Quick, point to your gallbladder. Half credit if you guessed that it’s somewhere between your hips and your heart. Full credit if you know that this pear-shaped member of your digestive system sits in the upper rightabdomen, nestled below your liver.
So, now that the anatomy lesson is over, it’s time to figure out WTH the gallbladder actually does—and how to ensure yours is healthy. Here are eight need-to-know facts:
1. It 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 havegallstones, the most common type of gallbladder disorder. Gallstones form when the substances that make up bile (cholesterol, electrolytes, and water to name a few) are out of proportion. The stones, which can be super-painful, range in size from small grains of sand to golf balls.
3. Being a Woman Puts You at a Higher Risk
While the 40+ crowd is most at risk for gallstones, women are more likely to develop them than men, and at a younger age (starting in their thirties), too. Pregnancy and oral contraceptives are major risk factors for developing certain kinds of gallstones due to the extra estrogen in the body. Others include family history, obesity, ethnicity, and also rapid weight loss, especially from weight-loss surgery. “The mechanism is not clear,” says Nayak, “but theories include a change in the composition of bile.”
4. You May Have Them and Not Even Know It
Gallstones aren’t always problematic. They’re often too small to cause a blockage, and 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.
5. 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.
6. The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Want to keep your gallbladder happy? Focus on overall body health by eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising, says Nayak. Limiting your fat intake—especially when it comes to unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fatty acids–will keep your gallbladder from working overtime. And savor that morning cup of Joe with your avocado toast. “Coffee consumption and increased vegetable-based protein [consumption] also seem to protect against gallstone disease,” says 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. “Since the liver is the source of bile, removing your gallbladder which merely acts as an holding vessel for the bile, doesn’t have any discernable impact on a person’s digestion,” explains Nayak. “The bile in the liver goes directly to the small intestine, bypassing the gallbladder.”
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.