Have you been experiencing intense abdominal pain lately, particularly in the upper right section of your stomach? Does it usually happen after a heavy or fatty meal? If so, there’s a chance that you have gallstones.
A lot of people know little about gallstones. Actually, we’re not surprised if you’ve started asking questions only after a suspicious episode of abdominal pain. These are just some of the usual questions that we get.
- Can gallstones be cured?
- Does it mean you need surgery?
We’ll walk you through the basics, including answers to how are gallstones formed, what causes the flare-up, and what you can do about it.
What are gallstones?
Gallstones are hard crystals formed from bile components. They can vary in size and number. There can be multiple tiny gallstones or a few large ones inside the gallbladder.
The gallbladder, on the other hand, is a small sac sitting directly under the liver. Its main function is to store, concentrate, and release bile for breaking down fats.
How are gallstones formed?
Gallstones are formed when the following conditions are present:
- The amount of cholesterol or bilirubin far exceeds the number of bile salts. When the level of cholesterol is too high for the bile salts to dissolve, the un-dissolved particles crystallize. They will form cholesterol gallstones. Similarly, when there’s too much bilirubin, the residue will clump together and form pigment gallstones.
- The gallbladder does not empty completely or regularly. When you go through extreme diets, you disrupt your gallbladder’s normal function. You take away the stimulus that causes the release of bile. Your stored bile will stagnate and become thicker the longer you extend the time for the next meal. The thick bile will form deposits which will later harden and become gallstones.
Why are gallstones painful?
Not all gallstones cause pain. A gallbladder attack is caused by gallstones, but not all gallstones cause an attack.
Some gallstones are silent or asymptomatic. This means that they don’t cause any symptoms. Gallstones only become painful when they’re dislodged from the gallbladder and they obstruct bile flow. They can get stuck on the gallbladder’s narrow opening or along the ducts. This causes pressure to build up and, eventually, infection.
You will feel this as abdominal pain, which may also radiate to the small of your back. The pain can range from mild to severe and describe as intermittent or constant. It may even cause nausea, vomiting, or gas.
Gallstones that cause pain are called symptomatic gallstones. The attack often occurs after a fatty meal, especially one that follows along the no-food period.
Does a high-fat diet cause gallstones or are low-fat diets the culprit?
Low-fat diet or high-fat diet – which one causes gallstones? Which one will be better for you?
Your liver, gallbladder, digestive system, and brain are fine-tuned to work in perfect harmony. This is what happens in an ideal situation:
- Your liver continuously produces bile and releases this into the gallbladder.
- Your gallbladder thickens the bile and awaits its signal from the brain to release it.
- When you eat food and ingest fats, your brain stimulates a special hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK).
- CCK then triggers a series of events for the release of bile.
- The bile helps in digesting food, breaking down fat, absorbing nutrients, and getting rid of waste products.
Situations are rarely ideal, we know that. If you happen to be female or over 40 on top of being obese, then you have a lot of things going against you. Take note of these:
- If you fast or go on an extremely low-fat diet, you will disrupt the normal bile cycle, particularly item (3) above. The condition of the prolonged no-food period or very little fat intake will not prompt the hormone CCK to work. Your gallbladder will be inactive and the bile will be stagnant.
- If you eat a heavy, fatty meal after this punishing period, we tell you this – brace yourself for an attack. It’s like opening the floodgates of bile. Your silent stones, which had been sitting still, would be displaced (Think flood!). Good if the stones are small enough to pass through the ducts – they will be flushed and expelled. But if they’re a bit too big for the ducts, you’ve got a problem.
High-fat low-carb diets may actually benefit people with gallstones. Not all fats are bad. They stimulate the gallbladder to release bile efficiently and prevent stones from forming. Here are important points to remember:
- Choose your fat sources carefully, and
- Avoid going overweight.
Workaround mono- and poly-unsaturated fats from olive oil, avocado, flaxseed, and fish. Avoid saturated fats found in butter, red meat, chicken skin, whole milk, and other animal products.
What can you do about gallstones or your risk of developing them?
If you don’t have gallstones yet but are obese, cut your risk by losing weight. You know now that low-fat diets, fasting, and other crash diets are not the way to go. They will only encourage gallstone formation.
These extreme diets may disturb silent or uncomplicated gallstones and cause attacks. Worse, they pose a persistent risk that you will form some more gallstones in the future.
On the other hand, a high-fat diet from healthy fat sources will actually be more beneficial. It will encourage regular bile flow and discourage gallstone formation. This is true for people at risk of forming gallstones but who don’t have them yet.
However, if you already have gallstones, don’t be tempted to go on a high-fat diet. High fatty meals could cause your stones to be displaced and open the possibility of a gallstone attack. Instead, curb your fat intake and spread it over frequent small meals.