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In Western medicine your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped sac three to four inches long that stores bile received from your liver and dispenses it down the bile duct into your small intestine.
Although this function is not overlooked, in Chinese medicine this 'organ' also has important implications for emotional health, clarity of thinking and decisiveness.
The Gall-bladder’s channel starts beside the eye and after covering points on the side of the head and adjacent to the ear and on the face descends through the shoulder, passing down the side of the body and legs to the foot and fourth toe. However, it (including its secondary channel pathways) also reaches into all sorts of interesting places on the way.
Eye problems, headaches including many kinds of migraine, ear problems, neck and shoulders pains, breast pain, hypochondriacal pain (pain in the sides just under the ribs), digestive problems, sacral, hip, thigh, knee, ankle and foot problems: all of these lie beside or under the Gall-bladder channel pathway.
The channel also travels round the big toe, so covers big toenail problems (along with the Liver and Spleen channels). Internally, it covers many kinds of digestive conditions.
Points on the Channel are used for malaria, scrofula (tuberculosis in the neck) and various kinds of chest pain when those conditions are diagnosed in Chinese medicine as being Gall-bladder syndromes.
Indeed, is there no end to it? Who would have thought all this related to that small sac of bile?
In one sense, because it runs down the side of the body, the junction between the yin (front) and yang (back) surfaces, it represents our ability to maintain a balance between work and home, action and rest, spending and saving, dryness and fluid. People with regular migraines sometimes need to adjust their attitude to life and work before acupuncture treatment is successful.
This junction between Yin and Yang, where it seems to face both ways, like a link between front and back, or inside and outside, makes it very important in reacting to acute disease.
When the external pathogenic factor, (the bug attacking you), hasn’t fully gained entry but is alternatively repulsed and yielded to, where there is alternation of feeling cold and hot, Gallbladder and Three Heater channel points often help unleash the body's immune reaction. (Technical stuff: this is the Lesser Yang stage according to the Six Stages pattern.)
On the 5-phase model (Five Element diagram) the Wood element, (Liver and Gall-bladder), lies between the Water (Kidney and Bladder) element and the Fire element (Heart, Small Intestine, Pericardium and Triple Heater).
Water is Yin, Fire is Yang. So there, relating to both Water and Fire, lies Wood which somehow turns Yin Water into Yang Fire. (Read more about these at Yin and Yang.)
Yin qualities include those of resources, experience, persistence, nutrition, cooling.
Yang qualities are those of changing, moving, warming, exciting.
The Liver Organ is Yin, the Gall-bladder is its Yang pairing.
I would argue that not only does the Gall-bladder lie on the junction between the Yin and Yang aspects of the body, but in function it mediates between Yin and Yang actions, even more than the Liver Organ.
If you have followed me this far, you can see that an effective Gall-bladder function is arguably one of the most important you can have for living an effective life, able to perceive and foresee challenges and then take the necessary decisions to adapt successfully: immensely valuable both for yourself and your community.
The Gallbladder is relevant wherever there is a change from Yin to Yang. (Conversely there is a correlating but opposite function for the Large Intestine.)
Remember that Yin qualities are on the solid or more solid end of the spectrum, Yang qualities are lighter, airy and less substantial.
Yin is the supply of ideas and experience, and of the resources available to manifest them.
Yang helps us make what we want of those resources. Where the Liver function keeps Qi moving, stores and brings Blood to its potential, the Gall-bladder function gives it direction and purpose.
A Practical Result - dealing with FAT!
One area of its function is where we have to deal with something solid that needs to be changed into something our bodies can use: for example - fat.
Bile breaks up fats so that they can be digested, and many people, where their gallbladder function isn’t successful, have problems both with their digestion and with their weight.
When bile doesn’t break up fats, our bodies can’t absorb the full nutritional value of what we eat, so we grow thin, and some of us compensate by eating quick energy foods which make us fat. (They also give us the wrong kind of energy, making us restless and anxious: a bit ‘hyper’.)
Most people are aware that under-exercising and over-eating are the main causes of being too fat and the decisions we take in life take us down either conducive or non-conducive paths: if our Gallbladder decision-making function is substandard, what will become of our bodies, let alone of our lives?
The Liver stores our Blood. Blood is our main resource for life and it’s the Gall-bladder that purifies it.
In Western Medicine, the gallbladder is just a sac where the bile is stored but in Chinese medicine the function of the Gallbladder envelops the Liver function and helps to get rid of impurities.
In Western medicine the liver organ metabolizes a huge range of substances for life, but also has to metabolize the poisons the blood contains: guess where these are put? Into the bile.
That bile, containing a huge range of substances that are poisonous or extraneous in the blood, is put to good use on its way out of the body by working on food as it passes through the small and large intestines.
However, the Gall-bladder function works elsewhere within the Liver and body, clearing out fat and waste, unless overwhelmed by it.
In Chinese medicine, much more attention is given to the Liver functions than to those of the Gall-bladder.
But when treating people in pain, we use Gall-bladder points just as much, and perhaps we should use them more.
The first points on the channel relate primarily to our sight, hearing and our ability to open our mouths, move our jaw, speak and chew.
The Liver might provide the ideas we speak about, and our tongue (traditionally associated with the Heart) the sounds we make, but the Gallbladder has vital acupuncture points around the jaw joints controlling whether we can open our mouths and speak at all.
The Gall-bladder also has more head points than any other channel. Many of them deal with excess or deficient energy in the head leading to impaired thinking processes.
The Liver and Gall-bladder organs ‘rule’ or manage our sinews (or tendons), the hard gristly bits that attach muscle to bone like those which stand out on your forearm when, against resistance, you try to make a tight fist.
Consequently many joint problems and strains can be helped by treating the appropriate points on the Gall-bladder channel.
For men, I believe the Gall-bladder has both a mental and a physical role to play in achieving satisfactory erections.
The path of the Gall-bladder Primary channel circles the external genitals like the Liver Primary channel, and whereas the Liver governs storage and supply of Blood, (very important for men when sexually aroused), I think the Gall-bladder’s action is to keep it there for as long as is necessary.
(Small technical note: the genitals for both sexes are ‘encircled’ or ‘bound’ or ‘converged upon’ by not just the Gall-bladder and Liver channels but by the Kidney and Spleen sinew channels, and by the Governor channel. The Stomach channel travels to the area immediately above them and the Directing or Ren channel runs up through them. So the Gallbladder isn’t the only Organ energy involved.)
Damp and Damp-Heat: paired with the Liver energy, the Gallbladder acts as both a repository for Heat generated by the Liver and Dampness or Damp-Heat arising primarily from a diet that is too high in fats and grease or spice.
The physical and mental results of Gall-bladder Heat, Damp and Damp-Heat are common and arise in many diseases ranging from cholecystitis to sinusitis, hypochondriacal pain and discomfort, nausea, jaundice, insomnia, palpitations, breathlessness and breast pain.
Most problems involving the Gallbladder encountered by acupuncturists involve excess: pain, migraine, damp, damp-heat etc.
These may have arisen from wrong choices about life, diet or exercise, and be due to an underlying deficient Gall-bladder function, but in treatment we are usually trying to clear excess.
Many patients don’t hang around for long enough to do something about that underlying Gallbladder Deficiency! They just return periodically for treatment of a recurring excess condition.
Ideally, once the excess is cleared, they should stay longer for more treatments aimed at improving the Gall-bladder function. That way, the excess might not need to be treated again.
How does its deficiency manifest?
Courage The Liver Organ is in control of the movement of Qi. We think of Qi as energy having various forms. One such energy form is in the mental sphere, that of possibilities.
The Liver is said to be like a General in charge of the Heart’s (the Emperor’s) forces.
I think of the Liver more like the Adjutant-General, in charge of the infrastructure and administration, but also the spymaster with links within and without the body, bringing together all the known facts about bodily resources, the situation, environment and opposition, and presenting them all for consideration and decision.
In my opinion, the Gall-Bladder has the function with the Liver of making that assessment, but then also of asserting it. This requires initiative, courage, clear-thinking and decisiveness. I believe this makes more sense of the fact that the Liver is a Yin organ, the Gallbladder a Yang organ, and the assembly of all the facts is a Yin process but the business of choosing and changing is a Yang function.
Just as bile cuts through the fats you've eaten and makes them more digestible, so this Energy Organ brings clarity to your life.
Clearly a healthy Gall-bladder and Liver energy enable a clear-eyed approach to life. But if deficient, there will be not just a lack of decisiveness, but a lack of assertiveness, lack of nerve, and what may possibly be considered as weakness of character.
We should not overlook the fact that some philosophies of life and some religions teach a pacifistic approach to life, turning the other cheek, bowing deeply and gratefully to life’s humiliations and adversities: it may take considerable strength of character to humble oneself in this way. Here the Gallbladder function may be working well but according to a different resolve than the rest of us.
But for others, a laissez-faire attitude may mask character limitations, such as constitutional fearfulness or nervousness of asserting oneself: this is understandable when you realise that someone with a weak Gall-bladder may actually tend to make poor or weak decisions anyway and find it hard to defend his actions – hence the nervousness and timidity.
Such people lack reliable get-up-and-go.
it were possible to strengthen the Gall-bladder Qi, then the individual
would begin to see life more clearly, to take better decisions and,
eventually, to stand up for him or herself.
Apparently when the Chinese first encountered the British, the British they met were neither pleasant nor fair in their dealings. Basically buccaneers, the British weren’t too reasonable, they were often malicious and cruel: not a credit to our nation.
The Chinese had nothing good to say about them.
They did say, however, that the British had ‘gall’. Gall isn’t a word so much used nowadays, and when used is derogatory. But it denotes courage of a sort, and the British had plenty of it.
One could argue that the British Empire came into being because of that British ‘gall’. Often remarked is that, at least in the past, it was a nation’s best that were exported: the most entrepreneurial of a nation’s youth went to live and work overseas.
In the past, this required courage: gall. It
probably still does! In which case we should perhaps view immigrants
differently, especially if they have left their home country voluntarily
to search for a better life elsewhere: even more so if leaving their
country was difficult to do.
The Gallbladder function helps you decide on our course in life and then keep you on it. Successful people usually have strong Gall-bladder functions.
I was once approached at a party by a man who insisted I take his pulses. He wouldn't say anything about himself: he just wanted my feedback.
What happens to your Gall-bladder function when your gallbladder is removed? Keyhole surgery to remove just the gallstones is now more popular but gallbladder removal was once common.
From a Western medical perspective, having no gallbladder is not life-threatening, though it means you must take care when eating food containing fats, you must learn to chew well, eat slowly and in moderation.
People seem to tend to gain weight after gallbladder removal, I think because in place of good fatty food they substitute more high-glycaemic foods containing refined sugar.
It’s also hard to change one’s diet. We all know what we should eat and what we should avoid but we don’t, do we? So not having a gallbladder makes a difference only if its removal was a life-changing experience.
But in Chinese medicine the Gall-bladder function doesn’t just start once the bile reaches the gallbladder. It acts with the Liver and within the liver organ to sanitize and decontaminate the Blood and the blood. If the gallbladder sac has been removed, part of its function is disabled so it probably won’t be work so well.
Does removal make a difference in terms of Chinese medicine?
Not that I can see. You can still have Gallbladder Damp-Heat: in fact it's more likely if you don’t change your diet.
You can certainly still have Gallbladder deficiency. If part of its function is disabled, you may not be so good at decontaminating yourself.
Treating acupuncture points along it (after gall-bladder removal) can still be done – they still exist and they seem to work the same way. I would say, however, that in my experience, they work slightly more spasmodically in that they are a little less reliable in their expected actions, which may not last for as long.
This is as if the organ and its contents have a steadying effect on the actions of the points. However, this is only my subjective observation!
Anyway, why resort to surgery? First try a Bile flush!
There are a number of syndromes for the Gallbladder. The main, or most frequent ones encountered (at least by me), are:
People suffering from Gallbladder Deficiency are more likely to experience Qi Stagnation. This is such a big subject that I've written a book about it (see below).
If you live in the Edinburgh area of Scotland, where the author of this site (and of the books described below) works, click on Edinburgh Acupuncturist.
If you live elsewhere, click on BAcC.
3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!
By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.
Now available from Amazon in Kindle (left below) and Paperback (right below) versions.
NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.
Click below for the Kindle edition.
Click below here for the Paperback edition
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