8 ways you can prevent gallstones
If you’ve ever heard the adage, “A single stone can fell a giant,” then you understand the painful truth of a gallstone attack.
The story of gallstones starts with bile, a fluid made in the liver that helps digest fat. It’s a combination of water, cholesterol, fat, salt, bilirubin, and protein. Bile travels from your liver to your gallbladder, where it stays until it’s needed to help digest a meal. Once you’ve eaten, your gallbladder squeezes bile through tiny ducts, or tubes, and into your intestines to do its job.
The trouble usually begins when too much cholesterol, bile salts, or bilirubin builds up in the bile and stagnates in your gallbladder, where particles slowly form. These stones, as they’re called, can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball or egg. You can have a single gallstone or hundreds. The more stones you have or the larger they are, the more likely you are to have problems. Once they travel into the ducts and cause a blockage, those passageways become inflamed or infected, and you feel pain.
Your risk for gallstones rises after you hit 50, unless you’re physically active and keep a healthy weight. In addition, women, especially young women, are more likely to develop gallstones than men. Hormones explain the difference, scientists say. The “gender gap” narrows with age, so older men and women have a similar risk of gallstones.
Not everyone with gallstones has symptoms. Some people live a full life never knowing they have stones. But if a stone has blocked a duct, the pain is undeniable.
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Gallstone pain can attack suddenly, often after a high-fat meal when your gallbladder is trying to release bile. You may hurt in your upper abdomen, but the pain can fan out to the area between your shoulder blades. You may also feel bloating, gas, indigestion, or even nausea.
Here are a few of the simple diet and lifestyle changes experts recommend to prevent gallstones in the first place.
1. Favor fiber
Having too much cholesterol in your blood increases your risk of gallstones, but a high-fiber diet can help lower it. Here’s why. Gallstones are generally absent in people who consume lots of dietary fiber. But in modern societies, where we don’t automatically get a lot of fiber, our bodies reabsorb too much cholesterol. That’s why heart disease is so common nowadays, but it’s also how bile, supersaturated with cholesterol salts, forms gallstones.
If you’ve got soluble fiber in your intestines, it absorbs the bile that contains cholesterol salts and flushes them out of your body. Insoluble fiber helps, too, by moving digestive products along.
2. Take control of your weight
Being obese may significantly raise your risk of gallstones, particularly for women. So does high cholesterol associated with being overweight. Obese people who carry their extra weight around their middle have the most risk. Just remember — if you need to lose weight, do it gradually. An astonishing percentage of painful gallstone attacks, especially in women, are preceded by rapid weight loss. Crash diets don’t cause gallstones, but stones that have already formed in the gallbladder tend to move into the bile duct and cause painful spasms during ultra-low calorie diets.
3. Forsake fat
Too much saturated fat slows digestion, makes your gallbladder work overtime, and elevates cholesterol, the chief ingredient in most gallstones.
4. Say no to sweets and sugar
Sugar increases insulin production, which raises your cholesterol.
5. Keep drinking coffee
Good news for coffee lovers. Caffeine might help. A study found that men who drank two or three cups a day were less likely to develop painful stones than noncoffee drinkers. Another study found coffee relieved symptoms in women who already had gallstones.
6. Snack on nuts
Women who ate the most peanuts and other nuts had a 25 percent lower risk of having their gallbladders surgically removed than women who never or rarely ate nuts, according to a recent Harvard study. It’s possible the fatty acids in nuts, and other components, such as fiber, phytosterols, and magnesium, could contribute to the reduced risk of developing gallstones.
7. Change cholesterol with vitamin C
Most gallstone sufferers are women, but researchers have found that women with high levels of vitamin C have less gallbladder disease. Vitamin C may protect by helping to convert cholesterol into bile acids.
8. Talk with your doctor about estrogen risk
Scientists think estrogen may contribute to gallstones because it also increases the amount of cholesterol in your bile. Hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills are factors.
- FC&A Staff Writer