When I was doing my medical training, there was a pretty simple rule about the gallbladder: if you find that there are gallstones, and someone is having symptoms (pain on the right side, up under the ribs, especially after eating fatty foods) then the gallbladder needs be taken out! If there are gallstones, but no symptoms, in most cases leave it alone (diabetes was an exception). It was, and is, a very mechanical view of the liver and gallbladder, sort of like swapping out parts on a car engine. If it is causing problems take it out, if it is not, leave it be. And it is true that a primary activity of the gallbladder is to function as a storage sack for the gall and wait until the right kinds of foods are eaten, then send a bunch of gall down into the small intestine. But the gallbladder is more important than that. For the active excretion of the bile through the gallbladder is an essential activity of the liver, and for digestion in general.
The gallbladder contracts, releasing bile into the intestine, when we eat fatty foods. This is important, because we need the bile to properly break down and absorb fats. When that doesn't happen we have trouble digesting fats. In fact one of the anthroposophic approaches to high cholesterol is to stimulate the gallbladder and liver into better activity, which improves how the body can work with fats. The bile contains not only digestive “bile salts” (like digestive enzymes) for fats, but is also an important pathway for cleansing the liver. If the excretion is slow or weakened, gallstones can form. Blocked excretion leads to toxicity, which we can experience as feeling “sour,” or imbalanced, or even as the source of migraine (especially if there are pale stools during the headache). We are used to thinking about digestion as an inwardly directed process, that we eat to take nourishment in. But that view is too one-sided. The digestive organs also help us release out, and in that way the bile and the gallbladder are much more important.
When the liver and gallbladder are not functioning well, we can experience it as heaviness, that it is hard to get going, to engage with something. There are parallels between how our liver is functioning and how we can engage our will (this is not unique to anthroposophic medicine, but other traditional healing methods as well). Things feel heavy and stuck. Or, if there is a lot of bile, but we have trouble releasing it, we can become physically (and often emotionally) toxic as well, with pent up anger and aggression. There are a number of wise sayings about someone having “too much bile”–and they are right. Because our organs are more than just storage facilities. What to do? Bitter substances are very helpful for supporting and stimulating good digestion through the gallbladder. Interestingly most traditional diets, in most parts of the world, include some form of bitter green vegetables, or bitter cucumber, or bitter teas. The average American diet, in contrast, is very heavy in fats and almost universally excludes anything bitter. Treating the liver anthroposophically can be helpful on multiple levels–not just an alternative to surgery for gallstones, but as a treatment that can make you feel better on all kinds of different levels.