Most people with gallstones never develop any symptoms and may never even know they have them at all. Gallstones are nothing more than digestive fluid that hardens in your gallbladder, forming hard little stones; if these move unimpeded through your body, you typically won’t require treatment. If one should block your bile ducts, however, you can experience sudden pain, and such attacks often require gallbladder removal surgery.
Researchers remain unclear on just what causes gallstones, though there’s evidence that diet and gut health play a role. Because of this, doctors have begun to suggest that certain gut-friendly habits might decrease their frequency and severity.
What are Gallstones?
Our guts break down the foods we eat to allow us to digest them. Guts are complicated ecosystems involving multiple organs, organisms, and chemicals. When those organisms and chemicals aren’t in balance for one reason or another, we can develop larger health issues.
One of the chemicals in the gut is bile, a digestive fluid produced in the gallbladder and released into the small intestine. If the bile contains too much bilirubin (a byproduct of hemoglobin breakdown), too much cholesterol, or not enough bile salts, the fluid can harden into chunks ranging in size from a grain of rice to a golf ball.
Many of us have gallstones and never know it. These are referred to as “silent stones.” However, if a gallstone should grow too large or block a bile duct, it causes immediate and intense pain, usually on the right side of the abdomen. This is known as a “gallbladder attack.”
If gallbladder attacks go untreated, they can lead to more serious complications, including inflammation and life-threatening infections in the liver, pancreas, or the bile ducts themselves.
Doctors can use a variety of treatments to dissolve gallstones, but in most the gallbladder must be removed altogether, a surgery known as cholecystectomy. Clearly, the best treatment for gallstones is to prevent them from forming in the first place.
What Are Some Symptoms of Gallstones?
The most obvious sign of gallstones is a sudden onset of pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen, pain that rapidly increases in intensity. The pain can last from thirty minutes to several hours. It may be accompanied by a number of other symptoms as well:
- Indigestion: Heartburn, upset stomach, belching, or gas can all be signs of a gallstone attack.
- Nausea and vomiting: Gallstone attacks often escalate from simple indigestion to nausea and vomiting.
- Upper body pain: In addition to your right abdomen, gallstone attack pain can manifest between your shoulder blades, in your right shoulder, or in the center of your abdomen just below the breastbone.
- Fever or chills: As your body reacts to inflammation, you may experience a fever, which can often produce chills.
- Jaundice: Jaundice is a yellowing of the eyes or skin caused by an excess of billirubin in your body. Thus, it may also accompany gallstone attacks.
- Tea-colored urine or light-colored stools: Finally, unusual changes in urine or stool color can be a sign of an attack.
Immediate Treatment for a Gallstone Attack
If you should have signs that indicate gallstones, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. They may be able to treat the problem without surgery.
However, if you are experiencing a gallstone attack accompanied by severe abdominal pain, jaundice, or high fever, you should seek help immediately.
The most common intervention in the case of a gallstone attack requiring hospitalization is gallbladder removal surgery, because at that point the condition has become life-threatening. In addition to the risks that are always associated with surgery, removing the gallbladder causes long-term health care problems. Among these, in the absence of a gallbladder, bile now flows directly from your liver into your small intestines. This can cause frequent diarrhea. Unfortunately, you often don’t know you have a problem with gallstones until you experience an attack, which means gallbladder removal surgery is typically the most likely outcome if you do have them.
Preventative Treatments: Weight Loss
Obesity has been linked to gallstone formation, especially in women. If you are overweight, weight loss can be key to reducing your risk of developing gallstones.
However, it’s important to lose weight slowly—no more than one or two pounds per week. Rapid weight loss has actually been linked to increased gallstones, as have activities like skipping meals and fasting. These cause the body to metabolize fat, which causes the liver to produce more bile, which in turn produces more gallstones. The best approach is to cut calories in a sensible way while increasing exercise.
Preventative Treatments: Changes in Diet
Simple changes in diet may also lower your risk of developing gallstones. Doctors recommend
- Eating more fiber, especially fruits and whole grains
- Eating fewer refined carbohydrates, especially sugar
- Eating more healthy fats, such as fish oil, olive oil, and nuts
- Eating fewer unhealthy fats, like those often found in fried foods and desserts
Preventative Treatments: Probiotics
Given just how central a role our guts play in our health, it’s no surprise that the overall microbiota composition of these sophisticated biomes may play a significant role in whether or not we develop gallstones. In fact, recent research has suggested that probiotics can be an effective method for preventing gallstones from developing in the first place.
Most of us don’t know if we have gallstones, and we can’t know when a gallstone might move to a bile duct and cause us to suffer an attack. They are yet another reason to eat a healthy diet, exercise, and maintain good overall gut health. As we continue to learn, we can eliminate many health complications if we treat our bodies well, particularly our guts.