What are gallstones?
Gallstones are hard, stone-like crystals found in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is an organ found under the liver, particularly on the right side of the abdominal cavity. The pear-shaped organ releases bile into the small intestine to help digest the foods we eat. The liver is the organ that secretes bile, a digestive juice that helps in the digestion of fats.
Gallstones are created when elements in the bile clump together to form crystals that get stuck in the gallbladder’s inner surface. Gallstones can be as big as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand.
A majority of people who have gallstones show no symptoms at all. For this reason, they do not require any kind of treatment. In some cases, the bile duct going to the small intestine can be blocked by a gallstone. This blockage can lead to the inflammation of the ducts, gallbladder, or even the liver and pancreas.
The common symptoms of gallstones are:
- A sudden, sharp pain in your upper abdomen that lasts from half an hour to a couple of hours.
- A severe pain below your right shoulder.
- Digestive distress after consuming a high fat meal such as desserts and fried foods.
An estimated 20 million of the American population have gallstones. Most people with gallstones have no idea about their condition because they do not experience any symptoms. Others may experience signs such as nausea and pain in the stomach mostly after eating. A surgical removal of the gallbladder may be required in cases where gallstones cause severe health problems.
A lot of factors can increase your risk of developing gallstones. However, its exact cause hasn’t been determined yet. Risk factors include rapid weight loss and having a lot of body fat, especially in the waistline.
Causes of Gallstone Formation
Cholesterol makes up the majority of gallstones. Cholesterol is a type of fat that is produced by the liver and acquired from the consumption of fatty foods. Gallstones may develop if:
- there are inadequate bile salts for the breakdown of cholesterol
- the liver releases a lot of cholesterol to the bile
- there is an incomplete emptying of the gallbladder that leads to bile concentration
- other substances are present in the bile that enable the cholesterol to form crystals
Gallstone development may also be increased by factors such as:
- lack of physical exercise
- high triglycerides
- history of gallstones in the family
- rapid weight loss
- low in high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol
How Obesity Increases the Risk of Having Gallstones
People who are obese have a higher risk of developing gallstones, particularly women. According to research, obese people generate high levels of cholesterol that leads to the production of a concentrated bile. The thick digestive fluid contains high amounts of cholesterol and calcium. If this imbalance continues, cholesterol crystals form, which will eventually lead to the formation of stones.
People with expanded waistlines are more prone to developing gallstones as compared to those people who carry fat around their thighs and hips. Apart from causing gallstones, obesity can lead to a lot of health complications such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Obese people who can shed 10% of their weight can boost their overall health. Weight loss leads to benefits such as having a positive self-image, better mood, and an increased energy.
Rapid Weight Loss
If a person rapidly loses weight, then there is a big chance of developing gallstones. Anyone who loses more than a kilogram per week has a good chance of forming gallstones than people who lose it at a slower rate. People who undergo any surgical procedures for weight loss with very low calorie diets could also increase their chances of forming gallstones.
Bariatric surgery is an operation in the intestines or stomach that helps people reduce their food intake. After surgery, a low calorie diet is recommended that has around 800 calories per day, usually under professional supervision.
There are many reasons why gallstones develop after a bariatric surgery or when having a restrictive diet. Such reasons include:
- Pre-existing gallstones before the surgery or before going on a diet.
- Morbid obesity before surgery or diet.
- Rapid weight loss post-surgery or diet.
Different treatments can also cause gallstone development. Weight loss that progresses slowly is highly unlikely to cause the formation of stones. All treatments should be done under the direct supervision of your doctor.
Healthy Foods for Your Gallbladder
Always maintain a healthy weight for your body and consume foods that contain medium calories, high fiber, low fat, and low cholesterol regardless of your risk for gallstones.
The healthy types of food for your gallbladder include:
- lean meat
- whole grains
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- poultry and fish
- low-fat dairy products
According to research, drinking caffeinated coffee can lower the chances of developing gallstones. Moderate alcohol consumption is also known to reduce the risk of gallstone formation. Eating peanuts or peanut butter can also lower people's chances of having gallstones, especially in women.
However, you should not primarily depend on these foods for gallbladder prevention.
Foods to Avoid When You Have Gallstones
Studies have shown that a lot of gallbladder problems are caused by the modern western diet, which contains saturated fats and high levels of refined carbohydrates. Gallstone symptoms may occur because the gallbladder attempts to expel the stones that are obstructing the flow of bile contained in the gallbladder. Consuming fatty foods enables the gallbladder to force the stones out even more.
To ease the symptoms, consume a healthy balanced diet with limited amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol. Avoid or minimize the intake of the following foods:
- fatty red meat
- highly processed foods (cookies, doughnuts, and pies)
- fried foods
- whole milk and other dairy products (butter, ice cream, and cheese)
You should also avoid taking very low-calorie diets. For obese people, a gradual weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week is the best way to lose weight. You can achieve it by eating a balanced diet and doing regular exercises. However, always seek for your doctor’s advice when it comes to your diet.
If your symptoms persist, consult a doctor; a surgery may be needed to remove your gallbladder.