I get a lot of questions about liver and gallbladder problems. Unfortunately, moms have a higher risk of gallbladder attacks, and they often start during pregnancy. Gallbladder attacks are often excruciatingly painful, and they’re one more thing you don’t need to be dealing with when raising a family.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve your liver and gallbladder health, lessening your chances of having gallbladder attacks. In this article, we’ll cover some natural ways to support the gallbladder.
Gallbladder? What’s That?
If you’ve never had a gallbladder attack, you may be almost totally unfamiliar with this tiny organ!
The gallbladder is a small storage sack that holds a ready supply of bile, a greenish-yellow liquid produced by the liver. Bile is needed for the digestion of cholesterol, fats, and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K) consumed in the diet. It’s also used in the elimination of certain waste products from the body.
The gallbladder is connected to the liver by small tubes that make up the biliary tract. The biliary tract also continues from the gallbladder through the pancreas, and into the small intestine. So, the liver produces the bile and pumps it into the gallbladder, which is like a small holding tank.
Then, as bile is needed, the gallbladder contracts, pushing bile into the small intestine to help with digestion.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work!
If the gallbladder isn’t healthy, you might experience a gallbladder attack. And they are not fun!
What Is a Gallbladder Attack?
A gallbladder attack is a severe pain caused by a blockage in bile flow from the liver to the gallbladder to the small intestine. When this happens, bile builds up in your gallbladder, causing an attack.
This often happens from the creation of a gallstone, which blocks the bile duct. However, you don’t necessarily have to have a gallstone to have a gallbladder attack.
There are other causes of a blocked biliary (bile) duct, including the following:
- Tiny stones that accumulate, slowing or blocking bile flow
- Injury to bile ducts that happens during gallbladder surgery
- An overly sensitive biliary tract
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis (inflammation, scarring, and narrowing of the bile ducts)
- Narrowing of bile ducts from other infections, including parasites
- Tumors in the bile ducts, gallbladder, or pancreas
- Disorders of the pancreas causing narrowing in the bile ducts that go through the pancreas
- Malfunctioning of a ring-shaped muscle called the Sphincter of Oddi
- Gallstones that first block the ducts, but then break loose
- The gallbladder just doesn’t empty as it should (for unknown reasons)
Another important thing to know if you’re having gallbladder attacks: the liver and gallbladder are closely connected and the health of one may affect the other.
The Liver Health-Connection
If your liver isn’t in good shape, your gallbladder probably won’t be, either. These two organs work closely together, and if one is overwhelmed, the other will be, too.
After all, bile is produced by the liver. So, if the liver is overwhelmed and isn’t producing bile as it should, you can have a condition of “cholestasis.” Cholestasis happens when bile flow is either reduced or completely stopped. When the gut is unhealthy, the liver will need to work overtime. Toxins are sent from the G.I. tract through the portal vein to the liver. The gut becomes unhealthy from stress, antibiotic use, or not chewing one’s food properly.
This can happen because of an unhealthy liver or because of issues within the bile duct or the pancreas. Also, if bile flow is slowed down, it can lead to liver disease. So, you have to make sure both the liver and gallbladder are healthy.
Read more about the liver-gallbladder connection in this post.
Symptoms of Gallbladder Attacks
Here are some of the symptoms that let you know you’re having a gallbladder attack. You may have just a couple of these or you may have all of them.
- Abdominal/chest pain – on the right side below the rib cage. Pain can go back into the shoulder blade behind the gallbladder
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gas and/or belching
- A yellowish tint to your skin or the white of your eyes (jaundice)
- Light-colored stools or tea-colored urine
- Excruciating pain can take people to the ER. The pain lasts from 15 minutes up to 24 hours. However, 15 to 4 hours is most common.
Because it’s so painful and scary, most people opt to go through surgery to have the gallbladder removed rather than experience that again!
Are You at Higher Risk for Gallbladder Attacks?
Gallbladder attacks are fairly common in pregnant or postpartum moms, mostly due to hormone changes that happen during that time. What puts you at higher risk?
It’s all about the 5 (maybe 6) “F’s” taught to medical students as a mnemonic for gallstone risk:
- Fat (overweight)
- Forty (risk tends to go up with age)
- Fertile (estrogen’s contribution)
An added risk would be family history.
Other contributors might include:
- Low thyroid/Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune low thyroid)
- Low stomach acid
- Food sensitivities (gluten, dairy)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s & Colitis)
Beyond lowering your risk factors (losing weight, balancing your blood sugar, etc), there are some natural remedies you could consider to avoid attacks.
Natural Remedies for Gallbladder Attacks
If you’re already in the throes of an unhealthy gallbladder, here’s some natural remedies to consider:
Bile Salts (Ox Bile or UDCA/TUDCA)
Bile salts are the main “ingredient” of bile. Bile salt supplements can be found in the form of ox bile. Bile salts with the addition of taurine are sold as TUDCA. (an acronym for tauroursodeoxycholic acid) These supplements can help thin the bile, improving its flow.
Beets are high in an amino acid called betaine. (Beet-aine! Get it? But I digress…) Betaine, also known as trimethylglycine (TMG) helps thin bile, keeping it moving through the bile ducts. They can also help remove congestion in the liver and gallbladder, keeping everything clear.
Try this arugula salad with roasted beets.
Betaine HCL is a combination of betaine and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid). This supplement can help increase the strength of your stomach acid, which helps make sure you’re fully digesting food in the stomach. Without complete digestion in the stomach, more stress is put on the liver and gallbladder.
A good brand for betaine HCL is Steve Wright’s company, the Healthy Gut Company. HCL Guard includes pepsin and intrinsic factor, plus licorice and ginger, for a complete stomach acid supplement.
Artichoke Leaf Extract
Artichoke leaf contains a compound called cynarine, which increases bile production in the liver and boosts bile flow. It also protects the liver and may even help the liver regenerate. Artichoke leaf is available as a supplement. You can find it in capsules or even as a bulk powder.
Digestive enzymes support just about every segment of the digestive system, including the liver and gallbladder. The enzymes that are especially supportive of the gallbladder and bile flow are lipolytic (fat digesting) enzymes, like lipase, and protein-digesting enzymes, like protease.
If you’re interested in adding a high-quality digestive enzyme, I recommend HoloZyme by the Healthy Gut Company. It includes lipase and has a patented absorption technology, so it works exceptionally well.
Choline is another nutrient needed for breaking down fat and transporting it to the cells of the body. It’s used to make phosphatidylcholine (also called lecithin), which is an important part of bile. It also helps prevent the buildup of fat in the liver, which is associated with gallstones. You can get choline in your diet by eating egg yolks and beef liver.
Choline supplements come in several different forms, including phosphatidylcholine, CDP Choline (Citicoline), and Alpha GPC. Thorne’s Phosphatidyl Choline is a good place to start.
Flaxseed tea can help reduce gallbladder pain even in the middle of an attack. Research in animals has confirmed that whole flaxseeds (but not flaxseed oil) increase the production of bile acids, helping with bile flow.
There are a few different ways to make flaxseed tea, but basically, you bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds, continue boiling for 5 minutes, and then let steep for 10 minutes. Strain out the seeds and let cool to drinking temperature. Drink as needed.
Psyllium husk is another type of fiber to include for gallbladder health. It’s been shown to increase the production of bile acids in the liver and help in the elimination of bile. A study published in the American Journal of Surgery found that psyllium husk may reduce your chances of developing gallstones. It may also help with constipation.
(Tip: If you don’t tolerate it well digestively due to SIBO or another condition, you can use it to make natural slime for the kids!)
Castor Oil Pack
A castor oil pack is a cloth soaked in castor oil, which is then placed over your abdomen. Castor oil packs can reduce inflammation, stimulate the vagus nerve, and support the digestive system. They have long been used in traditional medicine for gallbladder pain.
You can learn how to make your own castor oil packs in this post.
Chanca Piedra (Phyllanthus niruri)
This herb gets its name from its use as a “stone breaker” in Brazilian folk medicine. There, it’s mostly used for kidney stones, rather than gallstones. However, in Ayurvedic and Unani (traditional Persian/Arabic medicine) its leaves and fruit are used for gallstones and liver issues.
Scientific evidence supports its use for liver disorders, viral infections, and lowering inflammation.
Essential Oils for Gallbladder
Targeted essential oils can be wonderfully supportive when it comes to avoiding gallbladder attacks.
- Black Cumin (Nigella sativa) Essential Oil – This oil is a digestive and liver tonic. It’s also strongly anti-inflammatory and protects the stomach and liver.
- Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii) Essential Oil – This oil, because it contains a constituent called geraniol, is supportive of the digestive system, helping to protect the liver.
- Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) Essential Oil – Roman chamomile is another essential oil that’s helpful for spasms or cramps in the digestive system. It’s also very protective of the liver and gallbladder because it contains a high amount of an antioxidant called apigenin.
- Apigenin – This works as an antioxidant and lowers inflammation. In an animal study, apigenin strongly protected against cholestasis and protected the liver. It also normalized bile production and flow.
- Clove Bud & Lime Essential Oils – These two oils stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the gallbladder. They also support the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” part, which helps us relax and assimilate nutrients. I get these two oils in the Parasympathetic blend through Vibrant Blue Oils.
If you don’t have the single oils above or can’t find them easily, you can purchase the Gall Bladder blend, which includes black cumin, palmarosa, and Roman chamomile, also from Vibrant Blue Oils.
Caution: Essential oils, especially the brand mentioned above, are powerful! A little goes a long way. Learn more about using essential oils safely in this post or by listening to my interview with the founder of Vibrant Blue, Jodi Cohen.
Coffee enemas can help to flush bile. They do this by widening the bile ducts and getting bile moving as it’s supposed to. Debbie Graefer of Gallbladder Attack (listen to our podcast interview with all her gallbladder tips here) recommends that people do a series of 21 days of coffee enemas after gallbladder removal because it helps to flush the bile ducts from the liver. But they’re very helpful when you have gallbladder problems as well.
Physical activity is another way to keep your chances for gallbladder attacks lower. Exercise helps keep bile thinner and reduces your risk for gallstones and gallbladder attacks. Shoot for 30 minutes 5 days a week. Get some easy exercise ideas that fit into a busy mom’s life here.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you use for gallbladder attacks? What’s worked best? Share your best tips with us below!