Gallbladder… Your Ugly Little Secret

You probably know someone who has experienced gallstones or gallbladder problems that eventually resulted in them having their gallbladder removed. That’s because it’s one of the most frequently performed surgeries in the United States — about 460,000 Americans have the procedure each year.

According to Mayo Clinic, factors that may increase your risk of gallstones include:

  • Being female
  • Being age 40 or older
  • Being a Native American
  • Being a Mexican-American
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being sedentary
  • Being pregnant
  • Eating a high-fat diet
  • Eating a high-cholesterol diet
  • Eating a low-fiber diet
  • Having a family history of gallstones
  • Having diabetes
  • Losing weight very quickly
  • Taking medications that contain estrogen, such as oral contraceptives or hormone therapy drugs
  • Having liver disease

So, what is the gallbladder, and why is it such a troublemaker?

Well, it lives under your liver for starters … how would YOU feel if you lived there? To make matters worse, it’s sort of the ugliest of the innards, a green, balloon looking sack. Unlike the slightly sadder appendix, it is functional: it’s there to serve as a reservoir for bile that’s used to break up fats during the digestive process as well as drain waste products from the liver into the small intestine.

It will rear its ugly little head when an excess of cholesterol, bilirubin or bile salts cause gallstones to form, caused when stored bile crystallizes and eventually obstructs the bile duct. Reportedly this is an exceeding painful occurrence that has sent more than one person to the emergency room convinced they were re-enacting the movie, “Alien.” An intense abdominal pain or even pain in the back near the right shoulder blade is not uncommon.

Surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is the most common way to treat gallstones. Unlike a decade ago when a long incision and lengthy recuperation time was the norm, most of these surgeries are now done laparoscopically, minimizing the recuperation time and lessening the risk of infection substantially.

Without the gallbladder to kick around anymore, the digestive process must make do with a constant drip of bile, versus it being stored specifically to process fat. So, life after a gallbladder may include a low-fat diet, depending totally on an individual’s own digestive system. Some patients report having to avoid fatty and fried foods forever, while others have very little difference in the post-operative diet.

Humans are one of the only mammals to have a gall bladder, so it’s not really a necessity to live a productive life. But when it gets angry, you’re going to listen.