Removal of Gallbladder, Spleen, Tonsils and Other “Expendable” Organs Has Long-Term Health Consequences
Just because we can survive without an organ doesn’t mean that we couldn’t survive better with it… or that we should give it up without a fight. That was the response of Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, when I asked him about the frequency with which surgeons remove seemingly extraneous organs, such as the tonsils or gallbladder (usually in elective surgery) or the spleen or appendix (almost always emergencies).
All organs in your body have specific functions, and even those that at first glance appear expendable have their own subtle — though important — roles to play. In other words, never underestimate the power of a supposedly “useless” organ.
In an Emergency…
Your spleen. Widely studied since ancient Greek and Roman times, this massive but ostensibly nonessential organ in the upper left abdomen has baffled many generations of scientists. Recently, however, a team of Harvard Medical School doctors led by Matthias Nahrendorf, MD, PhD, Filip Swirski, PhD, and Mikael J. Pittet, PhD, gained new insights into its function. In their work with mice, they found that the spleen reacts to a heart attack by instantly firing out immune cells known as monocytes to expedite recovery, and they believe that it operates similarly in humans. In addition, Dr. Rubman told me that the spleen serves as a vast blood reserve for the body — replenishing and recycling red blood cells and providing immune support to foster healing from illness or trauma… while at the same time improving underlying health and resiliency and fending off infection.
Spleen removal: Spleens are removed only when it is medically necessary due to failure or trauma, so there’s no reason to second-guess one that’s been taken out — but it does mean that the immune system has lost a key player. If your spleen has been removed, you’ll need to be more careful when you get sick, since even a minor illness such as a sore throat or sinus infection can quickly mushroom into a larger health concern. Dr. Rubman’s recommendation: Ask your doctor whether you should take immune enhancers, such as omega-3 fatty acids or probiotics, and whether you should get pneumonia and flu vaccinations.
Your appendix. This fingerlike pouch, which is attached to the large intestine, has long been considered a vestigial organ that played a much more important role in the digestive systems of our prehistoric ancestors. Yet scientists at Duke University Medical School in North Carolina have learned that the appendix also breeds healthful gut flora and is therefore valuable to immune strength.
Appendix removal: Appendicitis accounts for more emergency abdominal surgeries than any other cause. While acknowledging that an infected appendix in danger of rupture should always be removed, Dr. Rubman questions the wisdom of removing it under other circumstances. He says that natural techniques such as medicinal fasting, drinking fruit and vegetable juices, hot compresses, a daily enema, use of a sitz bath and other protocols may help avoid unnecessary surgery if an infected appendix is not in danger of rupture. But, he notes, these treatments should be attempted only as a collaborative effort between medical doctors and trained practitioners of natural medicine.
Are Elective Removals a Good Idea?
Your gallbladder. This pear-shaped organ, tucked under the liver on the right side of the abdomen, aids digestion by processing bile, a greenish-brown fluid manufactured by the liver to help break down fats in the small intestine. If bile flow is interrupted — usually by a gallstone — your gallbladder may become painful and inflamed and your digestion will suffer, most particularly when you eat fats.
If you develop gallstones that block bile flow, investigate less drastic alternatives before you agree to surgical removal of the gallbladder. For example, a naturopathic physician may prescribe one or more botanical treatments (such as dandelion tea) that can help rectify the problem. Dr. Rubman said that there are many natural substances that can be helpful in safely dislodging and eliminating stones.
However, Dr. Rubman agreed that a gallbladder that becomes “dysfunctional and structurally compromised” (often caused by unhealthy diet) should be removed, because it is likely that it will soon fail. If that happens, bile can leak into the abdomen — a potentially dangerous situation.
Gallbladder removal: When the gallbladder is removed, your liver must work extra hard to pick up the slack. Since removal compromises the normal function of the digestive system, loss of the gallbladder raises the risk for digestive diseases such as colorectal cancer. If yours has been taken out, Dr. Rubman recommends eating plenty of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains and minimizing fatty and greasy foods. For his patients he typically prescribes a digestive-enzyme formula as well.
Your tonsils and adenoids: Where it was once common to yank tonsils and adenoids in children, these surgeries are done far less often today — which is a good thing, said Dr. Rubman, calling these organs “lymphatic guardians of the respiratory tract.” Nonetheless, they sometimes must be removed to solve persistent infection, sleep apnea and other problems.
Tonsil/Adenoid removal: Removal of these organs eliminates the immune system’s first line of protection against microbial invaders. Therefore, Dr. Rubman says, it is important to take additional steps to help protect your respiratory tract and strengthen your immune function. Discuss specific options with your doctor to find out what is right for you.
The body is naturally very conservative, observes Dr. Rubman, and the organs that we have are there for particular reasons. If one must be removed due to disease or trauma, that’s one thing — but don’t say good-bye to any organ lightly. Instead, consider bidding adieu to any physician who casually suggests you won’t miss it, because that’s not really true.