One of my biggest challenges of 2020 was receiving a medical diagnosis of Chronic Cholecystitis and Choledocholithiasis. In layman’s terms, gallbladder disease. I’d unknowingly been struggling with it for decades during which I’d developed multiple gallstones, several of which were exceptionally large in size. The biggest one had dislodged and partially blocked my bile duct, and I ended up in the ER after a night of pain and vomiting.
What is Gallbladder Disease?
Admittedly, I wasn’t well-versed in what gallbladders actually do. In short, the liver makes bile, which breaks down the fats we eat. The liver steadily makes bile all day long, but we don’t need to digest fats all day long. So the gallbladder serves as storage for that bile, ready to contract and release it as needed into the small intestine as soon as we eat an especially fatty meal. For a myriad of reasons – many of which are genetic – it is common for stones to develop in that bile reserve. However, if these stones dislodge, they cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as pain, vomiting, and jaundice, as well as the threat of life-threatening blockages. The longer you have gallstones, the more they deteriorate the overall health of the gallbladder itself.
Many people erroneously believe gallbladder disease is the result of nothing more than an overly fatty diet, when in fact, the most common causes are are genetics and hormones. For example, some of the most at-risk people are pregnant women and those who’ve recently lost weight. Furthermore, a staggering number of people have what are called Silent Stones, gallstones that never dislodge or cause problems. In my particular case, my gallbladder disease had likely been going on unrealized for decades, stemming from hereditary thyroid problems, encouraged by weight loss in the last 5 years, and exacerbated by recent high stress. If you had asked me prior to this diagnosis, I would’ve told you I simply had trouble digesting certain types of foods and had to chew on antacids whenever I got really stressed. I thought it was all normal and the increasingly acute pains were trapped gas.
The medical solution to gallstones is to have the entire gallbladder removed surgically, which makes sense when you do your research but seems drastic when you first hear it. The only other option is to treat the disease with especially substantial and likely permanent diet limitations. Internet searches are especially dismal, with horror stories abounding on both sides of the discussion.
As you can imagine, a diagnosis that you can no longer digest fats properly is particularly difficult to hear for anyone who especially enjoys food and cooking. I had reached the point in which anything I swallowed caused me pain, even water. And gallbladder attack pain hurts; many women have claimed it exceeds the pain of childbirth. As a result, I was subsisting on plain oatmeal, chicken breasts, and celery, dropping weight faster than I’d ever lost before, and looking more and more jaundiced with every week that passed. To be frank, I was afraid to eat and devastated that my days of enjoying food might have come to an unexpected and abrupt halt.
That is why I’m sharing this post. Because, at over 10 weeks post-op, I am now a success story, and the internet desperately needs more of those.
My Personal Results
Yes, I chose surgery, and it was a difficult decision. I see the merit in both sides, and I support anyone addressing this health issue naturally. However, when I considered my personal lifestyle and love of food, it became clear that the best-case scenario in natural treatment couldn’t do any better than the worst-case scenario that medical intervention could offer. Treating naturally meant limiting my food for the rest of my life, and that just wasn’t right for me. I needed the best odds for once again being able to experiment uninhibited with foods.
Gallbladder removal surgery complications abound. In fact, it’s advised to give yourself a full year for your entire digestive system to relearn and rebalance. I’m only 10 weeks into that year, and I’m still learning, still adjusting. But I can eat again, even the bacon and cheese and steak and fries and chocolate I was afraid would never again pass my lips. I am ridiculously grateful for that.
Admittedly, my life has changed a bit. I pay more attention to my digestion than I did before. I keep digestive enzymes and bile salts on hand, just in case. I make sure to take probiotics regularly. And I’ve adjusted several aspects of my diet to include less fat. But here’s the weird perk nobody told me: as you relearn how to eat, it’s not horrible. ((gasp)) I’ve learned different habits and found new satisfying foods. I just consume less fat overall nowadays, and shockingly, I don’t miss it. Perhaps it’s because I now know I can indulge if I want to, but I do it in moderation and with intent, and I know I can take a couple supplements to help out if necessary.
Another of the things people panic about online is that they simply can’t drop weight after gallbladder removal surgery. For whatever reason, my results are exactly the opposite. I’m shocked at just how much inflammation has simply melted off of my body. I must have been very sick for a long while, because swelling I’ve been dealing with for years is just gone. Foods that used to make me swell up like a parade float simply don’t have that effect anymore. Despite the interruption to my workouts due to surgery recovery, I simply don’t need it as desperately. I even needed to purchase new underwear, as mine was literally falling off.
Tips for Foodies Managing Gallbladder Disease
I especially want to share my story to encourage any fellow foodies currently battling gallbladder disease and feeling downright depressed by the restrictive diet. While waiting for my surgery date, I became determined to find interesting foods I could eat that wouldn’t cause intense pain, and I did find some success. Here are a few of the substitutions and adjustments that worked for me:
- Olive, avocado, and flaxseed oil fats are healthier, and you don’t need a lot to lubricate a skillet. A quick spray from an oil sprayer (like Misto) should do the trick. If you’re still too sensitive to the fats, try a tablespoon of chicken broth.
- Variations of applesauce make excellent sweet treats. Put chopped apples and any other fruit – ie pears, berries, pomegranate seeds, orange juice – into a saucepan and let them simmer until they break down enough to mash. It creates delicious applesauces with no fats or added sugars. I still use this trick today.
- Herbs and spices are your best friend. Don’t be afraid to load up on herbs and spices to add flavor to your low fat proteins. I would cover my chicken, fish, and squash in fresh garlic, rosemary, thyme, chives….you name it. Backing off fats doesn’t have to mean totally foregoing flavor.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are much more easily digestible, despite being oily. No matter how I was feeling, I could always digest a piece of salmon with zero negative symptoms. It quickly became my backup meal.
- Eat veggies first. I now make myself eat at least two types of veggies before I begin eating my protein/main dish. It guarantees I get more daily servings of vegetables, and it fills me up on healthy stuff before I start eating anything with fat.
- Experiment with produce. There are a lot of items in my grocery store produce department I had never even picked up, let alone eaten. The more I try, the more variety I have. But pay attention to those with fats, ie avocados.
- Many cultures have some kind of vegetable side dish that contains very little to zero fat. Fresh salsas and bruschettas have loads of flavor with no fat. Eat to your heart’s content!
- Unflavored pretzel crisps are baked and have no fat. They really helped with that craving for something crunchy and salty.
- Harder cheeses have less fat. You might be able to lightly sprinkle some Parmigiano-Reggiano on your food, even if you can’t handle a piece of cheddar.
- Watch out for nuts. They appear on a lot of gallbladder diet lists due to high fiber and Omega-3 content, but they are shockingly high in fat. This includes nut butters, nut milks, and nut-based pastas. Some work, some don’t. Just be aware.
- Aim for more fiber intake to help your intestines digest properly. I now eat whole grain bran flakes and prunes on a regular basis, and I sincerely like them. I add fresh berries to my bran flakes, and frankly, prunes are delicious.
- Stay hydrated. Your intestines need water now more than they typically do.
- Take smaller bites and eat a little slower. I don’t know any science behind this; I just know I had less pain and discomfort when I slowed down while eating.
- Pay extra attention to your sugar intake, and be wary of anything labeled “low fat”. Food makers have a bad habit of compensating lower fat with extra sugar and/or preservatives. That said, some reduced fat items are surprisingly tasty. I have permanently switched over to several reduced fat dairy products, including milk and sour cream.
- I highly recommend gallbladder-specific digestive supplements, especially from a maker that understands what is going on in your body. This is the kit that saved my sanity. I was able to start eating a wider variety of foods within a single meal of taking my first dose. I especially noticed their positive effects when I had to stop taking them for a full week before my surgery. I don’t need them nearly as often nowadays, but I keep them on hand for meals that are particularly fatty. They always help.
(For those wondering how to balance a Keto lifestyle with gallbladder disease, I’m afraid I can’t comment. I know Keto has worked wonders for some people, and perhaps those are the ones who are naturally less likely to develop gallstones, which is fantastic. But I will admit I’m now a little more wary of high fat diets, even healthy fats. I now understand that lower fat works better for me personally, but individual bodies work so differently from each other. My advice would be simply to be aware and pay attention. Only do Keto under doctor supervision. And if you ever feel like something is trapped or swollen just under your ribs, especially right after you eat, or perhaps you have a bizarre sharp pain in your right shoulder that you can’t figure out (inflamed gallbladders commonly compress the phrenic nerve), check for gallbladder disease/gallstones immediately.)
If you are currently battling gallbladder disease, I highly recommend this website for balanced research on the topic. There is so much more you can learn, and this site’s frank discussion of symptoms and options continue to help me make informed decisions about my digestion and my body.
And finally, don’t let the internet scare you. And that goes for more than just gallbladders…
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and this is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.