Gallbladder attacks: Signs, symptoms and avoidance

You may be wondering why I'm writing about the signs and symptoms of a gallbladder attack and how to avoid one when, in fact, you probably remember that almost one year ago I had my gallbladder removed. Often a side-effect of pregnancy, lots of moms need to have their gallbladders removed soon after the baby is born. I'm told that's because of how all our organs get moved around, jostled from side to side, kicked, elbowed and shoved when carrying a small person around in your belly for 9 months, and that very well could be the case. I don't really care. I'm past that. Once the surgeon told me "If you have stones and sludge, you need it out. You have stones and sludge" he pretty much could have taken me straight to the OR. I was nervous, but it all turned out OK.

Until now.

A couple months ago, I decided to finish a few bites of my son's hot dog. I had not eaten a hot dog since the summer after I delivered my second son and had my first gallbladder attack, but I knew that — supposedly — once your gallbladder is out, you shouldn't experience any of the same symptoms or side effects. Again, per the surgeon: "If you continue to have symptoms, it's not the gallbladder."

Great.

Symptoms I had. For about 24 hours, I felt like death. As if they had injected gas into my body and it was trying to escape through my every pore. Bloated. Couldn't go to the bathroom. Full-on stomach ache. Nothing made it better except the few winks of sleep I was able to get, and I didn't get back to feeling 100% for a few days. Okay, I thought; I can live without ever eating another hot dog. Hot dogs are bad for you, anyways (yes, I'd argue, even the organic uncured kind).

But on Monday of last week, apparently I slipped up again. After a two-week vacation that was admittedly low on fruits and vegetables and probably included way too many carbs and coffees, I came home, had some of my son's leftover bacon at breakfast, cooked with bacon in a pasta dish that night and within 2 hours I again felt like a giant floating ball of gas. So bloated you could even call my abdomen distended. The worst acid reflux I've ever experienced in my life, including a nasty taste in my mouth, a little cough, zero sleep and some serious stomach pains/cramps. Again: Down for the count for 24 hours, with no child care and no 7-Up or saltine crackers until mid-day. Even then, I remembered being able to eat more in the past. This time I had to force myself to take tiny sips of water and eat one or two crackers, not 10 or 12. Really — my own personal hell. Unable to care for my children. Unable to eat. Unable to work. So nauseated and miserable I nearly went to the ER, but finally at one point in the afternoon I was in so much pain (and able to use the restroom) that I didn't think I'd even be able to leave the house. Thank God it passed, and I didn't wind up with a $2K urgent-care bill. (Thank GOD!)

And even though I now have an appointment to see my doctor about this (some people say that they simply still experience phantom gallbladder symptoms after surgery, while others have suggested that perhaps some stones were passed to the liver that weren't caught during surgery), it has reminded me of and taught me a few very important points that you often forget until you fall ill with any malady, minor or major.

  1. Manage your stress, or your stress will manage you. Yes, I literally used some bread to sop up some of the bacon fat, broccoli and olive oil from the pan in which I cooked our dinner that night, we had been noshing on bacon on and off for weeks (thanks to my 3-year-old's obsession) and healthy eating is always more difficult when you're away from home. But could it also have something to do with stress? I don't doubt it. I don't think I've ever been so stressed in my life, both mentally and emotionally, due to various factors that are mostly beyond my control. And as much as I know about meditation, yoga, prayer, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises, I'm lucky if I remember to say my prayers in bed at night before falling asleep. So yesterday, I went to my first Hatha yoga class at the gym. No more messing around. I need to better manage my stress now more than ever. Not just for me, but so that I can be a better mom to my kids and the strong, confident wife my husband needs too.
  2. Slow. The heck. Down. I vaguely remember thinking to myself that night at the dinner table, Wow, you're eating really fast. And if anything is worse than eating fatty, greasy foods, it's eating fatty, greasy foods too fast while you're stressed out! To truly feel your best, you need to savor the food as much as possible, don't overeat, enjoy the tastes, textures and sensations and slowly progress through each meal. In an ideal world we'd all be sitting around the table with our families for three square meals a day. That won't happen at lunchtime for most of us I know (not even breakfast at this house), but if you can arrange activities, meetings, computer time and TV time around dinner at the very least instead of trying to absorb it all at once, you'll be a healthier person, no doubt about it.
  3. Eat less. I know you don't want to hear that, but seriously. This was last Monday. Even on Friday, I was still munching on crackers and dipping my toe very tentatively into things like cheese, chocolate, milk and coffee. And you know what? It felt good to familiarize myself again with what it feels like to actually be HUNGRY, and not just bored, stressed out, angry or tired. It sucks to be sick, but it can help you re-learn how much food you actually need to eat to feel satisfied (I couldn't even finish my panini at dinner!) — and it's probably less than you're accustomed to eating. Overeating is not healthy. Staying in touch with how you feel during meals and snacks is vital.
  4. Trust your gut. I know, the last thing you want to trust during a gallbladder attack is your mean, nasty, evil, tormented gut. But you have to trust the signals it's sending you in order to avoid ANOTHER attack in the future. Case in point: The hot dog set me off the first time. The second time, it was bacon. When I served those paninis for dinner with tomatoes, fig butter, arugula, fontina cheese and proscuitto to my husband, I left the sinister pork product off of my sandwich. Call it common sense, call it intuition, call it whatever you want. Eating another version of what had just finished torturing me was not in the cards. Know thyself.
  5. Eat MORE fruits and veggies. No one wants to hear this either, but it has to be said. At least for me, no fruit or vegetable has ever caused an attack. Should I become a vegetarian? Maybe. Should you? That depends on what triggers your misery. For some people it's onions and garlic; for others it's tomatoes or tomato sauce. So as long as you play it safe and follow all of the above rules as well, you'll probably be fine. Don't scarf down your fruits and veggies because that will just cause gas anyways. Don't eat a spicy veggie dish just because it's veggies if it's the spiciness of foods that gets you. See your doctor, get the gallbladder out if need be, and if it is out, follow a sensible diet after. Do your best so that you never have to feel that feeling again.

Even if you've never experienced a gallbladder attack, these are decent rules to follow in the game of dietary life. It's simple, and yet we all struggle with it so much. Keep tempting foods out of the house, stay present during your meals and snacks and eat only until satisfied. It IS that simple...even though it isn't always easy!

Filed under: Healthy living, What to eat

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