Gallstones can go unrecognized. For such a tiny organ, those who do experience gallbladder pain can go from not knowing it exists to being acutely aware. A lot of people have gallstones, and a lot of people don’t report to have any problems with them. The stones reside in the gallbladder – a pear-shaped organ beneath the liver – and tend to not to cause complications. It’s when the gallstones become stuck in the common bile duct, obstructing the flow of digestive fluids, that complications occur. There are many possible causes of gallstones.
So, What Causes Gallstones?
Gallstones can be made up of either undissolved cholesterol or the excess of a substance in our bile known as bilirubin. As we said previously, most people who have gallstones will never experience gallbladder pain and will be able to live their lives ignorant of them. For those of us who aren’t so lucky, gallstones can strike us when we least expect it. There are, however, several causes of gallstones that we can examine in an attempt to prevent a gallbladder attack.
Gallstones are thought to form due to chemical imbalances of the bile inside of our gallbladder. Bile is a green or dark-yellow fluid that is produced by the liver of most mammals and acts as a digestion aid in the small intestine. After bile has been produced by the liver, it then travels to the gallbladder to be stored for release. There are two types of common bile imbalance: Cholesterol and Bilirubin.
High Levels of Cholesterol
Four-in-five gallstones are made up of cholesterol, making these cholesterol-based gallstones are the most common. They appear yellow in color and form when our bile contains too much cholesterol for the liver to dissolve. When the liver excretes more cholesterol than it does bile, this imbalance tends to result in gallstones.
Too Much Bilirubin
Also known as pigment gallstones, these rarer dark-brown-to-black gallstones are formed when our bile contains an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a bile pigment that is formed during the natural breakdown of hemoglobin – more commonly known as red blood cells. If your body is producing an excess amount of bilirubin, there’s a chance that you’re undergoing problems with your liver. Diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver can be to blame for an excess of bilirubin, but blood disorders and tract infections have been known to cause similar results.
High-Fat and Processed Foods
A bad diet is one of the most common causes of gallstones. When diagnosed with gallstones or gallbladder problems, your doctor will put you on a low-fat diet. High-fat foods are to blame for a large percentage of gallstones that eventually cause problems. Foods such as cheese, french fries, butter, bacon, and pizza can trigger a gallbladder attack. Good old cholesterol strikes again.
Weight and Obesity
Somewhat linked to a high-fat or heavily-processed diet, patients who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer from gallstones than healthier counterparts. While the reasons behind why obesity is a risk factor for gallstones is unclear and not yet scientifically proven, scientists believe it has a lot to do with the liver processing excess cholesterol. On the other hand, rapid weight loss can also be a causing factor.
Some organs are just structured wrongly. In some cases of gallstones, the cause can be due to a misshapen or dysfunctional gallbladder rather than any outside factors. If your gallbladder has problems functioning, a highly-concentrated build-up of bile can occur inside of and around it. Thus forming gallstones that can block the entryway from the gallbladder to the bile duct.
Family History and Genetics
Genetic factors such as the way our bodies are formed or the mere make-up of our DNA can also cause gallstones. Gallstones are seen more commonly in women, for example, who are twice as likely to suffer with them than men. This is because too much estrogen can increase levels of cholesterol in the bile, which can then form gallstones. Doctors will tend to ask you whether or not you have a family history of gallbladder problems or gallstones. Unfortunately, gallbladder diseases can be genetic.
Who is More At Risk of Gallstones?
There are several risk factors for gallstones that are, largely, out of our control. Some of these risk factors are:
- Gender: Women are twice as likely to develop gallstones than men
- Pregnancy: Excess estrogen can create excess cholesterol which can, in turn, form gallstones
- Age: Those over the age of 60 are more likely to experience gallstones or gallbladder problems due to cholesterol
What Can I Do to Prevent Gallstones?
While you can’t do anything to prevent the aforementioned risk factors, there are steps you can take to try to prevent gallstones. Some of the steps that you can take to change your chances are:
- Diet: Switching to a low-fat diet will decrease your chances of gallstones that create a problem. Ousting problematic foods can be a prime way to lose weight steadily. Losing weight steadily will also decrease your risk factors.
- Alcohol: Excessive consumption of alcohol will result in liver damage. Liver damage will then create an excess of bilirubin that will form into gallstones, causing jaundice and a manner of other conditions.
- Lifestyle: Making slight lifestyle adjustments can work out in the long-run. Exercise will keep you motivated and healthy. Eating regular meals will stop the sporadic bile production from skipping them, and drinking more water will improve your overall health tenfold.