If you’re asked to point to your gallbladder, you can probably guess it’s somewhere between your hips and your heart.
But you probably know little else about the pear-shaped member of your digestive system, which sits below your liver in your upper right abdomen.
So we’ve done a little detective work to figure out what the gallbladder really does—and how you can ensure yours is healthy. Read on for 8 need-to-know facts about your most overlooked organ.
1. Your Gallbladder Helps With Digestion
Your gallbladder stores bile, a goopy liquid produced by your liver to help break down fats.
As your stomach begins to digest food, your gallbladder kicks into action, releasing this bile to your small intestine.
“The gallbladder just serves as a ‘booster’ when you eat a meal that is higher in fat,” says Rahul Nayak, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente Atlanta. “So the next time you eat fried chicken, mac and cheese, and chase it with some Southern chess pie, you can thank your gallbladder for not having diarrhea.”
2. Gallstones Are the Most Common Gallbladder Problem
According to some estimates, up to 20 million Americans may have gallstones, the most common type of gallbladder disorder.
Gallstones form when the substances that make up bile—such as cholesterol, electrolytes, and water—are out of proportion.
The stones, which can be very painful, range in size from small grains of sand to golf balls.
3. You May Have Gallstones and Not Even Know It
Gallstones aren't always problematic. They’re often too small to cause a blockage. You might not even know you have them unless you are doing tests for other medical issues.
Even if you do have gallstones, you don’t need to worry about them or have them treated if they aren’t causing issues.
4. Abdominal Pain Is Your Biggest Sign Something May Be Wrong
Signs that your gallbladder may be getting clogged include indigestion after eating foods high in fat or protein, severe and sudden pain in the upper right side of the abdomen, or pain under the right shoulder or in the right shoulder blade.
If your bile duct gets completely blocked, it can cause nausea and vomiting, fever, jaundice, and dark urine.
While these symptoms may go away once the gallstone moves, complications can arise if the bile duct remains clogged, so it’s important to share your symptoms with your doctor.
5. The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Keep your gallbladder functioning properly by focusing on overall body health. That means eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising, says Dr. Nayak.
Limiting your intake of unhealthy fats like trans fatty acids will keep your gallbladder from working overtime.
And savor that morning cup of coffee with your avocado toast.
“Coffee consumption and increased vegetable-based protein [consumption] also seem to protect against gallstone disease,” says Dr. Nayak.
7. You Can Live Without It
The most common treatment for gallbladder problems is to remove it. Fortunately, you can live without this particular organ.
Your liver is the source of your body’s bile; the gallbladder only acts as a vessel for holding it. So removing your gallbladder doesn’t have any discernable impact on a person’s digestion, says Dr. Nayak.
“The bile in the liver goes directly to the small intestine, bypassing the gallbladder,” he says.
8. Gallbladder Cancer Is Rare but Serious
Although it’s not common, gallbladder cancer has a high mortality rate since it’s not often caught in the early stages.
If discovered in Stage 0 or 1, the five-year survival rate runs between 50 to 80 percent. In a later stage, that survival rate drops to single digits.
The article Do You Actually Need Your Gallbladder? originally ran on WomensHealthMag.com.