Your gallbladder plays an important role in the digestive process. It releases a fluid, called bile, into the intestines when food needs to be digested. However, sometimes bile can harden and form deposits in your gallbladder. When this happens, the condition is known as gallstones.
It’s important to understand that, while some people experience painful symptoms as a result of this condition, others experience no symptoms at all. That’s why it’s important to heed your doctor’s advice if you’ve been diagnosed with gallstones. Patients who experience painful symptoms may need to undergo surgery or a similar treatment to address the problem. On the other hand, some patients who don’t experience symptoms require no treatment at all (Source).
It’s also worth noting that there are some steps you can take to prevent gallstones from developing. If you do suffer from them, but your condition isn’t serious enough to warrant major medical treatment, you may also want to manage your gallstones with home and natural remedies. Every patient’s needs are different. There are many instances in which a patient with gallstones doesn’t need direct medical intervention. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from other interventions.
The following guide will help you better understand what gallstones are, what types of symptoms you may experience if you have them, and what you can do about them.
Understanding What Causes Gallstones
The first thing you should understand about gallstones is simply the fact that there are two different types:
- Cholesterol Stones – These are the most common form of gallstones. They typically look yellow and/or green in color.
- Pigment Stones – These smaller gallstones tend to look black and/or brown. They develop because your bile contains excessive amounts of bilirubin (Source).
As of now, the scientific and medical communities have not reached a consensus regarding the cause of gallstones. That said, researchers who have studied this condition have developed some theories.
One theory is that gallstones form when the liver excretes too much cholesterol. Typically, your bile serves to dissolve cholesterol excreted by the liver. If the liver produces more cholesterol than bile can dissolve, a gallstone may form. This is one reason why people who are at a greater risk than the average patient of developing gallstones are often encouraged to reduce their overall cholesterol.
There may also be instances in which gallstones form because the liver generates too much bilirubin. Several conditions may cause this to occur, including liver cirrhosis.
It’s also possible that gallstones form if the gallbladder fails to release bile correctly. Sometimes the gallbladder doesn’t release enough bile at a given time, or it fails to release bile as often as it’s supposed to. This can lead to large concentrations of bile in the gallbladder which may result in gallstones (Source).
Regardless of the cause, if you do develop gallstones, listening to your doctor’s advice and taking all steps they recommend is important. It’s also important to understand what factors may put you at a greater-than-average risk of suffering from gallstones in the first place. While you may not be able to exercise any control over some of these factors, there are others that you can certainly exercise some control over. Knowing what those factors are makes it easier for patients to prevent gallstones.
Risk Factors Related to Gallstones
As is often the case with these types of conditions, some people are at a greater risk than others of developing gallstones. The following are some of the more significant risk factors to keep in mind:
- Being female
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being over the age of 40
- Eating a diet high in fat and/or cholesterol
- Eating a diet low in fiber
- Liver disease
- Family history of gallstones
If any of these risk factors apply to you, be sure to speak with your physician about monitoring yourself for signs of gallstones. They’ll let you know what types of warning signs to look out for, as well as what you can do to reduce your risk of developing them.
That said, this guide will also share important information about preventing gallstones. Now that you know what can put you at a greater risk of developing them, you can also learn what steps you should take to limit your risk.
Signs & Symptoms of Gallstones
Again, it’s important to understand that not everyone who suffers from gallstones will experience symptoms. That’s one more reason to stay in touch with your doctor if you’re the type of person who is at a greater risk than average of developing this condition. Even if you don’t notice any signs of a problem, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, nor does it mean that you won’t develop symptoms in the future. You’re much better off taking a proactive approach. If a doctor identifies the early warning signs of a gallstone problem, you may be able to make adjustments to your diet or lifestyle to prevent the problem from getting worse.
That being said, people who do experience symptoms tend to notice they predominantly affect the stomach area. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of gallstones. So is pain, which typically strikes the area around the upper belly and back. This pain can last for several hours. Some patients with gallstones also experience bloating, indigestion, and similar problems (Source).
If you experience intense abdominal pain, especially the kind that makes it difficult to sit still comfortably, contact your doctor right away. You should also contact a physician immediately if you notice yellowing of the skin or eyes, or if you develop a high fever accompanied by chills (Source). While many of these symptoms overlap with other conditions, it’s important not to assume that they’re related to something less threatening, like a minor stomach virus. This is especially important to keep in mind if they persist for a long period of time. Rather than assuming you’re not at risk, contact your doctor and let them take a closer look.
That’s something that bears repeating. Don’t ignore your symptoms if you notice any. While some people who suffer from gallstones may not suffer any additional complications, this condition can lead to other problems. Some of these can have a major impact on your quality of life. In certain instances, gallstones can even lead to complications which further put your overall health at risk.
For example, severe pain tends to accompany gallstones if they become lodged in the gallbladder’s neck. When a gallstone gets lodged in this area, it can result in chronic inflammation, which in turn leads to very intense pain.
Some gallstones can also block the bile duct, potentially resulting in jaundice and/or infection. Gallstones may also block the pancreatic duct. This leads to inflammation and typically involves intense abdominal pain that doesn’t easily dissipate. That’s why many physicians recommend being screened for gallstones if you suffer from pancreatitis or a related condition.
You should also know that people who have gallstones or have suffered from them in the past tend to be at a greater risk of developing gallbladder cancer. Granted, the risk is still relatively low, but it’s still significant. If you have gallstones or have in the past, keep in touch with your doctor and make sure you get screened for gallbladder cancer when your physician recommends it (Source).
Major Medical Treatment Options
Only a qualified physician can determine whether a patient requires treatment for gallstones. There are a variety of tests they may rely on to confirm their diagnosis. These diagnostic methods include blood tests, taking images of gallstones, and using special (safe) dyes to highlight the bile ducts, where gallstones are often found (Source). If they do recommend treatment, be sure to heed their advice.
One major form of treatment involves surgical removal of the gallbladder. This is typically recommended for patients who frequently develop gallstones. Even if another treatment method is effective, it may be best to simply remove the gallbladder entirely if a doctor concludes that a patient will simply continue to develop gallstones in the future without surgical intervention.
Although it’s natural to feel concerned when a doctor recommends a treatment that involves the surgical removal of an organ, you shouldn’t worry if your doctor deems the treatment necessary. This procedure is safe, as the gallbladder is actually not an essential organ. When it’s removed, bile from the liver simply enters the intestines directly. The only difference is that it will no longer remain stored in the gallbladder. You’ll still be able to digest food naturally and are unlikely to experience many significant side effects. The only major side effect patients typically report after undergoing this procedure is diarrhea. That said, many find this symptom goes away over time. It’s certainly a small price to pay for treating a significant medical condition that can otherwise cause major discomfort.
However, some patients experience symptoms that may not be severe enough to warrant surgery. For patients with less severe cases of gallstones, medication may be the proper treatment. Certain medications can be effective at dissolving gallstones. That being said, patients should understand that it can take years for this treatment to completely dissolve them. Additionally, if a patient stops treatment, there’s a good chance that gallstones will develop again in the future (Source).
Of course, while both these treatment options can be effective, you probably would prefer to avoid suffering from gallstones in the first place. That’s why you should keep the following tips in mind. They’ll help you reduce your risk of developing them.
How to Prevent Gallstones
Maintain a Proper Diet
A healthy diet is the most important factor you can control when it comes to preventing gallstones.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that means you should restrict your caloric intake dramatically. Too many people believe that consuming fewer calories is the best way to switch to a healthy diet. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, consuming too few calories over the course of a day can actually increase a person’s risk of developing gallstones. People who experiment with diets that involve the consumption of fewer than 800 calories a day are at a greater risk than the average person of suffering from this condition (Source).
A balanced diet will help you maintain the physical conditions necessary to limit your risk of gallstones. Many of the remaining tips in this article will give you a better sense of what types of foods you should consume more often, and what types you should avoid.
Eat Your Fiber
Consuming a proper amount of fiber is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy diet. That means making sure you’re eating raw fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Many cereals are also high in fiber. Check the label and nutrition facts on any cereals you purchase, and seek out those that specifically contain high amounts of fiber. You can also get a decent amount of fiber from dried, cooked beans.
Boosting your fiber intake and maintaining a relatively low fat intake helps prevent gallstones because it ensures cholesterol is more likely to remain in its liquid form (Source).
Add Olive Oil
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, olive oil is relatively high in fat, and people who are trying to prevent gallstones are encouraged to stick to a relatively low-fat diet.
That said, while you shouldn’t consume an excessive amount of olive oil, incorporating more of it into your diet actually may help prevent gallstones. That’s because olive oil contains an ingredient that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels in the gallbladder. It can also reduce cholesterol levels in your blood.
In fact, researchers have found a correlation between the frequency of gallstones in patients and proximity to olive oil abundant regions. In general, populations that live in areas where olive oil is abundant and accessible tend to develop gallstones at lower rates than other populations (Source).
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Crash diets, which help people lose weight very quickly, have been linked to a greater risk of gallstones. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you should try to avoid losing weight in general if you want to prevent this condition.
One of the most significant risk factors for developing gallstones is obesity. Obese people are typically more likely to suffer from gallstones than others. That’s the main reason a healthy diet is important. If you eat nutritious foods, avoid consuming too much fat, and consume a sensible amount of calories a day, you’ll be more likely to maintain a healthy weight. That means you’ll also be more likely to avoid gallstones.
While both extremes can cause gallstones, so can frequent weight fluctuations. Researchers have found that people who frequently lose weight, gain weight, and lose it again in a continuous cycle are also at a greater risk of suffering from gallstones. Thus, it’s very important to be consistent in your diet and fitness routine. Bouncing back and forth between different weights can have a major impact on your health and wellbeing (Source).
Exercise offers a wide range of health benefits. It guards against heart disease, promotes mental health, and can even help prevent sleep issues.
Exercise has also been linked to a reduced risk of developing gallstones.
It’s easy to understand why this may be the case. Again, you’re more likely to suffer from this condition if you’re overweight or obese. Luckily, if you exercise on a regular basis, you’re less likely to become overweight or obese (Source).
That’s not the only reason it’s a smart idea to stick to a fitness regimen if you’re trying to prevent gallstones. Again, having a sedentary lifestyle has also been shown to increase your chances of developing them. That’s because, when you’re sedentary, the digestive system and process tends to slow down. This means your gallbladder won’t release bile as efficiently as possible. Even a moderate amount of exercise, like 30 minutes a day, can ensure your digestive system continues to work effectively (Source).
Don’t Skip Any Meals
You already know that you should maintain a consistent diet to reduce your chances of developing gallstones. However, while some people understand that their overall diet should remain consistent, they may also assume that they can still skip meals from time to time.
That’s not something you want to do if you’re trying to avoid gallstones. When you skip meals, bile that was supposed to digest food your body expected to have instead builds up and accumulates in the gallbladder. This boosts your odds of developing this condition.
That’s why many experts recommend eating several small meals throughout the course of a day. This is a good strategy to ensure your gallbladder is releasing bile on a consistent basis (Source).
It’s no secret that many people in the modern world rely on their morning coffee to keep themselves focused and energized throughout the day. Unfortunately, many of those people believe that they should try to not consume their favorite morning beverage if they want to improve their overall health.
This doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, if you’re developing a program for avoiding gallstones, drinking a cup of coffee a day might actually be good for you. Research indicates that consuming a moderate amount of coffee can actually reduce blood cholesterol levels. That means, along with helping you prepare for the day, your morning cup of coffee could actually reduce your risk of developing gallstones (Source).
Avoid Risky Medications
Before you read the following point, you should keep in mind that it’s always important to listen to the advice of your doctor if they prescribe a medication. While some medications may carry risks, they can also be extremely necessary for other purposes. If you’ve been prescribed any of the following types of medications, but you’re also concerned about developing gallstones, discuss other options with your physician. They may be able to recommend safer alternatives. On the other hand, if they insist this is the safest and most effective medication for your condition, take their advice.
That said, there are certain types of medications that have been linked with an increased risk of developing gallstones.
For instance, some drugs designed to reduce the levels of cholesterol in a patient’s blood can actually be risky. Again, this is a point that may seem counterintuitive. After all, if you’re trying to prevent gallstones, don’t you want to reduce your cholesterol levels?
Technically, yes. But some medications designed to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood actually result in more cholesterol being released into the gallbladder.
Luckily, not all medications designed for this purpose will yield this result. Your doctor may be able to recommend another option. It’s worth asking if you believe you’re already at a greater-than-average risk of developing gallstones.
Women who undergo hormone replacement therapy may also be at an increased risk. That’s because estrogen causes the body to produce more estrogen. This can also happen if a woman takes a high dose of birth control pills (Source).
Again, while you should certainly listen to your doctor’s advice when they prescribe a medication or treatment, if you’re concerned about the impact this treatment can have on your risk of developing gallstones, bring your concerns up with the doctor. There are some instances when physicians can prescribe other treatment methods.
Avoid Certain Foods
To better understand how you can maintain a diet that reduces your risk of developing gallstones, it helps to know what specific foods you should avoid. After all, when you read that you should try to limit your fat intake, you probably assumed that included avoiding olive oil. You later learned that’s not always the case.
If you’re trying to cut out foods that are more likely to result in the development of gallstones, try to limit your consumption of vegetable and peanut oil. You should also avoid refined carbs, like breads and pasta. Processed foods and trans fats should also be consumed in low quantities (Source).
Increase Lecithin Intake
Evidence suggests that lecithin, which is found in several foods, may help reduce the risk of developing gallstones. Some researchers believe it does so by helping cholesterol maintain its liquid form in the gallbladder. Foods that contain relatively high amounts of lecithin include peanuts, chocolate, oatmeal, eggs, and milk.
Luckily, if you’re already getting overwhelmed with the various points you have to keep in mind to maintain a healthy diet and stay free of gallstones, you can also take lecithin supplements.
That said, you may want to discuss this topic with your doctor before taking lecithin supplements. That’s because lecithin contains a chemical that, over time, could potentially result in liver damage. You want to confirm that you’re not at risk of developing liver problems before you decide to begin supplementing your diet with lecithin (Source).
Home Treatment Options
While you should always listen to your doctor if they diagnose you with gallstones and recommend treatment, again, there are instances in which a patient has no symptoms and treatment is deemed unnecessary. There may also be instances in which symptoms are too minor to recommend surgical treatment. Remember, while patients in these situations can take medication designed to dissolve gallstones, this process can take months or years.
That’s why you may be interested in learning about natural treatment options. The following could help you manage or eliminate your gallstones if your physician determines treatment isn’t necessary. These can also supplement medication if you want to speed up the process of removing gallstones.
(Keep in mind, many of these remedies are based on anecdotal evidence. When you suffer from a medical condition like gallstones, you want to make sure you’re taking all steps necessary to keep yourself healthy. In other words, you shouldn’t consider these remedies to be replacements for treatment. If your physician recommends medication or surgery, heed their advice. That said, there’s no risk in supplementing a treatment plan with safe natural remedies.)
Some people insist that a certain type of cleanse can actually help eliminate gallstones. Recipes vary, but in general, the cleanse involves blending olive oil, apple juice, and key herbs together. Over the course of two to five days, people on the cleanse consume this mixture at various times throughout the day.
While research and evidence suggesting that a gallbladder cleanse is an effective way to treat gallstones are limited, some people who have tried this method report that it works (Source).
Obviously, methods for treating gallstones have improved over the years. Unfortunately, for most of human history, people didn’t have access to surgical treatments or medications that can dissolve gallstones.
That’s why they’ve often relied on natural ingredients to address these kinds of health issues. One such ingredient is dandelion. Some researchers report that dandelion has been traditionally used in the past to treat patients with gallstones. They suggest that people suffering from minor gallstones who want to supplement the effects of treatment should consider drinking dandelion tea on a regular basis throughout the day. That said, you may want to discuss this option with your physician before taking action (Source).
Apple Cider Vinegar & Apple Juice
Another traditional remedy using relatively natural ingredients involves consuming a mixture of apple juice and apple cider vinegar. Proponents of this remedy claim that apple cider vinegar is actually effective at softening gallstones. They believe this makes them easier to pass through the body.
Again, this is an instance in which you’re unlikely to harm yourself if you attempt this remedy. Trying it in conjunction with treatment (or relying on it if your condition is so minor that a physician deems no treatment is necessary) may be worth the limited effort this remedy involves. Because apple cider vinegar has also been known to offer a range of other health benefits, you could also experience positive physical changes from this remedy that you did not expect.
That said, some patients should avoid consuming large amounts of apple juice or other drinks that may be high in sugar. If you believe you may have a condition which could be exacerbated by high sugar consumption, speak with your doctor before starting to try this remedy on a regular basis (Source).
Some experts recommend eating artichoke to control gallstones because it’s been shown to stimulate the production of bile. It may also support proper liver and gallbladder function.
Again, this is an instance in which there is limited research to confirm that specific effects that artichokes may have on gallstones. That said, if you’re consuming a food that is good for both your gallbladder and liver, there’s no harm in incorporating more of it into your diet. Even if it doesn’t help prevent or eliminate gallstones, it can still benefit your health in a wide range of other potential ways (Source).
Apply a Castor Oil Pack
This is another remedy based on traditional medicine. It’s important to understand that there is little research available to indicate this works. Thus, you shouldn’t rely on it as a primary treatment method if your gallstones are causing you so much discomfort that you feel you need to address the problem. Even if a doctor initially doesn’t recommend treatment, if your condition worsens or you find it’s more difficult to cope with your symptoms than you had anticipated, schedule another appointment with your doctor to discuss the issue. You may also want to consider getting a second opinion from another physician.
That said, a popular naturopath remedy for a wide range of ailments is a castor oil pack. All you have to do for this remedy is warm up some castor oil (make sure it’s not so warm that it will cause pain or discomfort) and soak a washcloth in it. Place the cloth on your abdomen and cover it with a towel. Leave it in place for an hour. You can also add an additional heating source, like a heating bad, which some people find boosts their comfort. This is an easy remedy to practice when lying in bed, and although there has not been enough research yet to confirm that it’s effective at treating gallstones, there’s certainly no harm in giving it a try (Source).
According to physicians, the majority of gallstones remain in the gallbladder permanently unless they’re dissolved via medication or removed via surgery (Source). However, there are instances in which smaller gallstones may pass through the body via the intestines (Source). Some patients and physicians believe that sticking to a diet designed to cleanse the body of gallstones can aid in this process. Again, one of the remedies listed above involves using apple cider vinegar to potentially soften gallstones, making ones that are too small to pass on their own more easy to pass.
Luckily, there are other methods, some which doctors may recommend, which could help you pass gallstones under the right circumstances. They include the following:
In order to make kidney stones easier to pass, doctors often expose them to shock waves which serve to break them up into smaller pieces. This same principle can be applied to gallstones in certain cases.
It’s worth noting that current evidence indicates this method is typically only effective on small (fewer than two centimeters in diameter) individual gallstones. Thus, at this point, most patients don’t benefit from this treatment option. However, those that do can pass a gallstone once it’s been broken into smaller pieces (Source). This is a treatment option physicians may recommend if they don’t believe surgery is necessary, but they do believe that medication may not be effective enough.
Researchers have developed a solvent that, when injected directly into the gallbladder, can dissolve gallstones much more rapidly than typical medications.
However, while you should always listen to your doctor if they recommend a treatment, this particular option is only used in a small amount of cases. That’s because a strong burning sensation has been known to accompany this treatment. Additionally, the solvent itself generates potentially harmful fumes. Thus, the treatment must be administered in a space that’s very well-ventilated. You may want to seek a second opinion if a doctor recommends this treatment but you’re unfamiliar with their degree of experience in administering it (Source).
That said, if the treatment is effective, it can dissolve the gallstone entirely, or dissolve it to the point that it is small enough to pass from the gallbladder.
Hopefully, this guide has helped you better understand what gallstones are, what types of people are at risk of developing them, and what you can do about them if you have been diagnosed with gallstones but your doctor has not recommended major treatment.
There are a few final points worth keeping in mind, though. For instance, you already know that you should seek care from a physician if you notice any of the common signs of gallstones, like nausea, fever, vomiting, or abdominal pain that lasts hours and prevents you from sitting comfortably.
However, some people forget that, even if you’re not suffering from the symptoms of gallstones, you may be experiencing conditions that could lead to their development. This is another reason to get in touch with a doctor. As with most medical conditions, the earlier you identify a gallstone issue, the easier it is to treat it effectively.
That’s why experts often recommend contacting your doctor if you’ve recently experienced a sudden change in weight. Whether you’ve suddenly put on weight or suddenly lost a significant amount, it’s worth remembering that both of these circumstances can put you at a greater risk of developing gallstones. You want to coordinate with a trained professional to make sure you’re not at risk (Source).
You should also know that in some instances, your doctor may identify the warning signs of gallstones while treating or examining you for different reasons. That’s because gallstones typically appear as masses in the gallbladder (which is hollow) in an ultrasound or similar image. If you’ve undergone an ultrasound or a related imaging procedure and your doctor notices this mass, listen to them when they recommend seeking further treatment.
Again, some people simply don’t experience any noticeable symptoms when they have gallstones. Others don’t experience symptoms initially. If a doctor sees something on an ultrasound that may indicate or confirm the presence of gallstones, don’t simply dismiss the issue simply because you haven’t developed any symptoms yet. Acting now can prevent you from experiencing significant discomfort in the future.
You may also want to consider discussing regular gallstone screenings with your doctor if you have a family history of this condition. Again, that’s one of the main risk factors. You should also discuss this topic with your physician if other general risk factors apply to you. For instance, if you’re pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, your risk of developing gallstones increases. Talking with a professional about steps you can take to reduce this risk during pregnancy is certainly a smart idea.
People of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds are also more likely than others to develop gallstones. Specifically, Native Americans and Mexicans tend to develop this condition more frequently than people from other backgrounds. Thus, if you have Native American or Mexican heritage, there’s no harm in asking your doctor if there is anything you can do to keep gallstones at bay (Source).
The information here should serve as a general guide. Patients who have been diagnosed with gallstones require medical treatment, or at least a physician’s advice. If you think you suffer from this condition, get in touch with a doctor. If you don’t currently suffer from gallstones, but you’re worried about potentially developing them in the future, refer back to this guide to remind yourself of steps you can take to limit your risk. By knowing what your risk factors are, and knowing what you can do to minimize their impact, you’ll be more likely to prevent gallstones from developing in the first place. That should always be your main goal.