The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped sac located next to your liver, in the right upper part of your abdomen. Gallstones can form inside the gallbladder when some bile stored inside it hardens into pebble-like pieces. Bile is required for fat digestion; it is made in your liver, stored in the gallbladder and secreted into your intestines whenever you eat some fat.
Bile is made up of a mixture of cholesterol, fats, water, protein, bile salts and bilirubin. Bilirubin is a waste product and it gives the stool its brownish colour. Gallstones can either be made of cholesterol or bilirubin; cholesterol stones are far more common. It is not surprising that bile contains a lot of cholesterol because this is the major way excess cholesterol is excreted from the body. The cholesterol in bile then gets excreted from the body in the stool. Gallstones vary in size; they can be as big as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand. The gallbladder can also contain sludge, which is bile that has thickened and is likely to develop into gallstones.
If gallstones move out of the gallbladder they can block a duct that carries bile from the liver to the intestines. This can cause pain in the upper abdominal area, nausea, pain in the right shoulder and indigestion. The gallbladder can become infected if this is left to progress, or the pancreas can become inflamed due to its proximity to the gallbladder. Sometimes a gallstone can become trapped in a duct and this can be extremely painful and require immediate surgery.
Why do gallstones develop?
The health of your gallbladder is determined by the health of your liver. If your liver is not functioning well it will produce poor quality bile that is likely to form sludge and stones. People with a liver condition such as fatty liver, cirrhosis, or biliary tract infections are more likely to get gallstones.
Other risk factors for gallstones include:
- Obesity. Even being slightly overweight increases your chances of having gallstones. Overweight people usually have high levels of blood fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides. These fats end up in the gallbladder and are more likely to form stones.
- Being female. Women are at double the risk of gallstones than men. The hormone oestrogen, whether naturally produced in excess, or in hormone replacement therapy or contraceptives, increases the amount of cholesterol in bile.
- Poor diet. Diets high in flour and sugar increase the risk of gallstones because the liver converts high carbohydrate foods into fat. Diets high in vegetable oil, fried food and margarine increase the risk of gallstones because more fat ends up in the bile, and the fat reduces the ability of the gallbladder to empty.
- Diabetes. Diabetics are at increased risk because they usually have high triglycerides.
- Rapid weight loss. Going on a crash diet and losing weight extremely quickly increases the risk of gallstones because the body attempts to excrete a lot of fat in a short amount of time.
- Cholesterol lowering drugs. These drugs increase cholesterol excretion into bile, therefore increase the risk of stone formation.
What to do if you have gallstones
Many people have some gallstones in their gallbladder that are detected during an examination for another condition. They can remain there for life and not cause any health problems.
However, if you do not take good care of your health, and particularly your liver, you run the risk of these stones growing and multiplying, and causing pain and discomfort. If gallstones are causing you a great deal of discomfort, it is advisable to have your gallbladder removed. It is usually too late to try and dissolve the stones naturally. Ignoring the pain increases the risk of infection and inflammation in your gallbladder and surrounding organs.
If you have gallstones that are not yet causing a great deal of discomfort, it is possible to shrink them and eventually dissolve them.
To achieve that we recommend the following:
- Look at the risk factors above and try not to fall into any of those categories (apart from being female of course).
- Base your diet on vegetables, salads, fruit, protein (fish, chicken, eggs, meat), legumes, nuts and seeds. Avoid consuming large quantities of sugar, flour, grains and cereals, as the liver converts these foods into fat.
- Avoid fried foods, margarine and large quantities of oily foods such as cheese and cream.
- Lose weight if you are overweight but do so gradually. Don’t try and lose weight as fast as you can; make the goal keeping the weight off for the rest of your life (this is harder to achieve).
- Follow the healthy eating principles in our book called The Healthy Liver and Bowel Book. You will find more detailed information about gallstones in it.
- Before breakfast drink a cup of warm water with the juice of half a lemon. This is an excellent way to stimulate bile flow and cleanse the gallbladder. The spice turmeric is also excellent for cleansing the gallbladder.
- Take a good liver tonic that will increase the production and flow of bile through your liver and gallbladder. The herbs Milk Thistle, Dandelion and Globe Artichoke, found in Livatone help to achieve this.
If you have had your gallbladder removed it is vitally important that you take good care of your liver. Your liver must work harder now that your gallbladder is gone, and you are more prone to a fatty liver if you don’t look after yourself.