As a pearl is to an oyster, so a gallstone is to your gallbladder. A â€œseedâ€ of sand becomes the center around which a pearl forms. In a similar way, gallstones grow: A cholesterol or bile pigment â€œseedâ€ becomes the core of an unwelcome stone in your gallbladder.
There are significant differences, of course, between an oyster and your gallbladder. While an oyster shells out just one pearl at a time, your gallbladder can be a prodigious producerâ€”up to several thousand tiny ones the size of grains of sand, many marble-size, or one or two egg-size boulders. These are the kind of pearls you can cast before swine with no regret, and you can pay a great price in pain and illness before you have them removed.
No one knows why some people for gallstones and others donâ€™t, but there seem to be definite gender and genetic factors: Women are three times more likely than men to get gallstones, and they run in families. High cholesterol levels, obesity, too-rapid weight loss, and high insulin levels also appear to play roles. Yet by the age of 60, almost 30 percent of all adults have gallstones. One third to one half of these people donâ€™t even know they have themâ€”these stones are called â€œsilentâ€ because they donâ€™t produce symptoms, and itâ€™s considered best to leave them alone.
But in most cases they do cause painâ€”often intenseâ€”by lodging in the opening of the gallbladderâ€™s duct as the organ is squeezing its stored bile into the small intestine to aid in digestion. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the pain, until several hours later the stone gets stuck in the duct itself. A stone can block the flow of bile from the gallbladder and from the liver, where itâ€™s made, or interfere with the flow of pancreatic fluids. The result of these blockages can be inflammation and sever damage of the gallbladder, liver, and/or pancreasâ€”potentially fatal conditions.
So gallstones are nothing to fool around with. Thankfully, medication and surgery may treat them successfully and quickly. But you may even be able to prevent them.
How to Effectively Prevent Gallstones
If you were prone to gallstonesâ€”youâ€™re a woman, they run in your family, youâ€™re overweightâ€”wouldnâ€™t not getting them in the first place be the fastest, easiest way to hand them? Thereâ€™s some evidenceâ€”controversial evidenceâ€”that diet can reduce your chances of forming them.
Start your diet today. Several studies have shown that obesity is a major risk factor for gallstones. Itâ€™s a chain reaction: Cholesterol-rich bile is produced by the liver to aid digestion. Overweight people have more cholesterol in their bile because of their eating habits. But when thereâ€™s too much cholesterol in bile, stones can form in the gallbladder, where bile is stored until itâ€™s needed.
Itâ€™s also possible that insulin could be playing a role: It stimulates the body to make more cholesterol, and the fatter you are the more likely it is you have a higher-than-normal level of insulin.
Drop weight gradually. And do it under your doctorâ€™s watchful eye. Obese people on rapid-weight-loss diets increase their risk of developing gallstones. When 51 obese men and women went on a diet for eight weeks in one study, their average weight loss was more than 35 pounds. That sounds good, but on-fourth of them developed gallstones, and three of those needed gallbladder surgery.
This is one case where slow could prove to be faster than fast.
Preventing an Attack
When you have gallstones, and theyâ€™re causing problems, a doctor will have to treat them. There are several choices of treatment, including surgery and medication. But although you canâ€™t get rid of them yourself, there is one major way you may help prevent an attack.
Eat a fish, an apple, and a slice of whole wheat bread. The aim here is to cut way back on fatty foods, which may play a role in making gallstones act up. Eating fatty foods stimulates the gallbladder to contract, shooting bile into the intestines to help digest the fat.
If you have stones, it is thought that the contractions may squeeze them into the bile duct, bringing on an attack. So a low-fat diet can not only help you keep off unneeded pounds of fat; it may help prevent gallstone attack. A low-fat diet would be one with 25 percent of less of the calories coming from fat (1 gram of fat equals 9 calories).