Gallbladder: much more than just gallstones!

In Chinese medicine the Gallbladder has important implications for emotional health, clarity of thinking and decisiveness.
Headache, man covering his eyes
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Key Learning Points

  • Your Gallbladder, your Vision and your Decisiveness
  • Managing Life’s Garbage
  • Too little: no ‘gall’!
  • Too much: a real nuisance!

In Western medicine your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped sac three to four inches long. It stores bile from your liver and dispenses it down the bile duct into your small intestine.

In Chinese medicine this ‘organ’ also has important implications for emotional health, clarity of thinking and decisiveness.

 

Gallbladder’s Physical Attributes in Chinese Medicine

 

Channel Pathway

The Gall-bladder channel starts beside the eye. After covering points on the side of the head and adjacent to the ear and on the face, it descends through the shoulder. Then it passes down the side of the body and legs to the foot and fourth toe.

However, if you include its secondary channel pathways, it also reaches into all sorts of other interesting places on its way.

 

Eye Problems, Headaches and your Big Toe?!

  • 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 the above 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 theory 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 and yang surfaces (respectively your front and 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. 

 

Gallbladder Channel
Gallbladder Channel

Acute Disorders

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 alternately 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.)

Gallbladder: much more than just gallstones! Video

Gallbladder Position in the 5 Element model

In 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 pair.

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. It helps you perceive and foresee challenges. Then you can take the necessary decisions to adapt successfully: yang actions.

(And the ancient Chinese ‘clock’ recognises this, as it puts the Gallbladder time between 11pm and 1am, the time when the increasing yin-darkness of night changes to the increasing yang-lightness of day – the hour when the descending sun starts ascending again.)

This may be immensely valuable both for you and your community.

 

Five Elements
Copyright Acupuncture Points

CHANGE from Yin to Yang or vice versa

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, more 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. Many people, whose gallbladders’ functions aren’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 all we eat, so we grow thin, unless we compensate by eating quick energy foods. These quick energy foods contain sugars which easily turn to 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!

The decisions we take in life take us down either favourable or unfavourable pathways: if our Gallbladder decision-making function is substandard, what becomes of our bodies, let alone of our lives?

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Liver Blood and your Gallbladder

The Liver stores our Blood. (Remember! This is Chinese medicine we’re talking about. Its language and meaning often conflict with modern Western medical usage, although if  you really look into it, they aren’t so far apart!) Blood is our main resource for life and it’s the Gallbladder function (in Chinese medicine) 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 metabolises a huge range of substances for life, but also has to metabolise 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.

 

Why all the Attention on the Liver?

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 and motor functions. 

These include muzzy thinking, inability to see the wood for the trees, dizziness, headaches of many kinds, tensions and even the inability to turn the head smoothly – though each of these conditions has other contributing channels and Energy Organs, or zang-fu.

Nowadays, acupuncture on the scalp is often done for motor and nerve problems. Many of the areas needled lie under the areas covered by the Gallbladder channel.

 

Sinews, Tendons and Ligaments and Gallbladder

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.

Men! What about Erections?

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 Gallbladder’s action is to keep it there for as long as is necessary.

Premature ejaculation and loss of erection may be a sign of Gall-bladder weakness, so not always of Liver Qi stagnation or Liver Blood deficiency.

(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.)

For more about the energies involved here click on sexual impotence.

Damp and Damp-Heat

 

Firefighters putting down a fire: damp-heat can be a major problem for your gallbladder
Photo by Ozzie Stern on Unsplash

 

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.

(For more on food, click on Nutrition. And click here for foods that cause and help to clear Damp.

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.

 

Pain arising from Gallbladder deficiency

Most problems involving the Gallbladder encountered by acupuncturists involve excess: pains of various kinds including headaches and migraine, hangover and syndromes such as Damp and Damp-heat.

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 their 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, we might not need to treat an excess again.

 

Mental attributes in Chinese Medicine

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. It brings together all the known facts about bodily resources, the situation, environment and opposition, and presents them for consideration and decision.

In my opinion, the Gall-Bladder has the function with the Liver of making that assessment, but then of acting on it. This requires initiativecourageclear-thinking and decisiveness. I believe this makes more sense of the fact that the Liver is a Yin organ, the Gallbladder a Yang organ. 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.

 

Vision and Clarity

Clearly a healthy Gall-bladder and Liver energy enable a clear-eyed approach to life. But if deficient, there will be not just indecisiveness. There will also be a lack of assertiveness, lack of nerve, and what may, in some, 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. ‘Turn the other cheek’. ‘Bow 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. Understandable when you realise that someone with a weak Gall-bladder may actually make poor or weak decisions.  Consequently he finds it hard to defend his actions – hence the nervousness and timidity.

Such people lack reliable get-up-and-go.

If it were possible to strengthen the Gall-bladder Qi, then the individual would begin to see life more clearly. So he’d take better decisions and, eventually, be able to stand up for himself. Or herself, of course!

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!

 

Those Chinese had nothing good to say about the British!

 

British Pirate: known for their gall!
Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash

 

They did say, however, that the British had ‘gall’. We don’t use the word ‘gall’ much nowadays, and when we do it is usually 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’. A nation often seems to export its best.  These are its most entrepreneurial (often its youth). They escape to find their fortunes 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 and reaching ours was difficult.

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.

 

You can have too much of a good thing!

Some people are blessed, or cursed, with excess Gallbladder energy. It comes out partly as excess zeal, partly as Heat.

The zeal part can make itself felt, for example, in complaining about injustice. This can be the political agitator, the person always on marches to support causes, the difficult staff member who can never be pleased, the disruptor, the barrack-room lawyer: usually they react against authority and the status quo.

Sometimes they are right, of course, though often they waste everyone’s time.

Nowadays, I suspect many seek justification by playing the victimisation card on behalf of the real victims, making a crusade of it.

To what degree they are successful depends on the prevailing political atmosphere. 

In some political climates they don’t last long. They probably thrive best in a nurturing, forgiving, rights-enhancing yin environment.

However, they should be aware that, taken to its logical conclusion, such an environment becomes so yin, so stuck in rights, that nothing gets done!

One day, those with strong Gallbladders who realise this will seek their fortunes elsewhere … which rather takes us back to those British buccaneers!

To remind you, the Heat part comes out as both heatedness and dryness: rashes, intolerance, eye problems usually due to lack of Liver Blood feeding the eye or from inflammation, headaches of various kinds, cramps and spasms: and much else. These are not easy people to live with!

What about Surgery to remove your gallbladder organ?

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.

I must have been a bit drunk, I’m sorry to say, because I took his pulses.

I told him he had a Gallbladder problem.

“No I haven’t, I’ve HAD IT OUT!”

“Well, you’ve still got a Gallbladder problem” I said!

Surgery to remove gallbladder
Photo by JAFAR AHMED on Unsplash

What happens to your Gall-bladder function when your gallbladder organ is removed? Keyhole surgery to remove just the gallstones is now more popular but gallbladder organ 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 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 the Gallbladder channel (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!

 

Syndromes for Gallbladder

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 sidebar).

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