Gallbladder surgery is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. More than 600,000 gallbladders are surgically removed each year in America; some say that number is closer to 750,000. That makes gallbladder removal, also known as cholecystectomy, one of the most frequently performed surgeries in the US. Typically it is done for people who have gallstones or gallstone disease (cholelithiasis), which can be painful and also cause infections along with nausea, vomiting, and bloating.
Many of those surgeries (about 90%) are done laparoscopically, which means the surgeon makes tiny incisions in the stomach and uses a video camera and tools passed through these incisions to remove the gallbladder without cutting abdominal muscles. This technique significantly reduces the chances of infection and bleeding and also minimizes recovery time.
After gallbladder surgery: now what?
So now you are home after undergoing gallbladder surgery and you're wondering: what's next? What can I eat and what should I avoid? How will my life change now that my gallbladder is gone?
We're glad you asked. A main role of the gallbladder is to store, concentrate, and secrete the bile produced by the liver. Bile is a greenish-brown substance that is secreted by the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and aids digestion by breaking down fats into fatty acids.
During the initial recovery period, you may have some trouble processing fatty foods. Therefore, there are several modifications you can make to your lifestyle that can help you avoid the discomfort of gallbladder removal.
- Within the few days following gallbladder removal, limit yourself to broth, clear liquids, and gelatin.
- Once you get past this initial stage, gradually add back solid foods and limit yourself to small meals consisting of low-fat (e.g., no fried foods), non-spicy foods. Look for foods that provide no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.
- Fiber is essential for everyone, but slowly reintroduce fiber-rich foods to your diet after undergoing gallbladder removal. If you try to include too much whole-grain foods, nuts, legumes, cereals, and cruciferous vegetables too soon, you may experience diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal cramps.
- Keep a journal of your food intake. This is a great way to identify which foods may have a negative effect on you. It's best to keep your meals and snacks simple during the three to four weeks following surgery so you can better determine which foods may be troublesome.
- A small percentage (about 10%) of people who have had their gallbladder removed have persistent digestive problems. According to William Brugge, MD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, the most common side effect for these individuals is more frequent bowel movements.
Although gallbladder removal also eliminates the storage vessel for bile, the body continues to produce it and delivers it to the intestinal tract. You can better manage any symptoms after gallbladder removal by adopting a low-fat, high-fiber diet, avoiding fried and fatty foods, choosing healthy fats (e.g., olive oil, avocadoes, coconut oil), eating small and frequent meals, and not eating a large dinner after fasting all day.
Living without a gallbladder
You can live a long and healthy life without a gallbladder, and to help ensure that goal, here are a few tips to consider.
It's common to experience some persistent discomfort after gallbladder removal. To help minimize that possibility, pay close attention to your diet. Gallbladder problems typically develop because of problems with the liver. According to Sandra MacRae, MD (aka, Sandra Cabot, MD, or the "liver doctor"), one reason people develop gallbladder stones and other gallbladder problems in the first place is that their liver is unhealthy.
A compromised liver can produce poor quality bile, which in turn may have had a role in forming gallstones and can still interfere with liver function long after the gallbladder is gone. Therefore, she recommends the following tips once your gallbladder has been removed:
- Significantly reduce or eliminate use of grains and dairy foods. These foods are challenging to digest and the grains especially may increase the risk of developing fatty liver.
- Eat bitter foods. Foods such as dandelion greens, arugula, lemons, chicory, and endive improve digestion and assist the body in processing healthy fats.
- Take vitamin D. A vitamin D deficiency is not uncommon, especially among people who have a compromised liver since this is the organ that helps manufacture the vitamin in the body. Talk to your doctor about the proper dosage for your needs.
Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, suggests taking various natural gallbladder supplements that can help after gallbladder removal and also support the liver.
- Barberry. The stems, fruits, bark, and root of barberry contain alkaloids, of which berberine is the most prominent. Supplements of this plant extract can assist in cleansing the liver and fight infections.
- Dandelion root. Herbal supplements of this "weed" help support liver health, regulate bile, and aid digestion. Take 500 mg with meals.
- Lipase. This digestive enzyme can enhance bile use and improve fat digestion. The suggested dose is two capsules with meals. For vegetarians and vegans, there is a fungus-based supplement derived from Aspergillus niger.
- Milk thistle. This herb enhances bile flow and helps detoxify the liver. A suggested dose is 150 milligrams twice a day.
- Turmeric. The active ingredient in turmeric (curcumin) provides anti-inflammatory benefits and improves bile flow. Suggested dosage is 1,000 mg daily.