10-15% of people in the United States (or, about 20-25 million people) experience gallstones. While gallstones may not seem like the most dangerous health concern, they can cause serious issues if left untreated, such as pancreatitis.
What causes gallstones?
Understanding who is at greater risk for this condition is one of the best ways to take charge of your health. So, what exactly causes gallstones, anyway?…
What are cholesterol stones?
Cholesterol stones are the most common type of gallstone. In fact, by some estimates, they make up 80% of gallstone cases in the United States.
How do cholesterol stones form?
They result when there is too much cholesterol in the bile. When this excess of cholesterol is present, they can clump together, forming a stone.
What is at greater risk?
Those who eat a high-cholesterol diet greatly increase their risk of cholesterol gallstones. Why? Because extra cholesterol introduced to the body can make its way into the gallbladder and bile, hardening into stones from there.
Those who have a genetic disposition for high cholesterol are also at greater risk for forming these kinds of stones.
How can these stones be prevented?
The best way to prevent these type of gallstones? Adhere to a healthy diet and limit cholesterol intake. That means avoiding regularly eating fast food or other foods high in fat that will introduce lots of cholesterol to the body.
Cholesterol stones aren’t the only kinds of gallstones. Pigment stones may also occur as a result of the following…
2. High Amounts of Bilirubin
What are pigment stones?
Pigment stones form when there is an excessive amount of bilirubin in the liver.
What is bilirubin?
Bilirubin is a yellowish substance that is often excreted in bile and urine. When there is a buildup of bilirubin in bile, they can form into gallstones.
Pigment stones or something else?
High levels of bilirubin can also be indicative of other problems, most often involving the liver. A clear indicator of severe bilirubin issues is the development of jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin.
How can these stones be prevented?
Regulating bilirubin can be done almost entirely through proper dieting.
- Drink plenty of water for proper cleansing of the bile.
- Eat foods high in digestive enzymes, such as honey, avocado, Brussels sprouts, grapes, nuts, and legumes.
- Cut back on sugars, fatty foods, and salts.
While less common than cholesterol or bilirubin, the buildup of other substances may also result in gallstones…
3. Other Substances
There are other substances that may promote the formation of gallstones if the chemical balance of the gallbladder is misaligned.
What other substances can promote gallstone formation?
High levels of calcium carbonate and calcium bilirubinate can promote the formation of gallstones. They may occur as either pigment stones (as the calcium bilirubinate breaks down into bilirubin) or even calcium deposits (if calcium crystallizes).
How can calcium deposits be avoided?
Unlike other forms of gallstones, calcification can occur in a variety of body systems, including the kidneys, blood stream, heart, and even brain. That all means that it’s extra important to avoid calcification at all costs.
Risk factors for calcium deposits include:
- Certain medications
- A sedentary lifestyle
- A high-salt diet
- Calcium carbonate tablets like Tums
Proper diet and exercise, along with not smoking, are some of the best preventative measures available.
The following cause of gallstones, however, is hereditary…
4. Gilbert’s Disease/Gilbert’s Syndrome
According to experts, anywhere between 3% to 7% of the population in the United States have this condition, although some speculate that number could be as high as 13%.
What is Gilbert’s Syndrome (GS)?
Gilbert’s Syndrome is a relatively harmless genetic disorder in which the liver doesn’t properly process bilirubin. Specifically, the body does not produce enough of the enzyme specifically required to break down and purge bilirubin from the liver. This lack of enzymes causes bilirubin to build up.
Is this condition dangerous?
While the condition is relatively benign most of the time, it does increase the risk of gallbladder stones due to increased bilirubin levels.
How is GS managed?
There isn’t a cure for GS. Fortunately, because of how harmless the condition is, it doesn’t require any additional treatment. In fact, it oftentimes goes completely unnoticed until found by accident when checking bilirubin levels in a routine blood test or trying to diagnose unrelated issues.
Those who are still concerned can compensate for the effects of GS through proper diet. As mentioned before, exercise may also help someone reduce the risk of developing gallstones…
5. Poor Muscle Tone
In order for the gallbladder to properly release bile, the muscles surrounding it have to contract. This contraction squeezes the gallbladder, forcing the bile out of the gallbladder, into connecting ducts, and finally into the small intestine.
Therefore, severely weakened muscles may not be strong enough to move bile out of the gallbladder. This process may mean that some bile is left in the gallbladder to stagnate and harden into stones.
How is this issue managed?
Maintaining proper muscle tone is the best way to prevent this issue. The best ways to accomplish this goal include:
- Being relatively active, with at least some moderate exercise focusing on the core/abdominal muscles
- Maintaining a balanced, protein-rich diet to help promote healthy muscle growth
- Staying hydrated to help prevent muscles spasms, which can cause improper or incomplete contractions that leave residual bile in the gallbladder
Being fairly active is especially important as it can greatly reduce the risk of the upcoming potential cause of gallstones…
6. Being Overweight
Being overweight can drastically increase the risk of gallbladder stones.
Simply put, many people who are overweight tend to have elevated cholesterol levels. This extra cholesterol can increase the risk of developing cholesterol-based gallstones.
What foods place someone at greater risk of gallstones?
As with many of the other issues on this list, proper diet and maintaining a healthy weight are effective ways of preventing these types of gallstones. Cutting back on fatty foods can help reduce cholesterol levels, as can taking certain medications.
What foods lower someone’s risk of gallstones?
Foods with digestive enzymes, such as legumes and fiber-rich foods, help break down excess cholesterol already present in bile.
What about losing too much weight?
However, being overweight isn’t the only weight-related risk factor for gallstones. For others, the opposite is true and actually puts someone at greater risk of this condition…
7. Rapid Weight Loss
While getting quick results through dieting can be tempting, the risks to health can far outweigh the benefits. Starvation or crash diets, for example, can greatly increase the risk of developing gallstones, even more so than being overweight.
How does rapid weight loss result in gallstones?
Rapid weight loss means the body is burning through fat at a ferocious rate. The result? The liver excretes extra cholesterol into bile. Remember: extra cholesterol can easily harden into stones.
How can this issue be prevented?
The best way to prevent this issue? Losing weight in healthy way, which means no starvation or fad diets. Weight loss should be gradual, as the body needs time to adjust to such change.
What about unintentional weight loss?
No matter if the weight loss is intended or not, rapid weight loss is rapid weight loss, so it can still mean gallstones.
What is considered rapid weight loss?
A common definition of rapid intentional weight loss is losing 2 pounds within a week. Unintentional rapid weight loss is often considered to be losing at least 10 pounds or about 5% of the person’s original weight within a 6-12 month period.
The upcoming potential cause of gallstones might leave you reaching for the Germ-X…
While infections usually are the result of an existing gallbladder stone, having an infection in the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas can increase the risk for gallbladder stones.
Why does infection increase gallstone risk?
When the gallbladder becomes infected, there is oftentimes inflammation as it is one of the immune system’s go-to responses to infection. Naturally, inflammation can mean swelling. And if this swelling extends towards the cystic duct? It can constrict the duct’s entryway, making it harder for bile to pass through. The residual bile may harden.
How are infections prevented?
Some of the best ways to prevent any kind of infection include:
- Proper diet
- Staying hydrated
- Being active
- Practicing good hygiene
- Regular doctor check-ups
The following potential cause of gallstones? It can only affect about 50% of the population…
As if pregnancy weren’t already hard enough, expectant parents may be surprised to learn that pregnancy can increase the risk of gallstones.
How can pregnancy cause gallstones?
Pregnancy can increase the risk of developing gallstones for a variety of reasons.
When pregnant, the body goes through a shift in hormone production. After, it’s necessary to change the body’s chemical balance to properly support a growing fetus. This biochemical shift includes releasing chemicals and hormones that increase fat retention.
One such hormone is estrogen. Increased estrogen production can increase the amount of cholesterol in the body. This increase in cholesterol can in turn increase the risk for developing gallstones.
Pregnancy also means an increase in progesterone production. Now, progesterone can slow down digestive processes. This slowing down means bile is released less frequently, which therefore increases the odds of bile stagnating and hardening in the gallbladder.
Reducing risk of gallstones during pregnancy.
While pregnant, it is important to have regular appointments with a doctor to keep track of overall health as well as the health of the fetus, ensuring there are no complications. Maintaining a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water can also help during this time.
While pregnancy can only affect about half of all people, the following potential cause of gallstones can affect people of all genders…
While some stress is good in short spurts—giving the body the energy it needs to power through a difficult situation—prolonged stress can have taxing effects of various body systems.
The gallbladder isn’t exempt from the burdens of stress.
How does stress cause gallstones?
Prolonged stress can affect the rate and frequency at which the gallbladder empties bile. Since the gallbladder does not empty completely or empty frequently enough, gallstones have a higher potential of forming.
Managing stress is key!
Stress is unavoidable, which means learning how to manage it properly is key for leading a happier and healthier life. Causes of stress will vary by person, but it’s important for everyone to take time to relax, whatever that may mean for the individual.
In addition to relaxation, crucial parts of stress management include eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.
What happens when someone has a gallstone?…
Treat Gallstones Right Away
How are gallstones treated?
Depending on the severity of the gallstones, there are a variety of treatment options.
Wait it out
Many gallstones are small enough that they will pass on their own and make their way out of the body through the intestinal tract.
Larger stones often have to be removed surgically. There are two primary surgeries for dealing with gallstones.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This method involves a doctor placing a scope through the patient’s mouth before making its way to the gallbladder. If a gallstone is detected—and it’s in the bile ducts—this same scope may be able to remove the stone.
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This surgery involves complete removal of the gallbladder. The surgery actually is not as scary as it sounds as is is fairly non-invasive. Doctors will make four small incisions in the abdomen before performing the surgery via a laparoscopy. In many cases, patients are discharged within 24-48 hours of having the procedure. Fortunately, removing the gallbladder typically doesn’t result in any adverse health effects.
Take Charge of Your Health
Gallstones are a relatively low-risk condition if treated early enough. Ignoring the issue, however, can lead to potentially life-threatening complications like pancreatitis.
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
Symptoms of gallstones include:
- Abdominal pain after eating greasy foods