Gilbert’s syndrome, also known as “constitutional hepatic dysfunction” and “familial nonhemolytic jaundice” occurs when the liver doesn’t process bilirubin properly. This is a common and harmless liver condition that may only present when the whites of your eyes or skin present with a yellowish tone (jaundice). (1)
If you have jaundice, make an appointment with your physician as it can be the result of many health conditions, including Gilbert’s syndrome. This condition is caused by an inherited gene mutation, and you may never get a Gilbert’s syndrome diagnosis until a blood test indicates elevated bilirubin levels.
This condition is not life-threatening, and generally conventional Gilbert’s syndrome treatment is focused on keeping the liver healthy. What is important is that having it may increase the side effects of medications as the enzyme responsible for removing them from your body is what causes Gilbert’s syndrome. Natural treatments focus on ways to boost liver health while preventing poor sleep, stress, dehydration or an illness from triggering jaundice. (1)
What Is Gilbert’s Syndrome?
Gilbert’s syndrome goes by many names including familial nonhemolytic jaundice, Gilbert’s disease, Meulengracht’s disease and unconjugated benign bilirubinemia. While all of these names may sound frightening, in truth, this condition is considered a mild liver disorder.
It occurs when the liver can’t process bilirubin, the yellow-toned waste byproduct of red blood cells after they are broken down. This genetic disease occurs when you inherit a mutated gene, the UGT1A1. This gene is responsible for creating the liver enzyme that converts and excretes bilirubin from the body. (2)
Typically, if you have this condition, your levels of bilirubin in the blood are elevated and can change over time. Mild jaundice is the most common symptom, and it generally does not require medical intervention.
Signs and Symptoms
Gilbert’s syndrome rarely produces symptoms. The most common — and it is considered rare — is jaundice. (3)
Some patients report mild and vague symptoms, but researchers don’t believe that they are caused by excess bilirubin in the blood but may be a coincidence or caused by other conditions. In addition to Gilbert’s syndrome fatigue, reported symptoms include: (2)
- Abdominal discomfort
Causes and Risk Factors
Estimated to affect somewhere between 3 percent and 7 percent of Americans, Gilbert’s syndrome is caused by a change in the UGT1A1 gene. This is a genetic disease that can be passed from either mother or father. (4)
- Being male (but females can also have it)
Certain activities and conditions can trigger an elevated level of bilirubin in the body for those with the genetic mutation that causes Gilbert syndrome. (2)
- Fasting or skipping meals
- Having a cold or the flu
- Exposure to cold temperatures
A Gilbert’s syndrome diagnosis may not occur until you present with unexplained jaundice. A complete blood count, liver function tests and a genetic test is generally all that is required to confirm a diagnosis. It is most often diagnosed in the teens or early twenties. (5)
If you have Gilbert’s syndrome, it generally does not require treatment. Over the years, your bilirubin levels may rise and fall and you may experience jaundice from time to time. This is natural and generally the jaundice will go away on its own. Generally speaking, this condition is considered harmless and is associated with a normal life expectancy. (5)
It is important, however, if you’ve received a Gilbert’s syndrome diagnosis that you inform all of your doctors as it can affect the way your body processes and releases certain medications, including cancer therapy drugs. Additionally, Gilbert’s syndrome and alcohol intolerance are a concern. If you drink to excess with Gilbert’s syndrome, you may experience an exceptionally severe hangover. (6)
Natural Ways to Boost Liver Health
1. Avoid fasting and extremely low-calorie diets
The Mayo Clinic recommends eating on a routine schedule and not skipping meals. Stick to eating nutrient-dense meals and avoid processed foods. (5)
2. Eat a healthy diet and stay hydrated
The British Liver Trust recommends that people with Gilbert’s syndrome avoid fatty and sugary foods. In a clinical review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers identified a variety of foods and natural products that have liver-protective effects. Foods to make a priority in your Gilbert’s syndrome diet include: (7, 8)
- Tea: Both green tea and black tea may improve fat levels in the liver and improve enzyme activity. If you are sensitive to caffeine, limit your servings of tea to two or three cups each day. Most of the studies showing the benefits of tea indicate five or more cups a day to improve liver health. Don’t limit yourself to just a warm cup a tea; there are ways to spice up green tea and boost its power.
- Grapefruit: Rich with antioxidants, vitamin C, folic acid and potassium, both research studies and clinical studies show that grapefruit aids in the detoxifying process, helps control body weight and may help protect the liver by increasing its efficiency and reducing inflammation. Stick to red and pink grapefruit as they contain lycopene and beta carotene.
- As grapefruit and grapefruit juice are known to interact with a number medications, including those for high blood pressure, sedation and many other conditions, check with your doctor before adding grapefruit or grapefruit juice to your diet. In addition, women with certain hormone conditions, hormone-sensitive cancers and breast cancer should talk to their doctor before consuming large amounts of grapefruit as it increases certain hormone levels. (9)
- Berries: Eat a variety of fresh or frozen organic berries including cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries as they may help protect the liver from damage and may improve antioxidant responses. Find ways to incorporate a handful of them each day into your diet. Top your morning yogurt with some blueberries and enjoy a post-workout mixed berry smoothie.
- Grapes: Red and purple grapes have high levels of resveratrol that can protect the liver from damage, fight inflammation and increase antioxidant levels. In a small clinical study, grape seed extract was found to significantly improve liver function in those with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease after three months of supplementation. (10)
- Beetroot Juice: Several clinical studies and research studies indicate that beetroot juice contains powerful antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties and it may help protect the liver from oxidative damage. As a bonus, it is low in calories and packed with vitamins and minerals. (11, 12, 13)
- Cruciferous Vegetables: Mustard greens, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, radish, bok choy and Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables may help protect the liver from damage and may increase the natural detoxification of enzymes. As these nutrient-dense vegetables do release goitrogens, if you have thyroid problems, it is recommended to eat cruciferous vegetables cooked and limit yourself to one serving a day. (14, 15)
- Coffee: Drinking three cups or more of coffee daily is associated with lowering the risk of cirrhosis in people with chronic liver disease, and it may help reduce the risk of liver cancer. When selecting coffee, make sure to choose an organic coffee or one that is shade-grown as they tend to have lower levels of pesticides. (16, 17, 18, 19)
3. Avoid these foods: (20)
- Processed foods
- Vegetable oils
- Fried foods
- Preserved or fatty meats
- Artificial sweeteners
- Conventional fruits and vegetables
- White processed sugar
4. Take a fish oil supplement
Take 1,000 milligrams of a high-quality fish oil supplement daily to improve liver function. In an article published in World Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers indicate that oily fish, fish oil, coffee and nuts are associated with better liver health. (21)
5. Manage stress
In a review of both clinical and research studies published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, researchers found that stress exacerbates liver disease as it can cause an inflammatory response in the liver. Stress may even increase the risk of a certain type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma. (22)
Stress is a part of everyday life and learning to manage it is a journey. Chronic pain is associated with brain health, heart health, liver health and the immune system. Creating a stress-busting plan is essential. Yoga, meditation, prayer, daily exercise, music therapy, certain essential oils and even just taking a walk outdoors may help reduce your stress. (23, 24, 25, 26)
6. Milk thistle
Take 150 milligrams of milk thistle twice a day to help detox the liver and protect against chronic liver disease. Silymarin, a milk thistle extract, has long been studied for its liver-protecting and detoxing properties across the globe. Researchers urge further study to determine the ideal dosage for specific liver conditions. (7)
7. Reduce or quit drinking alcohol
Combining Gilbert’s syndrome with alcohol consumption isn’t recommended. If you drink, consider quitting. At the very least, with a liver condition, limit your alcohol to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
Eat probiotic-rich foods and take a high-quality probiotic supplement with at least 50 billion CFUs daily. In a clinical study published in the journal Hepatitis Monthly, researchers state, “a balanced and healthy gut prevents a high percentage of harmful liver conditions” and that probiotic therapy is a safe and inexpensive way to help improve several types of liver diseases. (27)
9. Reduce toxin exposure
As the liver is responsible for processing and flushing toxins from the body, it is imperative when you have a liver condition to limit your exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Choose organic fruits and vegetables, wild-caught fish, grass-fed lamb and beef and cage-free eggs whenever possible. In addition, be mindful of the cleaning products, aerosols and insecticides you choose to use in your home.
Daily exercise not only helps to fight stress and improve cardiac health, researchers have identified that it also helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the liver. In a clinical study of obesity-related liver diseases, after 12 weeks of an exercise training program, a marked improvement in liver function and a reduction of inflammatory serum levels was observed. (28)
Researchers didn’t identify the exercise program study participants followed. If you are just starting to exercise, walking, yoga, swimming and HIIT workouts are great ways to improve your overall fitness and health.
If you are experiencing jaundice for the first time, you need to see your doctor for a diagnosis. (29)
Jaundice is a symptom for many serious health conditions, including:
- Pancreatic cancer (30)
- Autoimmune pancreatitis (31)
- Yellow fever (32)
- Cholangiocarcinoma (cancer of the bile ducts) (33)
- Hepatitis A, B & C (34, 35, 36)
- Mononucleosis (37)
- Wilson’s disease (38)
- Alcoholic hepatitis (39)
- Gallbladder cancer (40)
- Acute liver failure (41)
- Hypothyroidism in infants (42)
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (43)
- Gallstones (44)
- Graves’ disease (45)
- Liver cancer (46)
- Gilbert’s syndrome is a genetic disease.
- Gilbert’s syndrome is a harmless liver condition that occurs when the liver doesn’t process bilirubin properly.
- Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin or the whites of your eyes, may be the only Gilbert’s syndrome symptom you experience.
- Diagnosis may not occur until you present with jaundice or have a routine blood test that indicates elevated levels of bilirubin.
- It generally does not require treatment; however, it is important to inform your doctors as Gilbert’s syndrome may cause your body to improperly process some medications.
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