks may be caused by a gallstone moving down the biliary duct or bile tube toward the small intestine. They can also be caused by a backup of bile or an infected gallbladder.

Gallbladder disease

In addition to pain, common symptoms of gallbladder disease are nausea, vomiting, strangely colored or loose stools, and fever or chills.

  • Cholecystitis is the most common type of gallbladder disease. It is caused by inflammation or irritation to the gallbladder wall, caused by gallstones obstructing the ducts to the small intestine. After several attacks of pain (usually after a meal), chronic cholecystitis may occur. This involves the gallbladder shrinking and losing its function.
  • Choledocholithiasis occurs when gallstones block the flow of bile and the gallbladder becomes inflamed or distended.
  • Acalculous gallbladder disease occurs without the presence of gallstones, and is often triggered by eating high-fat foods. It happens when the gallbladder muscles or valve are not working correctly.
  • Cholangitis is inflammation, scarring, or damage in the bile ducts. The cause is unknown. Symptoms may include an enlarged spleen or liver and decrease in appetite.
  • Gallbladder cancer is relatively rare. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and off-color stools.
  • Gallbladder polyps are lesions or growths in the gallbladder that are usually harmless and carry no symptoms.
  • Gangrene results from inadequate blood flow. Symptoms may include pain, fever, nausea, gas, disorientation, and low blood pressure.
  • Abscesses occur when the gallbladder becomes inflamed with pus.
    gallstones
    Gallstones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball.
    Credit: Roblan | shutterstock

Gallbladder surgery and removal

When dealing with gallstones, doctors often recommend removing the gallbladder through surgery. If the problem does not involve gallstones, antibiotics are often the first treatment. But if the problem persists, the gallbladder will often be surgically removed.

The most common and least invasive method of gallbladder removal is laparoscopic surgery, also known as "keyhole surgery." In this procedure, the surgeon makes three or four small holes in the belly, inserts a laparoscope — a long tube with a camera — and then removes the gallbladder with tiny surgical tools. There is usually no scarring.

If laparoscopic surgery cannot be performed, the doctor may remove the gallbladder through open abdominal surgery.

Both forms of surgery are done under general anesthesia.

Diet for a healthy gallbladder

Maintaining a healthy diet and weight go a long way in keeping the gallbladder health. Foods that are particularly good for the gallbladder are:

  • Fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Some great ones are avocados, cranberries, berries, grapes, cucumbers and beets. Broccoli, bell peppers and oranges are high in fiber and vitamin C, which if lacking can contribute to gallstones. Pectin-rich fruits — such as apples, strawberries and citrus — can also help. Radishes are a terrific option because they increase bile flow, but those already suffering from gallbladder problems shouldn’t eat too many of them.
  • Lean meat, fish, and poultry.
  • Whole grains. These include oats, bran cereal and brown rice. Try breads and cereals that contain whole, various grains and high amounts of fiber.
  • Low-Fat dairy.
  • Plenty of water. This is essential for maintaining the proper amount of water in the bile.
  • Caffeinated coffee and alcohol. Studies have actually shown that moderate amounts (typically two drinks per day) of alcohol or caffeine from coffee may reduce the risk of gallstones. Caffeine from sources other than coffee, such as tea and soda, has not been shown to have a beneficial effect.

The jury is still out on nuts. Some studies have shown that eating peanuts or tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts can help prevent gallstones, but it is important not to eat too many because nuts are high in fat.

Foods to avoid for gallbladder health:

  • Sweeteners, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. This includes high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars, like those found in cookies, soda and snack foods.
  • Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. They may have additives that make it harder for the gallbladder to do its work.
  • White flour foods. This includes white bread, pasta and many desserts.
  • Processed snacks, such as potato chips.
  • High-fat foods.
  • Very low-calorie diets. This generally means eating less than 1,000 calories a day. These diets can increase gallstone formation.

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