The gallbladder is a reservoir that contains bile secreted from the liver. It is located underneath the rib cage in the upper right area of your abdomen. When you have a meal, the gallbladder releases bile into the first part of the small intestine to help with fat digestion.
What are Gallstones?
Gallstones are cholesterol-based stones often found in the gallbladder or the bile duct. Gallstones are very common in the United States, affecting approximately 25 million people. However, only 1-3% of these 25 million people have symptoms.
Gallstones are only problematic when they block the flow of the bile. This blockage can lead to pain, nausea, vomiting, and inflammation of the gallbladder and bile duct. These painful symptoms often send people to the ER, and typically result in surgery. There are about 300,000 gallbladder removal surgeries a year in the United States. Most of these surgeries can be prevented with the right lifestyle choices.
Common Risk Factors
A diet that contains high animal fat and low omega-3s can lead to elevated cholesterol, causing the bile acid to become more prone to blockage. The imbalance of the gut flora and impaired bile acid recirculation can also cause bile acid to be more prone to stone formations.
Fiber from vegetables, fruits, and grains can feed a diversity of the gut flora, reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed into the bloodstream which helps promote bile recirculation.
Lack of exercise can cause a dysfunction of the sphincter of Oddi, which is the gate that controls bile secretion into the small intestine from the bile duct. When you have a gate that doesn’t open properly, you are prone to bile buildup. It is like a pond that doesn’t have good water flow; the dysfunctional environment encourages cholesterol-saturated bile to form into stone.
Estrogen increases cholesterol production in the liver and slows down the emptying process of the gallbladder. This is why women are more prone to have gallbladder diseases than men. This is also why women who are on birth control pills or who are pregnant may have a higher risk of developing gallstones. While it is unreasonable to avoid pregnancy, the diet and lifestyle you have prior to the pregnancy can help reduce your risk of getting gallstones.