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I'll Keep My Gallbladder, Thank You!
I'll Keep My Gallbladder, Thank You!

by Thea Summer Deer D.S.P.S.

When a friend of the family recently announced her upcoming gallbladder surgery after discovering a gallstone following a gallbladder attack, I had to ask, why?

 It was her first gallbladder attack, and yes, they are excruciatingly painful, but to agree so quickly to surgery was deeply concerning. It wasn’t the first time that a friend or family member had rushed to have their gallbladder removed, and not all were without repercussions. In answering the above question, I feel confident it comes down to education and support. That is why I felt compelled to share the following information after studying and teaching about this condition for over forty years. Shouldn’t we be asking why there is an epidemic of gallbladder surgery and how we can take better care of this organ? I hope the information in this article may empower you to take another look at why your gallbladder is necessary.

Unfortunately, it is not very likely that you will be encouraged to forgo gallbladder surgery by a doctor, nurse or surgeon or that they will tell you that keeping your gallbladder is a realistic option. There are a few reasons for this, and one is that the Western mechanistic model of Allopathic Medicine uses drugs and surgery as its primary tools, and if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. All the reference points are within the model, with alternatives rarely considered, known, used, or understood. To learn about alternatives, you must seek an alternative practitioner like an acupuncturist, herbalist, naturopath, or chiropractor. Medical practitioners serious about Integrative and Complementary medicine are also seeking alternative practitioners to learn what is not being taught in medical school.

Another reason you will most likely hear from your doctor or surgeon for needing a cholecystectomy is that 1 in 5 newly diagnosed patients with acute cholecystitis who do not have surgery return to the emergency room within about 12 weeks. Also, people who have a medical procedure to eliminate gallstones have them return 50% of the time, and 80% of those return to have their gallbladder removed. Those are good odds, considering that most people are not making dietary or lifestyle changes, yet the argument remains that you should go ahead and get the surgery.

In my experience, the main reason most people choose to have their gallbladder removed, in addition to lack of reliable alternative information, is because most people aren’t willing to make the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes that would keep them gallstone free, or to follow a protocol that could help to eliminate existing gallstones. It takes time to empower ourselves with information that could help us understand what may have caused the problem, and most people don’t know the right questions to ask when seeking alternatives. We also live in an instant gratification society, and when it comes to physical pain, most people will take the easiest and quickest route to avoid and prevent it. That makes us vulnerable to the drug and surgery pushers who capitalize on fear and cause us to make hasty decisions that may not be in our best interest long term.

I think it’s important to note here that I am not a medical doctor and that surgery and drugs can be lifesaving. So please make your informed decisions in partnership with your healthcare provider. My recommendation would be for continued monitoring, as gallbladder disease can be serious and life-threatening. The information presented here is for educational purposes only so that you can make an informed decision. I am an herbal practitioner in the Energetic Model aligned with the Wise Woman and Western European Herbal Traditions and drawing from the wisdom of Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory.

In Chinese Medicine, Five Element Theory studies relationships and organ systems paired with each of the five elements. The gallbladder is a yang organ (hollow) paired with the liver, a yin organ (solid), and corresponds with the Wood Element. Yin balances yang. With gallbladder removal, an imbalance in the paired organ system causes other systems to weaken and collapse. You can live without your gallbladder, but should you? I suggest you read the literature for yourself, especially testimonials from people who suffered long-term complications and quality of life issues after gallbladder removal.

Cholecystitis, or biliary colic, is the most common type of gallbladder disease as either an acute or chronic inflammation, often due to gallstones blocking the duct and causing bile to build up. Bile is made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder until the body needs to digest fats. Suppose the liquid bile contains too much cholesterol, bile salts, or bilirubin, and the gallbladder doesn’t empty completely or often enough. In that case, it can harden into pieces of stone-like material, forming gallstones. Two types of gallstones are cholesterol and pigment. For the purposes of this article I will discuss cholesterol in this article, as it accounts for 80% of stones.

Gallbladder disease is more common in females, especially postpartum when estrogen levels are high. Gallstone-related disease is a leading non-obstetrical cause of hospitalization in the first year postpartum. That is why I began researching this dis-ease over forty years ago as a practicing midwife. Most hormonal imbalances postpartum develop due to estrogen dominance. Birth control pills also increase risk and affect the ability of the gallbladder to contract and excrete bile.

Dietary factors are important considerations in gallbladder disease. You will likely read that vegetarian diets can prevent gallbladder disease by reducing the amount of cholesterol in bile and increasing dietary fiber. The fiber part is accurate. However, vegetarian diets do not stimulate the liver, producing very little bile. This results in large fat molecules not being properly emulsified, making it difficult for lipase to bind, leading to incomplete or reduced fat absorption. Lipase is necessary for fat-soluble vitamin absorption (Vitamins K, D, E & A).

A shortage of the enzyme lipase may lead to high cholesterol. A deficiency of lipase, taurine, or lecithin can lead to a lack of bile and the formation of gallstones from cholesterol. Raw butter and cream are the highest sources of lipase, with fertile eggs being the highest sources of lipase and lecithin. Gluten sensitivity is another cause of fat and mineral malabsorption and inflammation.

One of the most crucial dietary considerations, often overlooked in the modern diet, is the inclusion of the bitter flavor. When the body needs to digest fats, the gallbladder contracts and pushes bile into the common bile duct, which carries it to the small intestine for digestion. The bitter flavor plays a key role in toning the gallbladder, ensuring its proper function of contracting and pushing bile into the bile duct. Our ancestors recognized the significance of the bitter flavor, which stimulates saliva production when tasted and formed a part of their health regimen as herbal bitters.

What are the potential risks and benefits of gallbladder surgery? While there’s a small risk of infection leading to emergency removal (5%), your body is capable of passing gallstones naturally with some support. Cholecystectomy, the most frequently performed surgical procedure in the U.S., according to the Journal of the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons, is primarily covered by Medicaid, with 1.2 million operations conducted annually. This procedure is the most common in operating rooms for Medicaid and uninsured stays and ranks 8th for patients with private insurance. The rise in these surgeries is mainly due to the introduction of laparoscopic surgery and laparoscopic cholecystectomies in the early 1990s.

Bile duct injury continues to be a significant complication and is the leading cause of litigation against general surgeons. While the advent of laparoscopic procedures has substantial benefits (outpatient, quicker recovery, less pain), these did not come without risk, most notably a doubling of the rate of major biliary tract injury. Injury to the bile duct often results in additional surgical procedures, increasing the risk of morbidity and mortality.

Cholecystectomy also increases the risk of bowel cancer because, without your gallbladder, bile drips continuously into the digestive system and can also cause diarrhea and may lead to higher cholesterol levels. It can leave you sticking close to the bathroom and no longer tolerating certain foods.

So when a friend of the family recently announced her upcoming gallbladder surgery, I had to ask, Why not try a simple alternative before undergoing surgery? And why not implement simple changes that might leave you never having another gallbladder attack again?

Some people claim that a gallbladder cleanse or flush can help break up stones and empty the gallbladder, but I do not recommended it. It is good to remember that the body can naturally cleanse and flush itself when appropriately supported, and that is the approach and philosophy of the Energetic Model and Wise Woman Tradition.

Our goal is to increase the amount of bile created by the liver and, secondly, to assist the easy passage of that bile through the liver and gallbladder. Certain herbs can increase the production and flow of bile, including bitters. That may be enough to help break down existing stones and carry that debris through the duct. The recommendations below are generalized suggestions, do not include dosages, and are not meant to be a complete protocol. To learn more about the liver and gallbladder or when and how to do a flush, Please consider enrolling in Love Your Liver: Spring & the Wood Element at Wise Woman Wisdom.

Dietary & Lifestyle Recommendations:
• Increase your exercise to 2-3 hours a week to reduce risk
• Increase fresh fruit and vegetables
• Include bitter greens like romaine lettuce and dandelion
• Increase water and soluble fiber intake
• Eliminate gluten and potential food allergens, and foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. The more refined and processed food the higher incidence of gallstones. Go for high fiber, low sugar.
• Include parsnip, apple (particularly Granny Smith) radish, pear, seaweed, lemon, lime, raw butter, cream, milk, egg, avocado, parsley, barley, beets, and cucumber in the diet.
• Apple cider vinegar daily
• Use olive, coconut and flax seed oils.
• Raw, fresh pressed apple juice may soften gallstones and can help them pass.
• Acupuncture may be affective in relieving pain and spasm, reducing inflammation and volume of the gallbladder and restoring proper function. In combination with Chinese herbs, Acupuncture may be highly effective.
• Lose weight slowly if necessary. Obesity increases your risk for developing gallstones.
• Eat slowly and mindfully
• Avoid large meals

Supplemental Recommendations:
• Vitamin C can help change cholesterol to bile
• Potassium Iodide, Iodine and Seafood high in iodine (helps dissolve cholesterol)
• Fish oils and Omega 3s
• Disodium Phosphate – supports liver and gallbladder functions (Standard Process brand)
• HCL acid and pepsin

Herbal Recommendations:
• Bitter roots like Dandelion, Burdock, Yellow Root, Yellow Dock
• Take herbal bitters daily before meals
• Drink mildly bitter teas like Chamomile
• Turmeric reduces inflammation
• Anti-lithic herbs, also known as “stone breakers” can help dissolve stones taken in tinctures or teas: corn silk, gravel root, stone root, parsley root, and enteric-coated peppermint oil.
• Spasmolytic, Chanca Piedra for relaxing smooth muscle and expelling stones
• Castor oil packs can relieve pain and can support the passing of stones.

The use of castor oil packs in aiding gallstone passing, a practice deeply rooted in the wisdom of our ancestors, is a testament to the efficacy of natural remedies. That, along with the use of bitters and herbal infusions, was well-known and trusted by them. The wise woman tradition has brought us this far and we would do well to keep sight of it. Let your care provider know, “I’ll keep my gallbladder, thank you!” Then, ask for their support and guidance to make the wisest and most informed choice.

Disclaimer: Talk with your doctor before trying to treat gallstones on your own. If you have yellowing of the eyes, fever or chills, and intense abdominal pain, seek medical care immediately.

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Gallbladder Disease, for more information on the different types of gallbladder disease.

Cholecystectomy: Surgical Removal of the Gallbladder, American College of Surgeons

Gallbladder, Cholecystectomy, Open, Mark W. Jones; Jeffrey G. Deppen.

Characteristics of Medicaid and Uninsured Hospitalizations, October 2012, Lorena Lopez-Gonzalez, Ph.D., Gary T. Pickends, Ph.D., Raynard Washington, Ph.D., and Audrey J. Weiss, Ph.D.

Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy and Newer Techniques of Gallbladder Removal, Jeffrey B. Comitalo, MD. JSLS 2012 Jul-Sept; 16(3): 406-412.

Trauma Acute Care Surgery, Mestral C, Rotstein O, Laupacis A, et al. A population-based analysis of the clinical course of 10,304 patients with acute cholecystitis, discharged without cholecystectomy. 2012;74(1):26-30.

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