The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located under the liver. Bile, a liquid secreted by the liver, includes the pigment bilirubin (a by-product of the breakdown of haemoglobin), bile salts and cholesterol. It passes out through the bile ducts and is concentrated and stored in the gallbladder. It is released during the digestive process so that the bile salts can aid in the breakdown and absorption of fats.
Most gallbladder diseases are caused by inflammation due to irritation of the gallbladder wall, which is known as cholecystitis. This is often due to gallstones blocking the ducts leading to the small intestine, causing a build-up of bile. Symptoms include right-sided upper abdominal pain and sometimes jaundice.
If the relative concentrations of the constituents of bile are altered for any reason, gallstones may form. Various factors predispose to gallstone formation, particularly the high-protein, high-fat Western diet. Stagnation of bile flow and infection are also factors. In the elderly, the obese and people on oral contraceptives, HRT or steroids there is a tendency towards the formation of cholesterol stones. Diabetics and people with Crohn’s disease have a particular tendency to form gallstones. Pigment stones are more common in people with certain medical conditions such as liver cirrhosis and diseases of the blood such as sickle cell anaemia.
People suffering from gallbladder problems should adopt a high-fibre, low fat, low protein diet rich in raw fruit and vegetables, pulses and wholegrains. A high-fibre, low-fat diet helps keep bile cholesterol in liquid form making it less likely that gallstones will form. Whilst weight loss may reduce the risk of gallstone formation, too rapid weight loss may encourage their development due to an increase in the ratio of cholesterol to bile salts in the gallbladder.
Clinical research has shown that curcumin from the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa) can help prevent the formation of cholesterol gallstones caused by a diet high in fat. Piperine, a constituent of black pepper (Piper nigrum) can increase curcumin’s bioavailability, thereby enhancing the effect of curcumin. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) offers liver support and helps increase the efficiency of fat digestion and absorption. Its cholesterol-lowering effects reduce the likelihood of the formation of cholesterol gallstones.
Both dandelion root and leaf (Taraxacum officinale) are bitter herbs that promote bile flow, increase the efficiency of fat metabolism and help reduce cholesterol levels. These should be taken as a tea or decoction as it is the bitter taste in the mouth that triggers this process.
The popular ‘gallbladder flush’ adopted by many people is, in fact, a fallacy. Analysis of the ‘gallstones’ purportedly passed after drinking large quantities of olive oil and lemon juice has shown them to be lumps of olive oil and lemon juice! Analysis of one group of passed “gallstones” revealed they consisted of 75-percent fatty acids and contained no cholesterol, bilirubin, or calcium. Further studies suggested the spheroids were “soap stones,” created by the interaction of digestive enzymes with certain components of olive oil and lemon juice.
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Song XY, Xu S, Hu JF, Tang J, Chu SF, et al. Piperine prevents cholesterol gallstones formation in mice. Eur J Pharmacol. 2015 Mar 15;751:112-7. PubMed PMID: 25645812.