Galling gallstones

Gallstones have become a familiar – and painful – reality in modern-day North America. Let me tell you a bit more about the whys and hows of these nasty fellas.

What exactly does the gallbladder do?

The gallbladder is a small but important organ tucked beneath the liver. The liver is the king of detoxification in the body – it excretes toxins mixed with bile, which route first through the neighbouring gallbladder. The gallbladder hangs on to the bile until food makes its entry into the small intestine, triggering the release of the bile. Bile then performs its duties as a digestive agent, primarily focused on digesting fats. Ultimately, the toxins are removed from the body via feces.

So…why do I have gallstones?

There are 4 types of gallstones: pure cholesterol, pure pigment, mixed (cholesterol + other bile salts and pigments), and those composed of only minerals. Most individuals develop the mixed variety (about 80% of cases); and 20% of incidents of gallstones are those composed entirely of minerals.

While it may feel that you have suddenly developed gallstones, they actually don’t materialize that quickly. In fact, the formation of gallstones occurs in stages, and typically, symptoms don’t arise until about 8 years following initial formation. Gallstones arise when the concentration of a normal bile component becomes too high. They form as hard-packed crystals that may block the flow of bile, resulting in the inability to digest fatty foods after they’ve been eaten. Thus, the discomfort begins.

The presenting symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, and pain in the upper right abdominal area.

If you’ve got gallstones, you are at an increased risk of developing inflammation of the gallbladder, or gallbladder disease/attack. Symptoms are even more severe and may include: intense pain the upper right abdomen, fever, nausea, vomiting, tea/coffee-coloured urine, shaking, chills, and jaundice. 

A low-fiber/high-fat diet, obesity, gender (female), and age (40-50 years old) are all risk factors for developing gallstones. Specific dietary factors can help significantly in preventing and treating gallstones. It is important to increase the solubility of cholesterol in bile, and therapeutic intervention includes modifying the diet.

What are the best foods to eat and what foods should I avoid?

Improving your diet can play a significant role in preventing gallstones. And if you’ve unfortunately already been diagnosed with gallstones, you, too, will benefit immensely from a dietary clean-up.

Here are some nutritional tips to avoid gallbladder/gallstone distress:

  • increase your fiber intake – include whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables
  • avoid highly-refined carbohydrates – these are your typical boxed, processed foods made with refined flours and sugar; instead, eat brown rice, quinoa, large-flake or steel-cut oats, whole grain pastas and breads
  • avoid unhealthy fats – too much animal fat is a no-no; include lean cuts of meat, poultry, and olive oil
  • get your vitamin C – you need this vitamin to properly synthesize bile; eat broccoli, red peppers, strawberries, and kiwifruit
  • try buckwheat – this terrific wheat alternative enhances bile acid synthesis
  • sprinkle turmeric on your food – this anti-inflammatory spice also helps to improve the solubility of bile
  • discover your food sensitivities/allergies and remove these from your diet – some foods that may induce gallbladder attacks include: eggs, pork, onions, milk, coffee, citrus fruits, corn

Yo-yo dieting and carrying too much weight around your mid-section may also predispose you to gallstones.

With a few sensible changes to your diet, you can greatly increase your health status to help prevent an unwanted diagnosis of gallstones.