My thoughts on dealing with Post-Cholecystectomy Syndrome (PCS)–pain and digestive problems after having your gallbladder removed–have evolved somewhat, so I felt I had to write an update. Several people have commented on the previous posts thanking me for addressing it, which (1) is very flattering–thank you for reading!–and (2) makes me feel the weight of responsibility to not convey wrong information. I promise to share only the best information I can find, but there isn’t a lot of information available, so my understanding of the topic is bound to change somewhat as I learn more.
To recap, in my first post I discussed the symptoms of PCS and what (little) I know about fat metabolism, since that is where the now-absent gallbladder comes into play in digestion. I briefly went over the role of the gallbladder in Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs they use for gallbladder problems. This is because I’ve never seen it addressed from a Western herbal perspective. Based on that, I made some suggestions for herbal and nutritional support for the upper GI tract and liver.
In my second post on the topic, I opened up a bit about my own experiences with PCS and attempts to remedy it. In particular I suggested that since gallbladder inflammation, gallstones, and the symptoms of PCS seem to correlate with heat and dampness in the upper digestive tract/liver, one might treat them using astringent and bitter herbs–that is, herbs with cooling energetics.
But today I realized that while it might make sense to treat excess heat and damp with herbs that cool and dry, this is not the best long term solution for PCS or gallbladder problems. I do believe they could give short-term relief, and they might be warranted anyway for related conditions (for example if you also have a leaky gut, astringents would be helpful).
What we are talking about here with excess heat and damp is a situation of congestion, which is to say, stagnation. In other words, I was focusing on the heat and damp as the causes of symptoms, which on one level, they are–but the heat and damp have their own cause, and that is stagnation. For long-term improvement, we have to move up the causal chain to find the root tissue state or energetic state, then we find the herbs that address that ultimate cause. (For a detailed explanation of tissue states and energetics, see this article by Kiva Rose.) (EDIT–here’s a great article on stagnation from the TCM point of view.)
Recently I was talking to Rebecca Altman about dampness and the waters of the body, a topic she has written a lot about lately, for example in this excellent post. She made a comment that really struck me–that here in Southern California, nobody needs drying herbs. Obviously she was painting with broad strokes and there are exceptions to every rule, but basically she’s right–it’s so dry here that excess dampness is not a very common condition. And when it is, there are usually better ways to treat it than to dry it out. Dampness is not so much a matter of too much water but of water that isn’t moving–stuck water. And stuck water is not only an issue in the desert–if you are not a mermaid, your body waters can become stagnant. (Maybe even if you are a mermaid.)
So that was in the back of my mind. Then today I was experimenting with an Echinacea tincture I just made, taking note of where I felt it working its magic. Echinacea is a diffusive lymphatic or lymphagogue, which is a fancy way of saying it moves your lymph around. And all of a sudden the pieces came together: stuck fluids need movement. And heat needs not cooling so much as release–a path through which it can escape your body.
From the Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view (and I have to reiterate I am not a practitioner of TCM let alone an expert, but what I relate here is based on my research) gallbladder/digestion/upper GI issues are not just a matter of stuck fluid but of stuck qi (“liver qi stagnation”) and stuck emotions. Both Western and Eastern herbalism are agreed that stagnation is involved and that its proper medicine is movement. It just took me a while to fully absorb the lesson.
It’s fitting that it was a lymphatic–Echinacea–that helped me make the connection, because as it turns out, the lymphatic system plays a role in fat metabolism, as does the gallbladder (or lack thereof). I didn’t know about this aspect of the lymphatic system when I wrote about fat digestion previously. While most of the nutrients from your food are transported through the lining of the GI tract to your blood system, there to be circulated around and the wastes processed in the liver, fats are different. Short-chain fatty acids can be directly absorbed into the blood (and then filtered through the liver), but most of the fats we eat are medium- and long-chain fatty acids. These are transported as chyle–“a milky bodily fluid consisting of lymph and emulsified fats” (per Wikipedia)–via lymph vessels from the small intestine to where they need to go for immediate use or storage, and only then enter the bloodstream. The long fatty acid chains are too big to pass directly from the intestine into the veins. By circulating through the lymphatic system, the fat molecules bypass the liver until they have had a chance to be used. The gallbladder’s role is to help digest fats before they get to those lymph vessels, so you can imagine how, if there is no gallbladder or it’s not functioning optimally, the problems will be passed to the next step down the line–the lymphatic system.
So: poor lymphatic drainage, which can (probably*) result from gallbladder/digestive problems, in turn affects the immune system and can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation. And that brings us around to how we might treat PCS using herbs. We need to make sure to:
- Improve nutrition by eating lots of vegetables, as we know we should, and by supporting the digestion with carminative herbs and bitters. I cannot recommend bitters highly enough. (I have replaced the bile salts I used to take with bitters and the bitters are more effective. Also, I have come to actually crave that bitter flavor, so don’t let that deter you. Very quickly your body will start loving bitter.) Think ginger, turmeric, black pepper (makes nutrients more bio-available), fennel, cloves, dandelion, burdock, leafy greens (the more bitter the better). You may also need astringents (e.g., rose, agrimony) if you are prone to diarrhea.
- Move around as much as you can. The lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump but depends on muscular contractions to move the fluid around. Walk, jump up and down, hang from things, climb trees, get massages, do dry-brushing–you get the idea. But also, relax as much as you can. Tightness impedes the free flow of liquids.
- I now think that it’s likely PCS sufferers may also need some kind of lymphatic support, and possibly also alteratives. There are many lymphatic movers and each works slightly differently. Echinacea, calendula, alder, ocotillo, red root, chilopsis, cleavers (bonus: cleavers are delicious!), burdock again. Remember that as the lymph gets moving, two things are likely to happen: (1) any toxins in the lymph are going to get carried to the liver for filtering and removal, so if your liver is seriously compromised (e.g., jaundice) please be very, very gentle and take it slow. See a clinical herbalist, in fact. And (2) any excess internal heat is going to find a way out, so you may see skin eruptions in the form of acne, rashes, or excema. In this case, these are a good sign. Let the heat go.
- Be aware that signs of stuck fluid may not be nearly as extreme as edema, even though that is the most commonly referenced example. Puffiness around the eyes, a feeling of sluggishness that gets better with exercise, sore glands, a wan, tired, or blah-looking expression, a little excess phlegm or sinus congestion–all these are signs of stagnation.
And as usual I want to emphasize that this is not a matter of “detoxification,” but of nourishment and movement. Most of the detox routines out there are at best pointless and at worst dangerous. In some ways what I have suggested here boils down to common-sense “eat right and get plenty of exercise,” but with a few more sparkles.
*I don’t know of any research on PCS and the lymphatic system. But according to this article, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)–which is one kind of poor digestion, caused by the immune system attacking the intestine–leads to compromised lymph drainage and in turn edema, lymph leakage, excess fat deposition, an impaired immune system, and chronic inflammation. Any effects resulting from PCS would presumably be much less severe–but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.