What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are usually composed of cholesterol that has crystallized from bile. They form in the gallbladder or in the bile ducts. They may leave the gallbladder and lodge in the cystic duct, the common bile duct, or the ampulla of Vater.
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped sac located beneath the liver. It stores bile, a fluid that is produced by the liver and aids in digestion. When bile is needed, as when people eat, the gallbladder contracts, pushing bile through the bile ducts into the small intestine.
Most disorders of the gallbladder and bile ducts result from gallstones. The risk factors for gallstones include the following:
- Female sex
- Older age
- American Indian ethnicity
- Rapid weight loss (as results from a very low calorie diet or weight-loss surgery)
- A typical Western diet
- A family history of gallstones
Symptoms of gallbladder problems include:
Pain in the mid- or upper-right section of the abdomen: Most of the time, gallbladder pain comes and goes. However, pain from gallbladder problems ranges from mild and irregular to very severe, frequent pain. Gallbladder pain often causes pain in the chest and back.
It can be mild and intermittent, or it can be quite severe and frequent. In some cases, the pain can begin to radiate to other areas of the body, including the back and chest.
The most common symptom of a gallbladder problem is pain. This pain usually occurs in the mid- to upper-right section of your abdomen.
Nausea or vomiting: Any gallbladder problem may cause nausea or vomiting. Long-term gallbladder diseases and disorders may lead to long-standing digestive problems that cause frequent nausea.
Nausea or vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of all types of gallbladder problems. However, only chronic gallbladder disease may cause digestive problems, such as acid reflux and gas.
Fever or shaking chill: This signals an infection in the body. Alongside other gallbladder symptoms, fever and chills may point to a gallbladder problem or infection.
Fever or chills
Chills or an unexplained fever may signal that you have an infection. If you have an infection, you need treatment before it worsens and becomes dangerous. The infection can become life-threatening if it spreads to other parts of the body.
Changes in bowel movements: Gallbladder problems often cause changes in bowel habits. Frequent, unexplained diarrhea can signal a chronic gallbladder disease. Light-colored or chalky stools may point Chronic diarrhea
Having more than four bowel movements per day for at least three months may be a sign of chronic gallbladder disease.to a problem with the bile ducts.
Changes in urine: Patients suffering from gallbladder issues may notice darker than normal urine. Dark urine may indicate a bile duct block.
Unusual stools or urine
Lighter-colored stools and dark urine are possible signs of a common bile duct block.
Jaundice Yellowing of the skin occurs when liver bile does not successfully reach the intestines. This normally happens due to a problem with the liver or due to a blockage in the bile ducts caused by gallstones.
Yellow-tinted skin, or jaundice, may be a sign of a block or stone in the common bile duct. The common bile duct is the channel that leads from the gallbladder to the small intestine.
Potential gallbladder problems
Any disease that affects your gallbladder is considered a gallbladder disease. The following conditions are all gallbladder diseases.
Inflammation of the gallbladder
Inflammation of the gallbladder is called cholecystitis. It can be either acute (short-term), or chronic (long-term).
Chronic inflammation is the result of several acute cholecystitis attacks. Inflammation may eventually damage the gallbladder, making it lose its ability to function correctly.
Gallstones are small, hardened deposits that form in the gallbladder. These deposits can develop and go undetected for years.
In fact, many people have gallstones and aren’t aware of them. They eventually cause problems, including inflammation, infection, and pain. Gallstones typically cause acute cholecystitis.
Gallstones are usually very small, no more than a few millimeters wide. However, they can grow to several centimeters. Some people develop only one gallstone, while others develop several. As the gallstones grow in size, they can begin to block the channels that lead out of the gallbladder.
Most gallstones are formed from cholesterol found in the gallbladder’s bile. Another type of gallstone, a pigment stone, is formed from calcium bilirubinate. Calcium bilirubinate is a chemical that’s produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. This type of stone is rarer.
Explore this interactive 3-D diagram to learn more about the gallbladder and gallstones.
Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis)
When gallstones occur in the common bile duct, it’s known as choledocholithiasis. Bile is ejected from the gallbladder, passed through small tubes, and deposited in the common bile duct. It then enters the small intestine.
In most cases, common bile duct stones are actually gallstones that developed in the gallbladder and then passed into the bile duct. This type of stone is called a secondary common bile duct stone, or secondary stone.
Sometimes stones form in the common bile duct itself. These stones are called primary common bile duct stones, or primary stones. This rare type of stone is more likely to cause an infection than a secondary stone.
Gallbladder disease without stones
Gallstones don’t cause every type of gallbladder problem. Gallbladder disease without stones, also called acalculous gallbladder disease, can occur. In this case, you may experience symptoms commonly associated with gallstones without actually having stones.
Common bile duct infection
An infection may develop if the common bile duct is obstructed. Treatment for this condition is successful if the infection is found early. If it’s not, the infection may spread and become fatal.
Abscess of the gallbladder
A small percentage of people with gallstones may also develop pus in the gallbladder. This condition is called empyema.
Pus is a combination of white blood cells, bacteria, and dead tissue. The development of pus, also known as an abscess, leads to severe abdominal pain. If empyema isn’t diagnosed and treated, it can become life-threatening as the infection spreads to other parts of the body.
A gallstone may travel into the intestine and block it. This condition, known as gallstone ileus, is rare but can be fatal. It’s most common among individuals who are older than 65 years old.
If you wait too long to seek treatment, gallstones can lead to a perforated gallbladder. This is a life-threatening condition. If the tear isn’t detected, a dangerous, widespread abdominal infection may develop.
Polyps are abnormal tissue growths. These growths are typically benign, or noncancerous. Small gallbladder polyps may not need to be removed. In most cases, they don’t pose any risk to you or your gallbladder.
However, larger polyps may need to be surgically removed before they develop into cancer or cause other problems.
A healthy gallbladder has very muscular walls. Over time, calcium deposits can stiffen the gallbladder walls, making them rigid. This condition is called porcelain gallbladder.
If you have this condition, you have a high risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
Gallbladder cancer is rare. If it’s not detected and treated, it can spread beyond the gallbladder quickly.
If a doctor suspects a patient has a gallbladder problem, they will likely order the following:
Imaging tests of the gallbladder: Ultrasound and CT scans are commonly used to image the gallbladder. These will then be checked for gallstones.
Tests to examine bile ducts: These tests use dye to show if a gallstone is causing a blockage in the bile ducts. Tests to check the bile ducts for stones include MRI, hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scans, and an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
Blood tests: Doctors can use blood tests to reveal signs of infection, inflammation of the bile ducts, pancreatitis, or other complications caused by gallstones.
Gallstones and cholecystitis are treatable conditions.
Gallstones that do not cause symptoms will not need immediate treatment other than an alert for potential future gallbladder problems.
However, gallstones that cause symptoms or infections of the gallbladder do need treatment.
Treatment options include surgically removing the gallbladder, medications to break up gallstones, and antibiotics to treat infections.
How food affects the gallbladder
The gallbladder is a small organ located below the liver. It stores bile produced by the liver, and releases the bile into the small intestine to help digest food.
The gallbladder is a sensitive organ, and maintaining a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods helps keep it in perfect health. Certain foods can protect and promote a healthy gallbladder, while others increase the likelihood of problems like inflammation or gallstones.
If your gallbladder isn’t kept in good health, it may need to be removed. So eating a gallbladder-healthy diet is essential.
Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Gallstones
Can what I eat help prevent gallstones?
You can lower your risk of gallstones by following a healthy eating plan External link and getting regular physical activity to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables is the best way to improve and protect your gallbladder’s health. Fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients and fiber, the latter of which is essential to a healthy gallbladder.
Some of the listed foods are either high in vitamin C, calcium, or B vitamins, which are also good for your gallbladder.
It’s thought that eating more plant-based protein could also help prevent gallbladder disease. Foods like beans, nuts, lentils, tofu, and tempeh (as long as you aren’t allergic to soy) are excellent alternatives for red meat.
Experts recommend the following to help prevent gallstones:
- Eat more foods that are high in fiber, such as
- fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas.
- 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.
Foods that aggravate your gallbladder
Avoid the following foods for a healthy gallbladder diet:
- vegetable oil
- peanut oil
- refined white foods (breads, pastas, etc.)
- foods high in fat
- processed foods
You should avoid certain foods to help protect your gallbladder. The biggest problem foods are high-fat and processed foods. Foods that are greasy or fried in oils like vegetable oil and peanut oil are more difficult to break down and can cause gallbladder problems.
Foods with trans fats, like those in processed or commercially baked products, can also be harmful to gallbladder health.
Avoiding refined white foods, like white pastas, breads, and sugars, can protect your gallbladder. You should also avoid alcohol and tobacco.
Gallbladder diet after surgery
If you need to have your gallbladder removed, you’ll likely experience diarrhea and loose stools in the weeks after surgery. This is due to the more continuous release of bile into your intestines.
To reduce these side effects, avoid these foods after gallbladder surgery:
- foods containing more than 3 grams of fat
- greasy, fried, or processed foods
- cream sauces or gravies
- full-fat dairy
Instead, eat high-fiber foods that are low in fat. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should eat foods with less than 3 grams of fat per serving. Increase your fiber slowly, and start with soluble fiber, like oats. You can also eat smaller meals on a more frequent basis.
Talk with your health care professional before you make any changes to your eating plan. Losing weight too quickly may cause health problems. Very low-calorie diets and weight-loss surgery can lead to rapid weight loss and raise your risk of gallstones. Learn more about weight-loss, dieting, and gallstones.