My Gallbladder: Do I need it?

The removal of the gallbladder is the most common reaction to gallbladder stones and pain. Can you really get along without it? What happens if it is removed? Ever wonder what the gallbladder really does?

While the fact that gallbladders can be removed is fairly common knowledge, the function of the gall bladder is less well-known. Even though medical science has discovered that it is possible to live without a gallbladder, the organ is not a useless mass of cells. It plays an important role in the function of the digestive system.

What does it do?

The purpose of the gallbladder is to store, concentrate, and release bile. Bile, which is produced in the liver, helps the body break down and digest fats. While some bile goes directly from the liver into the duodenum, most of it is sent to the gallbladder, where much of the water is eliminated and it is stored in a much more concentrated form. When a meal is eaten, the gallbladder sends a rush of bile into the duodenum to properly digest your meal.

How does it aid digestion?

Bile consists of mostly water, but also contains bile salts, mucus, pigments, fats, inorganic salts, and cholesterol. Bile is injected into the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum, in order to help with the digestion of fats.

Without the gallbladder, bile flows slowly but steadily directly into the intestine. This can cause improper fat absorption, as well as diarrhea. Because the gallbladder concentrates the bile and releases it at the time food is emptied from the stomach, it usually provides adequate bile to break down normal fat intake in a meal.

What happens if it is removed?

Even without the gallbladder, the body continues to produce bile. The bile also continues to go into the duodenum to aid in digestion. Some medical professionals suggest that the body functions normally after gallbladder removal.

However, many people who have had their gallbladder removed experience some irregularities. Essentially, rather than a larger amount of concentrated bile being released during the digestion of food, smaller, less concentrated amounts of bile flow continuously into the intestines, regardless of whether any food has been eaten. This constant flow of bile can have several effects, including poor absorption of dietary fats and diarrhea.

Studies show that 5% to 40% of patients who have their gallbladders removed (called a cholecystectomy) will have symptoms that are called Postcholecystectomy Syndrome. These symptoms may include gas, bloating, diarrhea, upset stomach or pain in the upper right abdomen. Some of these symptoms can be life-long.

Is there help for the side effects?

A common question patients face after having their gallbladder removed is, “Can I find help for the symptoms?” Thankfully, there are some options that help, including dietary change and supplementation.

  • Foods to Avoid – Most doctors recommend avoiding a number of foods post-surgery. Some people may have to continue avoiding these foods for weeks, months, and even years after surgery if symptoms persist. These troublesome foods include: fried foods, high-fat foods, and highly processed foods.
  • Eat Small, Frequent Meals – Some people find that having smaller, more frequent meals helps their symptoms. This may be due to food being mixed more frequently with the bile that drains into the intestines.
  • Take Bile Salts – Indigestion and other digestion issues after gallbladder surgery may be due to insufficient bile salts to break down the fats eaten. Some research suggests supplementing with bile salts at mealtime. The additional bile salts help to break down the fats, and aid in the digestive process.

The Bottom Line

Unlike your heart, brain, or lungs, you can live without a gallbladder. However, you may face a few side effects as a result. Understanding these effects will help you make wise decisions for your health. If you are not in constant, agonizing pain, try alternative methods to rid yourself of your gallstones without surgery.

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