Gilbert’s Syndrome

What is Gilbert’s Syndrome?

Gilbert’s syndrome is also called GS, Gilbert’s disease, constitutional liver dysfunction, familial nonhemolytic jaundice and unconjugated benign bilirubinemia. As these alternative names suggest, this syndrome affects the liver.

The liver of patients with Gilbert’s syndrome is not able to process bilirubin. Bilirubin occurs when old red blood cells die. Instead of being filtered out by the liver, the blood of someone with GS carries around excess bilirubin. This is a common condition. Up to seven percent of American adults have this whether they know it or not. The cause of Gilbert’s syndrome is caused by mutations on a gene known as UGT1A1. Just what causes these gene mutations are unknown but they do run in families so children of parents with GS are prone to getting GS. Men are more likely to come down with Gilbert’s syndrome than women.

What are the Symptoms of Gilbert’s Syndrome?

Many people with Gilbert’s syndrome never know it because they do not have symptoms until their teens or twenties. Even their mutated UGT1A1 gene working at one-third capacity of a normal UGT1A1 gene can keep the body stable.

Symptoms include

Illnesses, fasting, exercising too often, prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or women having their periods cause stress on the liver causes symptoms to appear. The most common symptom is jaundice or a yellowing of the eye whites and skin. Uncommon symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. The National Organization for Rare Disorders points out that stress alone may cause the unusual symptoms and not Gilbert’s syndrome.

People with Gilbert’s syndrome may not be able to take certain medications without experiencing annoying or painful side effects. Always let a doctor know about GS before taking any new medication.

Gilbert’s Syndrome Causes

Gilbert’s syndrome is caused by an inherited gene abnormality. It impacts the gene that controls the enzyme to break down bilirubin in the liver. Since the gene is abnormal, the bilirubin isn’t broken down, leading to excess bilirubin in the bloodstream. Men are more likely to have Gilbert’s syndrome than women are.

Gilbert’s syndrome is classified as a autosomal recessive trait. Because it is recessive, it appears in a person if both of their parents are carriers of the abnormal gene. The risk of two carrier parents having a child who is also a carrier is 50 percent per pregnancy, while the risk of having a child with the disorder is 25 percent per pregnancy. About 3-7 percent of the population has Gilbert’s syndrome. Although it is present in a person’s genes from birth, many times it may go undiagnosed until young adulthood – late teen years or early twenties.

The gene that is impacted by the abnormality is UGT1A1 gene, which contains the information needed to create the enzyme of the same name. The UGT1A1 enzyme breaks down and eliminates bilirubin from the body. Without it, people with Gilbert’s syndrome retain extra bilirubin.

How is Gilbert’s Syndrome Treated?

The bad news is that there is no known treatment for Gilbert’s syndrome. The good news is that since this is such a mild condition that the body normally heals itself. People with GS can expect to live a normal lifespan.

Gilbert’s Syndrome Prevention

Since this is an inherited condition, there is no way to prevent yourself from getting it. In most cases, Gilbert’s syndrome is considered mild and benign and doesn’t require any significant treatment. Many people never even know they have it, since the jaundice is so mild or nonexistent.

Since jaundice can flare when your body is under stress, if you have Gilbert’s syndrome, you can typically manage it by eating regular, healthy, filling meals, sleeping enough and managing stress in general.

Be sure to let your doctor know that you have Gilbert’s syndrome, as it can impact how your body absorbs certain medications. Otherwise, Gilbert’s syndrome likely won’t have a significant impact on your lifestyle or health.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 27, 2017