We’ve entered spring, and with it the season of the liver and the gall bladder, according to Chinese medicine.  We’ve looked at the liver in some detail in previous articles.  Now it’s time to give the gall bladder a little attention.

The gall bladder is a pear-shaped organ, about three inches long and found at the back of the liver, on the right side of the body.  It is a reservoir of bile, produced by the liver to emulsify fats.  Bile flows from the liver to the gall bladder via a small tube, called the cystic duct, which is a branch of the common duct. 

The gall bladder is composed of four layers of tissue: an inner lining of mucous membrane; a layer of smooth muscle; a layer of connective tissue; and a covering layer of tissue, called the serosa.  When food passes from the stomach into the small intestine, hormones stimulate the gall bladder to expel bile into the first stage of the small intestine, called the duodenum.  Bile breaks down fats in the food, permitting them to be absorbed by the small intestine.

Bile is a mixture of bile acid (also called bile salts) and cholesterol.  The cholesterol acts as a buffering agent, preventing the bile acids from eating away at the gall bladder and small intestine. 

Conditions Affecting the Gall Bladder

By far, the most common illness affecting the gall bladder is gall stones.  Sixteen million Americans suffer from gall stones, twelve million of whom are women.  No one is certain why this disparity between the sexes exists, but it may be due to the drop off of estrogen levels in postmenopausal women, which is associated with higher cholesterol levels.  Gall stones are composed almost entirely of cholesterol.  As cholesterol increases in the body, the cholesterol level in the gall bladder also increases, raising the risk of gall stones.  An increase in blood cholesterol levels, of course, also increases the risk of heart disease and other illnesses. 

People who consume high-fat and high-cholesterol diets have higher rates of gall stones than those who eat plant-based diets, which have lower levels of fat and cholesterol.  Each year, 500,000 gall bladder surgeries are performed.  The procedure is called a cholecystectomy. 

Common symptoms of gall stones include pain and tenderness on the right side of the body.  Occasionally, the pain can be sharp and severe, causing people to think they are experiencing a heart attack or appendicitis.  Sometimes, stones can be found in the cystic or common ducts, which can cause serious complications.  The most common form of treatment is the surgical removal of the gall bladder. 

An Upright Official

According to the sages of Chinese medicine, the gall bladder is more than merely an important member of the digestive tract.  It serves an essential psychological function, as well. 

‘‘The gall bladder occupies the position of an important and upright official who excels through his decisions and judgment,” states the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the seminal work of Chinese medicine.  The gall bladder is that official within the body that makes sound decision making possible, asserted the Chinese.   Part of that belief stems from the Chinese philosophy that both the liver and the gall bladder are responsible for controlling and balancing anger.   The more imbalanced these organs become, the more anger, frustration, and emotional distress we experience. 

Conversely, when the gall bladder is healthy, a person will enjoy a balanced temperament and will not suffer outbursts of anger and frustration, nor will he make rash decisions. 

Chinese healers urge people to eat simply, avoid extremes in emotions, and meditate so that harmony can be restored throughout the body, and the gall bladder function can assist in making a correct decision.

The gall bladder is the recipient of bile from the liver, which in Chinese medicine is viewed as taking the liver’s excess.  If the liver becomes excessive and produces too much bile, the gall bladder will suffer, since its capacity to store bile is limited. 

The gall bladder is the recipient of bile from the liver, which in Chinese medicine is viewed as taking the liver’s excess.  If the liver becomes excessive and produces too much bile, the gall bladder will suffer, since its capacity to store bile is limited.

The gall bladder meridian begins at the temples, zigzags along the sides of the head, behind each ear, and then runs down the neck and shoulders.  From there, it travels along the sides of the body, and down the outside of the fourth toe.   Very often, you will find a bunion on the tip of the fourth toe, indicating a gall bladder imbalance and, very likely, excess bile, cholesterol, and possibly stones in the gall bladder. . 

Many headaches are caused by liver and gall bladder imbalances.  Any disturbance in the liver also will upset the gall bladder, which in turn will create an imbalance of chi along the gall bladder meridian.  Such imbalances often will manifest in the form of headaches, since the gall bladder meridian begins at the temples and covers both sides of the head.  Sometimes these kinds of headaches are referred to simply as gall bladder headaches.  Many people who suffer such headaches will see yellow blotches before their eyes.  They are prevalent in the springtime, when the liver and gall bladder are receiving an increase in chi, and when underlying symptoms such as these may manifest.

Perhaps the clearest and most persuasive insight into our modern epidemic of gall bladder problems was made by Nathan Pritikin, the late scientist and creator of the Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise.  Pritikin pointed out that bile is includes both bile acids and cholesterol.  The bile acids keep the cholesterol in liquid form, and thus prevents it from forming crystals and stones.  The cholesterol buffers the acids and keeps them from injuring the tissue that makes up the gall bladder. 

This means, of course, that the balance between the bile acids and the cholesterol is the key to gall bladder health.  If the cholesterol level in the gall bladder becomes too high, the bile acids will be overwhelmed with cholesterol.  That means that there won’t be enough bile acids to keep the cholesterol from forming crystals and then full blown gall stones. 

In a healthy gall bladder, the cholesterol content is around 350 mg.  Most Americans who eat a standard high-fat diet have gall bladder cholesterol levels in excess of 650 mg.  This quantity of cholesterol cannot be kept in solution by the available quantity of bile acids, which allows the cholesterol to form stones.

Pritikin maintained that the surest way to cure gall stones is to lower the body’s overall cholesterol level.  This will reduce the cholesterol in the gall bladder, and thus create a healthy bile-to-cholesterol ratio.  Once this ratio is reestablished, the bile acids can dissolve the cholesterol crystals and stones, and restore health to the gall bladder.  This can be done, he said, as long as there are no stones in the cystic duct, the canal leading from the gall bladder to the common bile duct.  Once stones are in the cystic duct, they can seal off the gall bladder and cause serious problems, for which surgery may be necessary.  Ultrasound and X-ray tests can confirm if gall stones exists and where they are located.

Springtime offers us the opportunity to strengthen and cleanse the gall bladder.  Here are an array of recommendations to cleanse and heal your gall bladder. 

  1. Reduce or eliminate all high-fat foods, especially foods rich in animal fats, such as red meat and dairy products. Eliminate all fried foods and processed foods that are rich in fat.  Fried foods and ice cream are especially toxic to the gall bladder.   This will drop the cholesterol level in your gall bladder and allow the bile acids to start dissolving any crystals or stones inside the organ. 
  2. Eat at least three servings of green and leafy vegetables each day, including broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, napa cabbage, sprouts, green cabbage, and watercress.
  3. Eat sour-tasting foods several times per week, including sauerkraut, brown rice vinegar, and lemon-in-water.   When adding lemon juice to water, do not make the drink overly sour, or too astringent.  The drink should have a sweet edge to it. 
  4. Eat barley in soups and stews and cooked whole wheat and bulgar. Steel cut, or Irish oats, also support the gall bladder.   Eat hato mugi, or Jobs tears, occasionally in soups and stews.  Hato mugi also helps to dissolve stagnation in the liver and gall bladder. 
  5. Eat high quality udon noodles in tamari-and-vegetable broth. This soothes and relaxes the liver and balances the gall bladder. 
  6. Eat shiitake mushrooms, onions, daikon radish, and scallions, all of which dissolve stagnation within the liver and gall bladder, and can contribute to the dissolution of crystals in the organ.

    Steam or boil daikon.  It can be grated with carrots and eaten raw, as well.       Add shiitake, scallions, and daikon to soups, such as miso soup, and noodles and broth.

    Shiitake tea detoxifies, cleanses, and harmonizes the liver and gall bladder.  Just boil one or two shiitake mushrooms in water, let simmer for ten minutes, steep, and drink hot.  

  1. Drink clean spring water daily. Keep a class of water at your desk and sip it through the day, allowing your body to react to the water and inform you of whether or not it needs more water.  If your body needs water, you will feel a sudden rise in your thirst as you drink.  If it doesn’t, you will not want to keep drinking.

    In addition to water, drink small amounts (a cup) of room temperature apple juice and carrot juice occasionally three to five times per week. 

  1. Exercise daily. Exercise balances the liver and supports the gall bladder. 
  2. Deal effectively with anger by identifying the cause of your anger, writing about the cause and your feelings, and, when necessary, expressing it in safe and effective ways.

The springtime is the season when we all should be thinking about the liver and gall bladder.   This is the time when we can do much to heal these organs, which will not only promote healthier digestion, but also give us emotional equilibrium and the gift of sound decision making.