Every now and then one of my patients will call me complaining of a kind of strange, uncomfortable pain in their right neck and shoulder blade area. Most often, they also don’t feel well either – a little nauseated, maybe a little stomach pain and don’t feel much like eating. They wonder if they’ve gotten some kind of flu bug. They’re often shocked when I tell them that it could be their gallbladder acting up and/or they may be passing gallstones! If this sounds like you sometimes, here’s what you should know about gallstones and gallbladder problems.
Gallstones or Muscle Strain?
Your gallbladder is an organ that sits just under the liver. It helps you digest fat by concentrating and storing bile produced in the liver. It secretes this concentrated bile through ducts into the small intestine where your food starts to be digested. When your gallbladder is not making enough bile – often a slowdown occurs after age 30 especially in women – you can become unable to process and digest fats. This can result in nausea, abdominal cramps, or pain in the right side of your abdomen after you eat, especially if it is a heavier, fatty, or spicy meal.
Over time, undigested fats can form into stones. These stones are made from gallbladder products like cholesterol, calcium and bilirubin. They can be very small and pass unnoticed through your bowel. However, when stones become larger, they can block both the neck of the gallbladder causing inflammation and distention. Or, they can cause a back up of bile into the liver and/or pancreas causing obstructive jaundice or pancreatitis resulting in a lot of pain.
Symptoms of gallbladder problems and gallstones can be milder or more severe resulting in an “attack” which is felt as a distressing pain felt between the shoulder blades in the right upper back and lower neck. Nausea, vomiting, fever and/or chills may occur and can often necessitate a visit to your doctor or even local emergency room. At this point, many times doctors will recommend the gallbladder be removed.
However, you don’t have to wait until your gallbladder starts sending out emergency distress signals to make it healthy again. There are many natural, food/supplement “fixes” for older gallbladders that do not produce bile very well that can get your gallbladder working well again and keep you from having it removed.
Who’s At Risk For Gallbladder Disease/Gallstones?
Gallbladder diseases, and gallstone events, are most common in women over the age of 30, though it does occur in some men as well. Other important risk factors include:
- History of hypothyroidism
- Overweight and/or rapid weight loss from very low calorie diets
- Frequent antacid use
- High “fake” fats (trans fats, fat substitutes), sugar, white flour, nutrient poor food intake
- Drug induced – birth control pills, cholesterol lowering drugs, and immunosuppressants
How To Prevent Gallbladder Disease Naturally
As I often tell my patients, your diet can both cause and prevent disease. It all depends on what kind of foods and substances you put into your body. To prevent, and/or heal gallbladder disease naturally, include the following foods and supplements in your diet:
- Digestive acids: Your body naturally produces hydrochloric acid as a digestive aid. Past the age of 30, however, our production of this acid, and many other digestive enzymes, slows down. Eating foods that naturally contain these digestive-type acids help digest strong fats and keep your bile thin and your gallbladder healthy. Include beets, cucumbers, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice (helps clean liver), green beans, okra, sweet potatoes, grapes, grape juice, green apples, grapefruit.
- Digestive enzymes/probiotics: Add a good digestive enzyme supplement that contains hydrochloric acid, or betaine. Also eat digestive-friendly sour foodsthat contain live cultures (Greek yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut), or take a good probiotic supplement. These help digest fats and keep your digestive system working problem-free after age 30.
- Beet juice salad dressing/digestive: Use juice of 1 raw beet (or ¼ bottled/canned organic beet juice), the juice of ½ lemon (or ¼ cup bottled lemon juice), 2 Tb flaxseed oil. Use this mixture as a salad/vegetable dressing, or take 1-2 Tb after eating heavier meals. Keep refrigerated. Remake mixture every week.
- Vitamin C: Ascorbic acid helps digest fats and heavier foods as well. Take one 500 mg capsule along with heavier meals to help digestive process.
- Avoid/limit these gallbladder trigger foods: Symptoms may come on/get worse with these foods – alcohol, fatty/heavy red meats, chocolate bars, ice cream, coffee, orange juice, artificial sweeteners, refined sugar, white flour products.
Gallbladder attack/gallstones are no picnic to experience. If you develop sharp pains in your stomach, upper right back/neck, call your doctor immediately as you may need an ultrasound, and/or further medical measures. In the meantime, however, changing your diet can help you prevent, and even remedy, gallbladder disease and stones before they becomes a crisis.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.