I have suffered from heartburn, but after switching to a plant-based diet, I’ve been able to ease and completely rid myself of most of those unpleasant symptoms including bloating, nausea, and even vomiting.

Of course, my curiosity about this condition does not stop there! This is how I stumbled into the following information regarding the connection between the gallbladder and heartburn.

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What is the Gallbladder?

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The gallbladder is one of the smallest organs, referred to as a “pouch”, which is located directly beneath the liver and next to the pancreas. This organ’s main function is to store and release bile created by the liver into the small intestine.

Let’s take a step back. What’s bile?

You may be familiar with its physical representation, but many of us are unaware of what bile is made of and its function. Bile, also called gall, is “a dark green to yellowish brown fluid, produced by the liver of most vertebrates, that aids in the digestion of lipids in the small intestine.” When it comes to human bile stored in the gallbladder, it’s made of 0.7 percent bile salts and 200 meq/l inorganic salts, 0.2 percent bilirubin, 0.51 percent fats — such as cholesterol, fatty acids, and lecithin — and a whopping 97 percent water.

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So, how do these two — liver produced bile and the gallbladder — work together? It all comes down to digestion.

If you’ve been fasting or there’s been a length of time between meals, the “gallbladder is empty and flat, like a deflated balloon.” This is because all of that bile has been secreted to help you digest your food. As you consume foods, your gallbladder is signaled to squeeze “stored bile into the small intestine through a series of tubes called ducts,” more specifically the cystic duct and the common bile duct. Together, bile and food enter the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine, and then is released into the intestines for digestion, using a muscle called the pyloric valve, in incremental amounts (generally 8 ounces) to avoid reflux of bile into the stomach. The secreted bile is an integral part of digestion.

Surprisingly, the gallbladder itself is not essential, but it’s the bile stored within that is the important commodity.

The Gallbladder and Heartburn

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When it comes to the gallbladder, there is a small handful of health issues that doctors have recorded including less urgent problems such as gallstones — when bile crystalizes in the gallbladder causing nausea, pain, and inflammation — or more series conditions including Cholecystitis — infection of the gallbladder — a rare form of gallbladder cancer, or even gallbladder pancreatitis — when a gallstone blocks the tube that drains the pancreas.

With that said, one of the more notable, yet less commonly attributed health issues that may arise from gallbladder problems is heartburn. Heartburn related to gallbladder issues is generally referred to as bile reflux, due to the fact that the reflux is stemming primarily from escaping bile instead of stomach acid. There are a few ways in which bile makes its way into the stomach, therefore causing heartburn-like symptoms.

First off, sometimes the gallbladder valve doesn’t close all the way allowing bile to enter the stomach. This can result in a condition called bile reflux gastritis, which is the “inflammation of the stomach lining.” Secondly, one of the most common forms of heartburn is caused when both bile and stomach acid “reflux into the esophagus when another muscular valve, the lower esophageal sphincter, malfunctions.” Call this one a double hitter! As mentioned in previous articles, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is the controlling valve protecting the esophagus from the turbulent environment of the stomach. For many reasons, this valve can malfunction allowing a mixture of gallbladder bile and stomach acid to enter the esophagus. 

Plant-Based Foods to Support the Gallbladder

Hearty Superfood Salad with Arugula, Kale, and Beets

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Avoiding care for the gallbladder, especially if you’re exhibiting heartburn symptoms, may lead to serious conditions including Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and even certain types of esophagus-related conditions including Barrett’s esophagus — severe tissue damage in the esophagus caused by long-term exposure to reflux acid and bile — or even esophageal cancer.

Luckily, integrating plant-based foods that are low in fat content and avoiding many processed foods, can reduce stress on the gallbladder and is a great first step towards gallbladder health and recovery. While there are little things that you can add such as integrating healthy coffee, a vitamin C supplement, and higher calcium foods, the bigger changes come from a fully plant-based diet shift.

With that said, if you are experiencing any symptoms or are contemplating changing your diet, please contact a healthcare professional first!

Balanced Nutrition

Guide to Weekly Plant-Based Meal Plans: By Diet Type

Unfortunately, there is no one right way to eat for the gallbladder, but there are foods that are low in cholesterol and fat, and high in nutritional content. This is a great combination that allows the gallbladder a vacation, while also increasing the overall nutritional health and smooth functions of your body.

Plants! This may not be a surprise, but it’s an incredibly important aspect to helping ease those heartburn symptoms.

A balanced diet means that none of your organs have to work overtime to keep you healthy and finding a balanced diet relies on integrating a variety of foods with a variety of nutrients. The best way to do this “is to increase the number of different fruits and vegetables eating regularly.” Whether you follow a pre-planned plant-based meal guide or you venture into the grocery store every week to select at least one or two new veggies, meeting your balanced nutrition goal can be fun and easy!

While animal-based products have restricting characteristics when it comes to flavors, plants are quite diverse and many are able to adopt other flavors via steaming, pureeing, or sautéing. This means that one meal has the ability to integrate a variety of nutrients, such as this filling and low-fat Couscous Stuffed Eggplant with Lemon Tahini Sauce or this herb and spice-rich Cauliflower Sauce Risotto with Herbs and Kale Chips. Also, consider snacking of raw veggies (which is the best way to absorb the most nutrients) such as carrots, celery, or sweet bell pepper or even make a simple salad of hearty kale or cabbage such as this Hearty Superfood Salad with Arugula, Kale, and Beets or this Warm Butternut, Red Cabbage, Quinoa and Almond Salad.

Lean Protein

Pumpkin Earl Grey Oatmeal

While healthy fat is one of the essential substances that keep our body working efficiently, too much fat, especially animal-based fats, has been shown to cause stress on the gallbladder. By ingesting lean proteins, you alleviate stress on the gallbladder by asking it to not work as hard. For those that consume animal-based proteins, stick with white-meat foods and fish. With that said, plant-based proteins are a step above due to the fact that they are also cholesterol free. Look for plants that provide high protein content such as oats, lentils, hemp and pumpkin seeds, beans and peas, quinoa, artichokes, spinach, and nuts, such as almond.

Plus, it’s super easy to integrate these high-protein plant-based foods into your daily diet, from morning to night. Start out your diet with a serving of Pumpkin Earl Grey Oatmeal or these Mandarin Orange Almond Muffins, followed by a simple lunch of Overnight Strawberry and Coconut Chia Pot pudding and a Healthy and Delicious Black Bean Wrap, then end your day with this Marinated Chickpea and Artichoke Salad next to or on top of a healthy serving of this Herb and Lentil Stuffing.

Fiber and Fat

Black Bean Chili Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

When it comes to gallbladder health, consuming dietary fiber and healthy fats is essential. Yet, do so with portion consciousness.

Dietary fiber is key for a smooth-running digestive system due to the fact that it helps remove toxins from the body, “keep[s] a person feeling full for a longer period of time, feed[s] healthy bacteria in the gut, and add[s] bulk to the stool.” High fiber plant-based foods include beans, raw and dried fruit, veggies, grains, and seeds and nuts. Try integrating a few of these fiber-full foods at a time such as oats via this Pumpkin Pie Overnight Oats, broccoli via these Baked Broccoli Burgers, black beans via these Black Bean Chili Stuffed Sweet Potatoes, lentils via this Lentil Loaf with Celery Root Mash, and quinoa via these Fall Curry Quinoa Wraps.

Healthy fats have also been shown to improve gallbladder health. Specifically, polyunsaturated fats “such as omega-3 seem to help keep the gallbladder healthy and reduce the risk of gallbladder problems.” Polyunsaturated fats are found in many foods including walnuts, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and oils such as safflower, sunflower, soy, and corn. When it comes to the oils, simply add a splash to a salad or substitute for a different oil every once in a while. Flaxseeds can easily be integrating into your regular baking schedule via a vegan flaxseed egg, such as in this Strawberry Upside Down Cakes with Vanilla Bean recipe. Walnuts are easily consumed raw for a snack, tossed on top of a salad, or integrated into more complex recipes such as in this Walnut Taco Meat recipe or this Spicy Mushroom and Walnut Bolognese recipe.

Foods to Avoid

Knowing the good things to eat is just as important as being aware of foods to avoid. As mentioned above, gallbladder issues generally arise when the gallbladder is overworked. Therefore, it’s important to avoid foods that require the gallbladder to continually release bile in order to break it down within the small intestine.

First off, try to avoid refined carbohydrates. These include “sugars and sweeteners, flour, refined grains, and starches,” and are found primarily in baked goods, candy, soft drinks, battered and fried foods, and processed chocolate. Next, keep your fat intake to healthy fats (polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and small amounts of saturated) and even with these healthy fats, moderation is key. The key to this is to avoid processed foods that generally have trans fats and hydrogenated oils. It’s especially critical to avoid fried foods and saturated animal fats. Studies have revealed that these processed and animal fats increase the risk of gallstones, while plant-based fats, found in foods such as coconuts and avocados, did not increase gallstone risk.

For a host of plant-based recipes to get you started on a gallbladder-conscious diet, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!