It’s no secret that alcohol can have a major impact on various organs in the body, especially in cases of heavy or chronic drinking. Although alcohol-related liver problems are more widely known, there’s also a link between problems with the gallbladder and alcohol consumption. Let’s look at what’s known about the effects of drinking on the gallbladder and how to prevent long-term damage.
What Is the Role of the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that sits under the liver and next to the pancreas. The gallbladder’s role is to store bile, a thick liquid that’s produced by the liver to help people break down and digest fat. When we eat, the gallbladder’s thin, muscular lining squeezes bile into the small intestine.
Therefore, the more fat we eat, the more bile the gallbladder injects into the digestive tract, and the harder it has to work. While this may seem like an insignificant organ, small organ malfunctions can lead to major problems. For instance, gallbladder disorders are among the most common and costly of all digestive system diseases, with an estimated 20 million cases of gallstones in the U.S. alone.1
The bile used by the gallbladder to help the body process the fat has a delicate chemical balance. It’s full of soluble cholesterol that’s produced by the liver, which isn’t the same type of cholesterol as the kind related to heart disease. If the chemical balance of bile is slightly off, the cholesterol in it can crystalize and stick to the wall of the inner lining of the gallbladder, which over time, can form gallstones.
If left untreated, gallstones can block the main bile duct. The gallbladder can then become infected, which can be life-threatening. Gallbladder removal (a cholecystectomy) is the most common way to treat gallstones, as you can live a normal life without a gallbladder.
Alcohol and Gallbladder Functioning
Considering that heavy fat intake seems to be the main cause of gallbladder problems, how does alcohol affect gallbladder functioning? Interestingly, studies suggest that chronic moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t significantly affect the gallbladder, but studies haven’t focused on the effects of heavy drinking. There’s also a theory that alcohol can reduce the risk of gallstones, but there’s no significant evidence to back this up.
Circling back to moderate alcohol consumption, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. This is very different from binge drinking (4 or more drinks in one period for women and 5 or more drinks in one period for men) and heavy drinking (binge drinking 5 or more days in the past month.)3 Drinking too much alcohol is known to have a significant impact on physical health.
On that note, while drinking alcohol doesn’t directly contribute to gallstones, heavy drinking can indirectly contribute to the condition. One way alcohol and gallstones are linked is through liver cirrhosis, which is a common issue among heavy and chronic drinkers. About one-third of people with cirrhosis develop gallstones, often due to liver scarring.
Another thing to note about problems with the gallbladder and alcohol consumption is that individuals who develop acute pancreatitis because of gallstones can make the problem worse by drinking. Additionally, while alcohol doesn’t directly lead to gallstones, other possible effects of alcohol on the gallbladder include:
- Low levels of bile salts in bile
- Problems emptying the gallbladder
- Sudden weight loss, which increases one’s risk of developing gallstones
- Too much bilirubin in the bile (a fluid substance in the liver that helps with digestion)
- Too much cholesterol in the bile
What about drinking with gallbladder problems? Does alcohol make gallbladder pain worse? While small and moderate amounts of alcohol can possibly reduce the risk of gallstones and therefore reduce gallbladder pain, binge or heavy drinking can lead to gallbladder problems and pain. In the end, it’s all dependent on how much alcohol is consumed.
Can You Drink Alcohol Without a Gallbladder?
No, you cannot drink after having your gallbladder removed. It’s common for people who were once able to drink safely to no longer physically tolerate alcohol after gallbladder removal. Drinking alcohol without a gallbladder can lead to problems like pancreatic inflammation, migraines, allergic reaction, and stomach pain and discomfort. As we previously mentioned, alcohol intolerance after gallbladder removal is normal. If you’ve had your gallbladder removed and are wondering whether drinking is safe, be sure to speak to your doctor to avoid putting yourself at risk.
Help for Alcoholism
While the relationship between the gallbladder and alcohol isn’t as toxic as that of alcohol and the liver, it’s important to consider the impact of drinking on your health using every measure. With that said, while moderate drinking isn’t shown to directly cause gallbladder problems, heavy and binge drinking is.
These behaviors are common among individuals who are battling an existing or growing alcohol use disorder, which can lead to much more than just gallbladder issues. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol consumption, don’t wait until things get really bad to get help.
Our Banyan Texas rehab offers alcohol detox and addiction treatment that supports both physical and mental recovery from addiction. Detox is an especially crucial aspect of treatment, as it clears the body of any alcohol and offers clients a clean and medically-led environment where they can safely recover from withdrawals.
For more information about our residential alcohol rehab or other options for Texas addiction treatment, call Banyan Treatment Centers today at 888-280-4763 or send us your contact information, and one of our admissions specialists will reach out to you.