by Dr. Thomas K. Lo, Advanced Chiropractic & Nutritional Healing Center
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that stores bile and is located in your upper right abdomen, below your liver.
Gallstones are hard, pebble-like pieces of material, usually made of cholesterol or bilirubin, that form in your gallbladder. They can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. The gallbladder can make one large gallstone, hundreds of tiny stones, or both small and large stones.
When gallstones block the bile ducts of your biliary tract, the gallstones can cause sudden pain in your upper right abdomen. This pain is a gallbladder attack, or biliary colic.
However, most gallstones do not cause blockages and are painless, called “silent” gallstones.
The two main types of gallstones are cholesterol stones and pigment stones.
Cholesterol stones are usually yellow-green in color and are made of mostly hardened cholesterol. In some countries, cholesterol stones make up about 75 percent of gallstones.
Pigment stones are dark in color and are made of bilirubin. Some people have a mix of both kinds of stones.
The Biliary Tract
Your biliary tract, which is made up of your gallbladder and bile ducts, helps with digestion by releasing bile.
The bile ducts of your biliary tract include the hepatic ducts, common bile duct, and cystic duct. Bile ducts also carry waste and digestive juices from the liver and pancreas to the duodenum.
Your liver produces bile, which is mostly made of cholesterol, bile salts, and bilirubin. Your gallbladder stores the bile until needed. When you eat, your body signals your gallbladder to empty bile into your duodenum to mix with food. The bile ducts carry the bile from your gallbladder to the duodenum.
How Common Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are very common, affecting 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population—almost 25 million people.
Certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing gallstones than others.
Women are more likely to develop gallstones than men. Women who have extra estrogen in their body due to pregnancy, hormone-replacement therapy, or birth control pills may be more likely to produce gallstones. As you age, the chance of developing gallstones becomes higher. People with a family history of gallstones have a higher risk.
American Indians have genes that raise the amount of cholesterol in their bile and have the highest rate of gallstones in the United States. Mexican Americans are also at higher risk of developing gallstones.
In addition, people with certain health conditions are more likely to develop gallstones, especially if you have one of the following health conditions: cirrhosis, a condition in which your liver slowly breaks down and stops working due to chronic or long-lasting injury or infections in the bile ducts, which can also be a complication of gallstones; Crohn’s disease; high triglyceride levels; low HDL cholesterol; metabolic syndrome; diabetes and insulin resistance.
Those who are obese or have had fast weight loss, been on a diet high in calories and refined carbohydrates and low in fiber, are also more likely to develop gallstones.
If gallstones block your bile ducts, bile could build up in your gallbladder, causing a gallbladder attack, sometimes called biliary colic. Gallbladder attacks usually cause pain in your upper right abdomen, sometimes lasting several hours. Gallbladder attacks often follow heavy meals and usually occur in the evening or during the night. If you have had one gallbladder attack, more attacks will likely follow.
Gallbladder attacks usually stop when gallstones move and no longer block the bile ducts. However, if any of your bile ducts stay blocked for more than a few hours, you may develop gallstone complications. Gallstones that do not block your bile ducts do not cause symptoms.
A gallstone attack may cause pain in your abdomen, lasting several hours; nausea and vomiting; fever—even a low-grade fever—or chills; yellowish color of your skin or the whites of your eyes, called jaundice; tea-colored urine, and light-colored stools.
These symptoms can also be signs of a serious infection or inflammation of the liver or pancreas.
Possible Causes & Preventions
Gallstones may form if bile contains too much cholesterol, too much bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. Researchers do not fully understand why these changes in bile occur. Gallstones also may form if the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough.
Healthy food choices may lower your chances of developing gallstones.
Experts recommend that you eat more foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas, as well as whole grains, including brown rice, oats, and whole wheat bread. Eat fewer refined carbohydrates and less sugar. Eat healthy fats, like fish oil and olive oil, to help your gallbladder contract and empty on a regular basis. Avoid unhealthy fats, like those often found in desserts and fried foods. In addition, lose weight safely if you are overweight or obese; try to maintain a healthy weight through healthy eating and regular physical activity.
If you are struggling with health issues, call the Advanced Chiropractic & Nutritional Healing Center at 240-651-1650 for a free consultation. Dr. Lo uses Nutritional Response Testing® to analyze the body to determine the underlying causes of ill or non-optimum health.
The office is located at 7310 Grove Road #107 in Frederick. Check out the website at www.doctorlo.com.
*Sources: National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).