Gilbert’s Syndrome: The Harmless Liver Disorder?

~ by Jo Jordan

For all of its many intimidating names, Gilbert’s Syndrome is merely a harmless liver disorder in which a slightly elevated level of a specific liver enzyme – necessary in the disposal of blood waste matter – is present. Not a disease at all, Gilbert’s syndrome is considered to be a finding…i.e. a genetic condition present in three to seven per cent of Americans.1

An extremely common condition, Gilbert’s syndrome has more names associated with it than pharmacies have pills! Gilbert’s syndrome is also known as constitutional hepatic dysfunction, familial nonhemolytic jaundice, unconjugated benign bilirubinemia, unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia, Gilbert’s disease, Gilbert-Lereboullet syndrome, Gilbert-Meulengracht syndrome, Meulengracht’s disease, Meulengracht’s icterus, and Meulengracht’s syndrome.

Genetics 101: the cause of Gilbert’s syndrome

Gilbert’s syndrome is caused by mildly elevated levels of a liver enzyme essential to the disposal of bilirubin. A natural pigment, bilirubin is the resulting chemical from the body’s normal breakdown of hemoglobin from red blood cells. The liver enzyme abnormality associated with Gilbert’s syndrome most often occurs after starvation or dehydration.

While both sexes are affected, Gilbert’s syndrome occurs twenty-five percent more often in men than in women.2

Gilbert’s syndrome is passed on genetically, which is why it’s more commonly found among family members. More than fifty percent of the general population carries one copy of the inherited, abnormal gene that controls the enzyme that assists in the breakdown of bilirubin.3

If parents who each possess the abnormal gene have a child, the genetic defect that causes Gilbert’s syndrome may be passed along; but not in all cases. And not everyone who has two copies of the abnormal gene develops Gilbert’s syndrome, so it’s possible to have the condition without a family history of the disorder.

Gilbert’s syndrome signs, symptoms, and risk ractors

Opinions regarding the symptoms associated with this disorder vary somewhat. While some experts say there are gGilbert’s syndrome patients who don’t develop any symptoms whatsoever, other research reports that jaundice is a constant factor.

In general, Gilbert’s syndrome is documented as a chronic disorder that – in the absence of any specific symptoms – presents with fluctuating jaundice.

Other Possible Symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

Factors that Sometimes Increase Symptoms:

  • Alcohol
  • Dehydration
  • Fasting
  • Illness, including infections such as a cold or the flu
  • Menstruation
  • Overexertion

Gilbert’s syndrome complications

Other than jaundice – which normally comes and goes, disappearing on its own – there are no other known complications for Gilbert’s syndrome, and the disorder doesn’t damage the liver. The condition does not require treatment.

When a person with Gilbert’s syndrome is ill with, say, the flu, sometimes the bilirubin level may further increase (as noted above in Factors that Sometimes Increase Symptoms). Often, this is when jaundice occurs, and the condition actually gets diagnosed.

There may be increased side effects with certain medications. Irinotecan (Camptosar) – a colon cancer treatment – for example, can reach toxic levels if the patient has Gilbert’s syndrome, resulting in severe diarrhea.4

Diagnosing Gilbert’s syndrome

Cases of Gilbert’s syndrome are often discovered by chance when routine testing such as a complete blood count (CBC) or liver function tests indicate an elevated level of bilirubin in the blood. Typically, test results will be normal except for a slightly elevated level of unconjugated bilirubin.

While Gilbert’s syndrome is not serious at all, it’s important – especially if you’re experiencing jaundice – to rule out more problematic liver conditions such as an excessive breakdown of red blood cells, hepatitis, or an obstructed bile duct.

Managing Gilbert’s syndrome

Try to avoid alcohol, becoming dehydrated, fasting, infectious illnesses such as colds or the flu, and overexertion. Eat regular, nutritious meals, and consider a multi-vitamin to ensure adequate vitamin, mineral, and nutrient intake, and to promote overall health. And be sure to manage your stress level each day.

For maintaining healthy liver functioning throughout life, liver cleansings are sometimes recommended. An aid to improving overall digestion, a liver cleanse can be a boon to optimum health.

Since Gilbert’s syndrome is an inherited genetic disorder, it’s not possible to prevent the disorder. However, by avoiding and being aware of factors that trigger bilirubin levels to rise, it’s possible to reduce the number of jaundice bouts you experience.