The names of organs can be complicated and mysterious. You might never have heard of the Popliteal fossa or the Malpighian corpuscle, and you might be tempted to look on a map for the islets of Langerhans. The gallbladder, on the other hand, has a very straightforward name.
It’s a bladder, or a sack, that stores gall, or bile. Gall, more commonly called bile nowadays, is a liquid that helps with digestion It’s made by your liver and stored in the gallbladder till it’s needed.
When you eat, the bile is sent to your small intestine to help break down fats so you can digest them. Bile breaks fats down into smaller droplets and helps your body absorb them. Bile also removes wastes like cholesterol and bilirubin.
Eating more saturated fats and transfats may put stress on the gallbladder and increase your chances of gallbladder problems.
The most common gallbladder problem is gallstones. Gallstones are pieces of solid material, like stones, that form in your gallbladder. Most gallstones are made of cholesterol, but they can also be made of bilirubin, a pigment. The bile in the gallbladder helps to carry off these waste products, but sometimes they form gallstones.
Gallstones can be very small, and they may not cause any problems if they stay small. However, they can grow to the size of a golf ball. At that point, they can cause trouble.
When bile is needed for digestion, the gallbladder squeezes bile into the bile duct. If gallstones block the duct, this can be painful.
If you have gallstones, you may experience stomach pain and indigestion. But you could also experience pain in your back or right shoulder. If you have a high fever along with this pain, you should call your doctor.
You’re more likely to get gallstones if you are female, over 40, or of Native American or Mexican descent. They also tend to run in families — if you have family members who have had this experience, you’re at greater risk. You cannot control these factors. However, there are lifestyle choices you can make that will reduce your chances of getting gallstones:
- Choose foods high in fiber and low in saturated fat.
- Avoid processed foods, including sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
- Eat regularly, since fasting or skipping meals can cause concentration of cholesterol in your gallbladder.
- Build regular exercise into your day.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
One treatment for gallstones is removal of the gallbladder. If your gallbladder has to be removed, the liver can send the bile directly to the small intestine, so you can live without a gallbladder.
Other gallbladder problems
Cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder, can happen without gallstones. Infections are possible, and gallbladder cancer, though rare, affects about 12,000 Americans a year.
Healthy habits help to keep your gallbladder happy. If you experience symptoms of gallbladder trouble, your doctor might refer you to a gastroenterologist. Gallbladder problems don’t usually go away on their own, so contact your doctor.