Gall Bags, Spring, and Other Mysteries

Has Spring come to your part of the world? Because it is slow to arrive in Maine. Most of our world here is still a monotonous palate of gray, brown, pine green, white, dirty white and cold blue. April has promise, because today the sun felt warm even with the cool wind. And little shoots of yellow-green things are growing in the dirt!

Naturopathic Medicine heralds spring as the season of the liver – like trees stagnant over the winter our saps start to flow too. And our sap in this case in not blood, but bile. The ancient Greeks separated bilious humors into yellow, and black. Yellow bile is what we now call bile, stored in the gall bladder and useful in digestion. Black bile is a far more mysterious, melancholic and deadly humour, and one that I will have to investigate further when I am not studying for surgery exams.

So far this clerkship has been “general surgery” which has been primarily cholecystectomys and hernia repairs. The standard of care is to electively – or emergently – remove every gall bladder that presents with symptoms and evidence of stones or sludge. This makes sense because once one stone has caused problems, its pretty likely another will eventually. Complications can be pretty intense – gallstone pancreatitis with or without ileus is nasty, as is choledocolithiasis and ascending cholangitis. I am on board with this plan.

The best plan of action to avoid having gall bladder surgery is prevention. Inspired, committed lifestyle and nutritional prevention years before the problem starts. Not many people are willing, or have access to the knowledge to practice the kind of prevention that is required to avoidgallstones. By this I mean, too many people are never educated about the impact of food choices on health,  or just dont care enough to make the choices to eat an every day diet with good quality oils, moderate animal proteins and high fiber, high antioxidant, high phytonutrient grains and fruits/vegetables. (This is a whole other conversation about class, nutrition, education, access and economics.) Individuals also need to have the spark of interest to learn about plants as medicine and botanical therapies for liver health, as well as the initiative to either track down someone to act as a herbalist or dabble in self care. Because, once gallstones are formed there are some treatment options but…. not many. And IMHO, not many that are truly effective.

For those out there looking for guidance, herbal medicine combined with nutrition is the best way to maintain long term liver and gall bladder health. According to a PubMed Physiology text, bile is formulated in liver cells and modified by cholangiocytes as it travels through the bile canalicula. It is essentially a watery mix of cholesterol, bilirubin, phospholipids (fats), bile salts (broken down cholesterol bound to amino acids), proteins, bicarbonate, salts, and enzymes like alkaline phosphatase. Bile is classified as a mechanism to eliminate waste from the body, and I suspect it carries dubious products from the CYP enzymes that are not fully metabolized by an overburdened liver as well.


With this in mind, increasing bile flow with bitter alkaloids and other phytochemicals inherent in plant medicine are a logical way to improve gall bladder health. There is one botanical I know that have specific use for stones in the body called peumos baldo, but most of the hepatophillic herbs simply increase bile flow thereby decreasing stagnation and thus stone formation. One well-known liver loving botanicals is milk thistle (silybum marianum), which is insanely hepatoprotective and has multiple studies on it for chemical insults. This will not likely help with bile health directly, but it does protect hepatocytes from repeat insults from drugs metabolized by the CYP enzyme system such as antidepressants, anti-epilepsy drugs, birth control, alcohol, narcotics, and some antibiotics.

Dandilion (Taraxacum officionalis) and artichoke (Cynara scolymus) are often paired for their cholegogue effects. Its very common to see these three together in standardized formulations as they are probably the most well known players – and for good reason because they are safe for most healthy people and have a very long historical use for all sorts of “bilious” afflictions including gall stones. Of note, if you have lots of gall stones sitting in your gall bladder or have already had gall stone attacks,  taking high doses of cholegogues could precipitate an attack of acute cholecystitis. However, if you have already had your gall bladder removed they would be safe. There are many other plant medicines for bilious health employed by Naturopathic Doctors and herbalists world-wide, from many indigenous systems of medicine. Seeing an expert for individualized medicine is always the best choice for safe, effective and appropriate treatment as the liver, like all organs in the body rarely acts in isolation. Thus, the best medicine takes your whole health into account.

Finally, we think of natures medicine as extracted herbal “drugs”, but plain old water is so therapeutic for liver health. If bile is an aqueous solution, then chronic dehydration from caffeine/alcohol soda/sodium must lead to a concentrated and hypersoluble solution, right?

Vegetables are also medicinal plants. Spicy and bitter greens have the same cholegogue activity as dandilion and artichoke and are very safe to consume. Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, kale and brussel sprouts have documented chemical constituents that improve estrogen metabolism, thereby improving bile flow. The fiber binds excess cholesterol and maintains bowel health, and they have documented anti-cancer properties. Eat your broccoli!  Beets and carrots are rich in carotenoids which give their vibrant colors. These have traditionally been used as healing foods for the liver and although I do not know the exact reason why, can they hurt? Only if you hate beets, I suppose.

I have to stop writing this post, because I have to be up at the crack of dawn for another laproscopic cholecystectomy tomorrow. Its a surgery that definitely needs to be done – the woman has had some significant blockage from a stone that miraculously moved on its own but caused an elevated bilirubin as well as weeks of abdomninal pain and distress. It would be unsafe for her to just wait around for that to happen again, because where there is one stone, there are probably two. And where there is a chronically dehydrated American taking multiple pharmaceuticals and eating the SAD, there will always be another gall bag to take out.

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Embedding Resilience in Medicine

      Half an inch from the first four thoracic vertebrae lie the central nervous system transistors (stellate ganglion) for your fight and flight nervous system. Needless to say, my upper back is constantly aching. I am metabolizing the unique stress of being a brand new doctor/medical student in hospital life. It’s a different kind of stress than the first two academic years: those were crushing content & exams, but they were ivory tower academia. This is the very real medicine that is literally birth, life and death stuff. More visceral than literal, I find myself often crying,  sometimes gagging, and occasionally elated.

The purpose of third year clerkship aka #MS3 is to get a sampling of each major specialty to help us decide on a residency. Its a generic med school formula consisting of: Pediatrics, Surgery, OB/GYN, Internal Medicine Inpatient & Outpatient, Family Medicine, Psychiatry, Community Health. Inpatient, we legally cannot write patient notes. While we can actively participate in patient care,  everything we do needs to be seconded by a licensed doc; therefore, we are mostly shadows, errand runners, and absorbent sponges.

Unfortunately, some throwbacks to fraternal physician hazing rituals are still in place even for third year medical students. For example, my Internal Medicine inpatient rotation, which is already a 6am – 6pm shift 5 days a week (with a 1 hr drive on each side) also requires 6 -24 hour shifts in the 6 weeks. I asked a friend who is a year ahead of me and attended a different hospital clerkship if her rotation was scheduled as such, and she said she had to follow hospitalist hours for that same rotation – roughly 730am – 330pm. If the point is to learn each of the specialty’s roles, it makes sense to follow the professional hours. If the goal is to teach us that Internal Medicine requires an exhausting slog of hospital life, and how to forsake all other aspects of our personal and academic life for our career, then this approach in third year makes sense. Slate Magazine said it best: Third Year Kills Humanity of Medicine.

I haven’t done the above inpatient IM rotation yet and yes, I’m actively worried about my health, my marriage, and my coping skills during that onslaught. I did one 86 hour “sneak peek” week with our Family Medicine inpatient service last Fall.  I did enjoy the steep learning curve and patient contact; however,  I often felt lost and useless as my resident dictated her many notes and ran around the hospital following up on pages and other details. I did get some good studying done and learned some basic inpatient skills but there were hours, especially after the first 8,  that I wished I had something more productive I could be doing in.

In reality, the residents are much more forgiving than the administration and often let us leave early (6am – 10/11pm) saying “there is nothing we could learn at 2am that cant be learned at 2pm.” I am eternally grateful for this ray of grace. And I do understand that night shifts and on-call hours are foundational for many physician careers and practicing them could be relevant.  But why, when 55% of Internal Medicine and Family Doctors report burnout, are we being subjected to these mind numbing hours as third years? How will medicine ever change if the hazing continues to be perpetrated generation after generation?

I accept that being a doctor requires selflessness & sacrifice. I accept that long hours are often required and I like to work – for an income, for a team, and for a good reason. I’m a second career medical student, I study and practice clinical skills because this is what I love! I accept that as a resident I will bear the brunt of hours spent watchdogging and admitting in part because we are the cheap labor force of institutionalized medicine. But, I have 1.5 years of med school left, and 3-6 years of residency/fellowship ahead. What is the purpose of having me work 86 hour weeks now,  and how is it going to benefit my relationship towards medicine?

To embed resilience in doctors, we as a profession and as an academic incubator need to provide time & space for rest, relaxation, and quietude. Only in parasympathetics can we metabolize the soul-rattling experience that comes from facing death and sickness and the burden of chronic disease in North America. Not only are we facing grief/loss/mortality, we are taking on the enormous responsibility of decision maker. A backlog of unprocessed emotion leads to substance abuse, chronic pain, sleep disorders, lack of compassion, and who knows what other organic & chemical dysregulation. We need regular daily time to cook good food, sleep with our loves, be intimate and vulnerable, Netflick and chill, get to the gym or get outside. Only in that space can we emotionally integrate this transformation.

Our clerkship Dean Dr. Taylor sent out this  reaffirming blogpost last month in which an experienced physician Dr. Youngson writes to his younger self. He says:

     “As a medical student or junior doctor, it’s easy to feel powerless especially in a hierarchical medical system that too often teaches by humiliation, punishes those who question the status quo, and grinds people down through overwork and inhuman working conditions…”

Change medical education so that we as medical students (and residents and attendings and all doctors actually) are seen as people who are more than life-saving, problem fixing, chart dictating, disease curing machines. A more gentle, humane practice of time & space for medicine while living life alongside the role of physician has to start at the beginning of the clerkship year when we integrate it’s practice with our academic foundations, or it wont be ingrained as part of the way we approach medicine.

Once I started thinking about time, resilience and integration as the cure of medical burnout, I began seeing evidence everywhere. I heard a NEJM Interview from 01/03/18 with Dr. Armstrong from Massachusettes General Hospital’s new Pathways program where residents are given time and a scientific team to investigate complex patient-based cases. The 12/26/17 issue of JAMA has an article by Jack Coulehan, MD MPH from the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics on Negative Capability and the Art of Medicine that speaks to “sustaining the physician through the ‘humdrum routine’ of professional life… [Using]… the power to recognize the ‘true poetry of life'” and of medicine. This is a reflective practice. He says:

In pursuing the steadiness and detachment required to master clinical practice, it is tempting to neglect the more difficult project of nourishing engagement and tenderness in our relationships with patients – and with ourselves.”

The future of medical education is not only about competencies met and clinical acumen. The true scholars of the next generations of physicians will be those who can achieve their best in patient care and scientific fulfillment, while also living a satisfying, integrated and joyful life.

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