What are gallstones?
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ beneath the liver in the upper right abdomen. It stores bile, a green-yellow liquid that helps digest fat. During the digestion process, your gallbladder releases bile through a duct into the small intestines.
Gallstones can form when bile hardens to form pieces of solid material. These can block the flow of bile and cause more serious symptoms.
- Cholesterol stones, which are the most common and tend to be a yellow-green color
- Pigment stones, which are made of bilirubin and tend to be smaller and darker
Gallstones themselves may not cause any signs or symptoms. Around 80 percent of people have what is called “silent gallstones,” meaning they never experienced any pain or other symptoms . However, if a gallstone gets lodged in a bile duct and causes a blockage, it can lead to the following symptoms:
- Sudden and/or rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right abdomen
- Pain in the center of the abdomen
- Pain between the shoulder blades
- Pain in the right shoulder
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dark urine
- Gray stool
Pain from gallstones may last between several minutes and several days. When you experience these symptoms, it’s called biliary colic.
Around 80 percent of gallstones are made up of cholesterol. The other 20 percent are made of calcium salts and bilirubin. However, it’s not entirely clear what leads to the formation of gallstones. It may be caused by too much cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile, which may cause gallstones if the gallbladder is unable to break down the excess. It may also be caused by a gallbladder that isn’t able to empty its bile content.
While anyone can develop gallstones, some risk factors are related to diet, genetics, and age. Women, those over 60 years old, or those with a family history of gallstones are more likely to develop them. Other risk factors include:
Remedies for gallstones
In most cases, small gallstones can pass through the body without any treatment or medication. However, if you’re experiencing pain, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the most common surgery for gallstones. Your doctor makes several small incisions to insert a narrow tube and remove the gallbladder. Open cholecystectomy involves larger cuts to the abdomen to remove the gallbladder and may lead to a longer recovery time.
If your doctor thinks you shouldn’t have surgery—due to a medical condition or otherwise—they may recommend medication instead. Chenodiol and ursodiol can dissolve cholesterol stones. They may need to be taken for months or years to fully dissolve the stones.
Foods to eat for gallstones
While surgery is the most common treatment for gallbladder stones, milder cases may be treated through diet and lifestyle changes. These changes can also reduce the likelihood that the gallstones will return.
Studies show that people who follow a healthy diet have a lower risk of gallstones or gallbladder disease. Knowing which foods to eat and which to avoid may help resolve symptoms and reduce the risk of gallstones returning. Some of the foods which may help with gallstones include:
Fruits and vegetables
A diet high in fruits and vegetables can help improve the health of your gallbladder. Foods that are high in fiber, Vitamin C, calcium, or B vitamins are essential to a healthy gallbladder. Some fruits and vegetables to incorporate in your diet are:
- Citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
- Leafy greens
Fiber is known for promoting digestive health. It may also help the movement of food through the gut and lower the production of bile, which can reduce the risk of developing gallbladder disease.
One study found that a high fiber diet led to lower production of biliary sludge for people who are losing weight rapidly. Biliary sludge, which may build up when people fast or lose weight quickly, increases the risk of gallbladder disease. Foods that are high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Reducing fat can also help prevent gallstones. Low-fat dairy, like milk or cheese, can help reduce the amount of fat in the diet.
Milk alternatives, including almond milk, oat milk, or soy milk, can also be substituted for whole milk.
While red meat and dairy are good sources of protein, they can also be high in fat, which puts stress on the gallbladder.
Low-fat proteins, like poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, tofu, and soy products, can offer lean protein without the added fat. One study found a link between vegetable proteins and lower risk of gallbladder disease.
Foods to avoid for gallstones
Certain foods that are higher in fat or cholesterol are more likely to inflame the gallbladder or cause gallstones. Avoid the following foods for a healthier gallbladder:
Risks and recovery
While most gallstones are passed without pain, you should go to the hospital if you have any signs of a serious infection, inflammation, or blockage. These signs include:
- Severe abdominal
- Pain that lasts for several hours
- Fever and chills
- Yellow skin or eyes
- Dark colored urine
If you need surgery to remove your gallbladder, recovery can last between several days to several weeks. In most cases of removal, the stones don’t return. If you don’t have surgery or if you’ve taken medication to dissolve the stones, there’s a chance the gallstones can return.
Making certain lifestyle changes, including changes to the diet, can prevent gallstones from returning or causing problems.
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Georgian Medical News: "Dietary Fiber's Benefit for Gallstone Disease Prevention During Rapid Weight Loss in Obese Patients"
Harvard Health Publishing: "What To Do About Gallstones?"
Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition: "Dietary Patterns and Risk of Gallbladder Disease: A Hospital-based Case-Control Study in Adult Women"
National Health Service: "Gallstones"
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Eating, Diet, and Nutrition for Gallstones"
Nigerian Journal of Surgery: "Gallstones"
Preventative Medicine: "Vegetable Protein Intake Is Associated With Lower Gallbladder Disease Risk: Findings From the Women's Health Initiative Prospective Cohort"
Statpearls: "Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy"
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