Gallstones, while generally harmless, can lead to painful and even dangerous complications if left untreated. According to the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), about 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population experiences gallstone disease, with almost a million new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. With such a significant percentage of people likely to experience a gallstone in their lives, it's critical to parse out how and why these stones form and how best to prevent their formation.
What Is a Gallstone?
The AGA defines gallstones as "pieces of hard, solid matter that form in the gallbladder ... when the components of bile — including cholesterol and bilirubin — form crystals." Bilirubin, a bile waste product, is the dark-brown substance that gives bile and stool their brown hue. Your liver produces bile to break up fats and ease digestion.
The gallbladder's primary function is to store the bile produced by the liver until the body needs it for digestion. But if these bile particulates collect, they can form a gallstone. These stones can vary in size, from a grain of sand to a golf ball, and your gallbladder can potentially hold hundreds of stones at a time.
Gallstone Symptoms and Treatment
Many people will have a gallstone and never experience the typical symptoms, and these "silent gallstones" generally dissipate on their own. The most common symptoms of a gallstone include:
- Intermittent and potentially severe pain in the upper abdomen, usually on the right side or centrally
- Occasional vomiting or sweating
- Pain that follows eating or wakes you from sleep
The duration of pain varies, lasting either minutes or up to several hours. Per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), this pain, also known as a gallbladder attack, is due to gallstones blocking the ducts of the biliary tract, or the gallbladder and bile ducts. When the stones move and no longer block the bile ducts, the associated pain usually stops. If you experience gallstone pain, instances could be spread out over weeks, months, or years.
When a gallstone doesn't cause symptoms, doctors will rarely prescribe treatment. If a gallstone is particularly large or causing disruptive symptoms, your doctor may decide to proceed with surgery, specifically a cholecystectomy, or the removal of the gallbladder. But don't worry — your gallbladder isn't an essential organ, and these surgeries are among the most common performed on U.S. adults.
Gallstone Causes and Prevention
To best treat or prevent gallstone disease, you should be aware of certain factors that could increase your risk, which include:
- Higher concentration of cholesterol or bilirubin in bile
- Hormones or medications that decrease the emptying of the gallbladder
- Inactive lifestyle
- Being female
- Being over age 40
- Liver disease
- Family history of gallstones
Whether you or your loved one has any of these risk factors, factors related to your diet and nutrition can also greatly impact your risk of gallstone formation. Specifically, risk of gallstone disease is often exacerbated by obesity, rapid weight loss, and diets that are high in calories and refined carbohydrates but lacking fiber, according to the NIDDK. A 2009 study also names cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fatty acids, refined sugar, and possibly legumes as other dietary factors that could increase risk of gallstone formation.
However, the study also shows that certain foods and nutrients may prevent gallstone development, such as polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, fiber, and caffeine. These are in addition to a vegetarian diet and accurately identifying and avoiding any foods to which you may be allergic. Your doctor might also suggest taking supplements, such as vitamin C, soy lecithin, and iron, which could prevent stones from forming.
In short, avoiding or managing any risk factors, and adjusting your diet can set you on a path toward better gallstone prevention, whether you're prone or have ever experienced a painful stone yourself. Talk to your doctor about any irregular abdominal pains you might have after eating, especially if you can claim the most common risk factors for gallstone disease.