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Having the Gall to Get Healthy: How Good Bile Flow Fights Gallstones and Boosts Your Health

Have you experienced any of the following symptoms? (1, 2)

  • Dark urine
  • Fever
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain or tenderness in the abdomen, especially after eating
  • Yellowing of the eyes or skin

If you have, it could mean that there’s an issue with your gallbladder or liver.

Health problems involving the gallbladder and liver are very common. As many as 24% of Americans have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, between 10 and 20% of Americans will develop gallstones, and as much as 40% of people have biliary sludge. (3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

But what does all that mean, and what can you do about it?

Unmitigated Gall: The Gallbladder and Its Bile

Located on the right side of your abdomen and underneath your liver is your gallbladder. It’s about four inches in length and is shaped like pear. The job of the gallbladder is to store the bile that your liver produces.

Bile is a greenish or yellowish liquid that is made up of bilirubin, bile salts, fat (including cholesterol, fatty acids, and lecithin), and mostly water. Bilirubin helps the body to break down and eliminate old red blood cells, and bile salts help break down fat. (1, 7, 8, 9, 10)

The gallbladder and liver are busy and important organs. The average adult’s liver produces between 800 and 1,000 milliliters (or 27 to 34 fluid ounces) of bile every day. That’s enough to fill a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup! The liver then passes off all this bile to the gallbladder for storage and use. (11)

Bile is crucial for a number of bodily functions, and it’s important to keep it flowing for it to do what it’s supposed to do.

For example, when we eat, the gallbladder contracts, and the vagus nerve signals the sphincter of Oddi to relax. This sphincter is like a little trap door in your digestive tract that controls what comes in and goes out. When the sphincter of Oddi relaxes, bile enters the small intestine to help us digest our food. (1, 7, 9, 12, 13)

Gallstone symptoms — A sticky situation

Sometimes, the flow of bile can start to slow down. Bile can become thick and sludgy — which is appropriately referred to as biliary sludge. When bile becomes blocked or sticky this way, it can cause congestion in the liver and gallbladder. And if the bile continues to thicken or clot, gallstones form.

The scientific name for gallstones is cholelithiasis. They aren’t only painful, but can also interfere with the detoxification of the blood, the digestion of fats and fat-soluble vitamins, and the elimination of waste. (1, 7, 11, 12, 13)

What Causes Gallstones and Who's at Risk?

Who gets gallstones?

Although anyone can get them, the prevalence of gallstones increases with age and tends to be higher in females than in males. One reason that women are at a greater risk of developing gallstones is because their hormones play a huge role in the equation.

Due to changes in hormone levels, women over 40 and pregnant women are especially susceptible. Imbalanced estrogen and progesterone levels can cause a number of complications, including: (2, 3, 11, 14, 15, 16)

  • A decrease in the emptying of the gallbladder, which means that bile is left sitting stagnant
  • Increased tendency for the bile to become thicker or clump together, possibly leading to gallstones
  • Supersaturation of bile, which occurs when there is too much cholesterol and not enough bile salts

In addition to the hormonal changes that pregnant and peri-menopausal women experience, estrogen levels — and, therefore, the chance of getting gallstones — can also be affected by: (2, 3, 11, 13)

  • Being overweight
  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals
  • Improper thyroid function
  • Insufficient drainage (see below)
  • Mold and mycotoxins
  • Parasites

Go with the flow: Gallstones and drainage

A major risk factor for developing gallstones is improper drainage. A blocked drainage funnel not only puts extra stress on the liver and gallbladder, but also allows the flow of bile to become blocked. Both of these factors increase the risk of developing gallstones. (7, 11, 12, 13)

In addition, when the liver can’t detox through its usual drainage pathways, it ends up dumping toxins into the bloodstream.

The toxins circulate through the blood until other drainage organs — primarily the lungs, kidneys, and skin — get ahold of them and attempt to eliminate them where the liver couldn’t. If too many toxins build up in these other organs, it can cause tissue damage and a variety of symptoms, including: (10, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20)

  • Kidneys — High levels of toxins in the kidneys can affect their ability to filter sufficiently, which may lead to kidney damage or failure. And when the kidneys can’t filter out electrolytes, fluids, and hormones, you may experience blood pressure problems, decreased circulation, or edema.
  • Lungs — Toxicity in the lungs may suppress immune function and allow for more infections to occur. It will often cause allergies, asthma, congestion, and mucus buildup.
  • Skin — Toxins in the skin can lead to many different skin issues, such as acne, discoloration, eczema, poor wound healing, psoriasis, and more.

Common Gallstone Myths

Myth #1: Gallstones are only found in the gallbladder

Despite the similarity in their names, gallstones are not relegated only to the gallbladder. Gall simply means “bile,” and a gallstone, therefore, is really just a hardened deposit of bile. Gallstones often have multiple layers and contain other types of material besides bile, such as parasites. When gallstones appear in the liver, they are known as “intrahepatic stones.” (7, 11, 13, 14, 21, 22)

The liver has some 50,000 bile ducts, each of which is merely 2 to 5 mm long and very delicate. It doesn’t take much for these ducts to become clogged.

If even a single drop of bile is affected by toxins, such as one of the many chemicals we come into contact with every day, it can change form. Bile has precarious chemistry, and when it’s influenced by toxins, it has a tendency to change from a liquid to a gummier, stickier form. The bile ducts can get plugged up, and stones may develop. (10, 11)

    Myth #2: If gallstones don’t appear on radiographic imaging, you don’t have them

    Radiography is often the first way to check to see if you have gallstones. So let’s say your healthcare practitioner wants you to get a scan, and the scan comes up clean. No gallstones show up — or, maybe, so few that it seems to be no cause for alarm. You might be relieved, thinking that you’re virtually gallstone-free. Unfortunately, however, it’s not that simple.

    Not seeing gallstones on a scan doesn’t mean that they’re not there. Basic radiography is fairly limited in its ability to detect and show gallstones, and often, the only ones that show up are those that are very dense in mineral content.

    But gallstones that are mostly formed from cholesterol are less visible and, as a result, harder to spot in imaging, and cholesterol gallstones are the most common type. In fact, up to 80% of gallstones are made up of cholesterol. (14, 16, 17, 23, 24)

    Also keep in mind that if a few gallstones manage to appear on a scan, there are probably also many others that aren’t showing up. Gallstones are a little bit like ants at a picnic — if you see one, there are very likely countless others lurking somewhere nearby. (14)

    Another thing that practitioners can look out for on a scan is the dilated bile ducts that gallstones frequently cause. This will be a giveaway of the problem, even when the gallstones themselves may not be visible. (14, 16, 17)

    Myth #3: Surgery is the only way to get rid of gallstones

    Luckily, there are ways to clean out the liver and gallbladder, get the bile flowing again, improve drainage, and remove gallstones without requiring any surgical procedures. Most of the 750,000 gallbladder removals that take place in the U.S. every year might have been avoided. (8, 16, 17)

    How to dissolve gallstones naturally

    Some methods to improve bile flow and reduce or eliminate gallstones without surgery include: (8, 17, 18, 19, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29)

    • Dietary changes, including eating more fiber and less fat and sugar
    • Drainage support
    • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which combines endoscopy with X-rays
    • Extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy (ESWL), which is a procedure that uses a series of shock waves to target and break up stones
    • Liver flushes to detox and refresh the liver
    • Losing weight if you’re overweight
    • Natural detox solutions and supporting your overall health
    • Physical activity

      Benefits of Eliminating Gallstones and Sluggish Bile

      Keeping the bile flowing can help avoid and prevent the formation of gallstones. It also comes with a range of health benefits for the body, even far beyond the gallbladder.

      Better emotional health

      In holistic medicine, it’s common to believe in the connection of mind and body and the influence emotions have on our health.

      As in traditional Chinese medicine, many people believe that anger is stored in the liver, and bitterness and resentment are kept in the gallbladder. That means that gallstones can essentially be pent-up negative emotions or hidden stressors that the body is retaining. (30)

      This is why it’s crucial to clear out the liver and get rid of stagnant bile. It will also give you an emotional release. It can help you to let go of and deal with emotions that have been stored in your body, ultimately leading to emotional well-being and tranquility. (31, 32, 33)

      But remember, you might need to prepare yourself to face these emotions and feel them all over again in the process of releasing them.

      Better hormonal balance

      Bile has an interactive relationship with several of our hormones, including cortisol, estrogen, melatonin, progesterone, and thyroid hormones. (21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38)

      In other words, our hormones help the gallbladder to function, and bile also has an influence on certain hormones. Among other things, bile helps to control thyroid hormones, promote the metabolism of various hormones, and stimulate the secretion of hormones in the gut. (39, 40, 41, 21)

      So when the gallbladder and liver are dysfunctional or the bile gets sticky, hormones such as estrogen can build up, causing imbalances. The reverse effect is also true: Too much estrogen in the body can affect the bile, slowing its flow or causing it to become sludgy or toxic. As a result, many adverse health conditions can occur. (22, 23, 24)

      On the other hand, when bile is healthy and flowing normally, it helps regulate hormone production and function.

      Greater mental clarity

      Research has shown that bile acids can be found in the brain and affect signaling there. They influence neurological function and neurotransmission and can have an effect on brain disorders as well. One study found that older adults with dementia also have high levels of biliary sludge. (42, 43)

      For that reason, keeping the bile healthy and free-flowing may be associated with increased cognitive capacities and better mental clarity.

      Improved digestion

      Because bile is an important part of the digestive process, getting it flowing means greater digestive health. When bile easily flows into the small intestine, it helps break down food there, especially fats. This also helps alleviate digestive symptoms that are caused by gallbladder problems, such as bloating and stomach pain. (4, 5, 6)

      In addition to its role in the small intestine, bile acids have also been shown to affect metabolism, including that of both lipids and glucose. For that reason, bile acids may help fight obesity and control metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. (4, 5, 6, 20)

      Improved immune function

      T cells are lymphocytes, or white blood cells, produced by the thymus. They help regulate inflammation and are directly involved in immune function. Research has found that bile acids support T cells, which suggests that bile has an influence on the immune system.

      Studies also show that bile acids interact with immune cells in the gut, where the gut microbes help transform bile acids into molecules associated with immune signaling. All of this means that good bile flow equals good immunity. (44, 45)

      Increased detoxing and drainage

      Both the liver and gallbladder play a big part in the elimination of toxins and waste. Therefore, when these organs are working at their prime, the body will be able to rid itself more easily of toxins and other unwanted substances.

      This also means that any side effects of poor drainage, such as allergies, headaches, joint pain, kidney problems, and skin issues, can be avoided. (46, 47, 7, 15)

      More energy

      Research has shown that bile acids can stimulate energy expenditure. They help burn fat and calories to produce more energy, giving you higher overall energy levels.

      Bile acids may also have an influence on the mitochondria. Nicknamed the powerhouses of the cells, mitochondria produce energy within your cells so that they can perform their various functions, such as growing and reproducing. When your mitochondria produce more energy, you feel more energized as well. (48, 49, 50, 51, 20)

      Gallstones Don’t Have to Be Set in Stone

      The gallbladder and liver have far-reaching effects on your health. When these important organs become plugged up, bile can stop flowing through them as it should and begin to form gallstones. This can lead to pain and discomfort and other potential health concerns, some of which can be serious.

      But there are a number of ways you can help alleviate gallstones and prevent new ones from forming. To avoid developing sluggish bile or building up toxins in your liver and gallbladder, try being more active, eating a healthy diet rich in fiber, and supporting your body’s terrain and the health of your organs.

      Focus especially on detoxing and proper drainage to get your bile flowing again and ensure optimal wellness.