How to Prevent Gallstones

How to Prevent Gallstones

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Gallstones are hard masses that can form in the gallbladder or bile ducts. Luckily, in the majority of cases, they cause no symptoms. However, when they do cause a problem, it can be a big problem! Symptoms can range from episodes of gnawing pain to severe pain, with fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. (If you have these severe symptoms, seek immediate medical attention!) In such worst case scenarios, treatment typically involves surgery.

Some of the risk factors for developing gallstones are out of your control -- for example, it runs in your family or you have a health condition that puts you at higher risk. However, there are some lifestyle factors that increase your risk - and these factors are things you do have control over! In the following slides, we will look at some things that you can do to try to prevent gallstones from becoming a problem for you.

1. Eat Healthy Fats

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The gallbladder's job is to store and secrete bile to help you to digest fats. Therefore, the type of fat that you eat may play a role  in protecting the health of your gallbladder and preventing the formation of gallstones. How much fat you eat may also be something to consider: diets high in saturated fats and diets that are too low in fats may increase your risk of having gallstones.

Therefore it may be helpful to eat more of the healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that many of us are not eating enough of. Here are some foods to add to your diet on a regular basis:

  • Fish oil supplements
  • Flaxseed and chia seeds
  • Grass-fed meats
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Salmon, mackerel, sardines and other fatty fish
  • Walnuts

2. Cut Back on Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

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Are you looking for another reason to finally commit to eating fewer sweets? Look no further than your gallbladder. Diets high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates have been found to increase the risk of gallstones. Refined carbohydrates are those in which the fiber has been removed - for example, white flour and white rice.

Why do refined carbohydrates raise your risk for gallstones? The reason is that they increase your triglyceride levels and decrease your levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind!), both of which are associated with increased risk for gallstones. In addition, a high carbohydrate diet is also associated with increasing your risk for diabetes, which in turn, increases your risk for gallstones.

Therefore to reduce your risk of gallstones (and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease!), you will want to minimize your intake of foods made with added sugar and white flour. This includes:

  • Breads and pastas made with white flour
  • Crackers, chips, and pretzels
  • Sweets such as cookies, cakes, pastries, and donuts
  • White rice

What to eat instead? High-fiber foods such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat products

3. Maintain a Healthy Weight...

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...But Do It Slowly!

Being overweight in and of itself raises your risk for gallstones. And, as we discussed in the previous slide, being overweight raises your risk of developing diabetes, which is another thing that can raise your risk of gallstones.

However, it is essential that you make sure that your weight loss effort is slow and consistent. Why? Because all of the following are associated with an increased risk for gallstones:

  • Crash diets
  • Severe calorie restriction
  • Yo-yo dieting (also known as weight cycling), meaning your weight significantly fluctuates up and down

When you lose weight too quickly or severely restrict your food intake, you liver sends too much cholesterol into the bile. This extra cholesterol can then form into gallstones. Losing too much weight too quickly can also interfere with your gallbladder emptying as it should.

You might be surprised to know that a person's risk of developing gallstones after gastric bypass surgery goes up by approximately 30% for up to 18 months after your surgery.

Therefore, do not turn to a low-fat, low-calorie diet to lose weight (cut back on those refined carbs we talked about in the previous slide!). For best protection against gallstones, try to keep your weight loss to less than three pounds per week.

    4. Exercise Regularly

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    Research has shown an association between the amount of time that you move your body and your risk of gallstones. If you tend to spend a lot of time sitting around, you are raising your risk. However, if you can exercise approximately two to three hours per week, you will reduce your risk of developing gallstones by approximately 20%. It doesn't appear to matter what type of exercise you engage in, just as long as you are moving your body on a regular, consistent basis.

    And based on what you have learned in the previous slides, being overweight and/or having diabetes, can raise your risk of developing gallstones. Regular exercise reduces your risk of both. So, pick an exercise that you like and get moving!

    5. Have a Daily Cup of Coffee

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    If you love your morning caffeine jolt, you will be happy to learn that drinking a cup of coffee each day may lower your risk of developing gallstones. Coffee is thought to encourage movement within your gallbladder and to lower the amount of cholesterol in the bile, thus reducing the risk that the cholesterol will concentrate into a stone. Interestingly, other caffeinated drinks do not seem to offer the same protective effects.

    6. Have a Drink

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    If you enjoy a cocktail on a regular basis, you will be pleased to hear that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol on a regular basis is associated with a lower risk for gallstones. Of course, if you are pregnant or have a history of alcohol abuse, you will want to skip this step and focus on the other lifestyle changes that you can make for reducing your risk of gallstones.

    7. Ask Your Doctor About Your Medications

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    There are two main classes of medications that increase your risk for gallstones. We will look at each one in turn:

    Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

    Research has indicated that using HRT significantly increases your risk for developing gallstones. Even worse, HRT increases your risk for being hospitalized or needing surgery on your gallbladder. Why is this so? Increasing estrogen levels can raise triglyceride levels, which as we discussed earlier, can increase the risk of gallstones. Your risk from HRT is lessened if you receive the therapy through the use of a patch or gel. If you are currently receiving HRT, discuss your risk factors with your doctor.

    The association between HRT and gallstone risk raises the question, "What about birth control pills?" As of now, there does not seem to be a definitive answer to this question. However, it may be that the risk goes up in women who are taking birth control pills and are overweight. If you on birth control pills, discuss your overall risk factors with your doctor.

    Cholesterol Drugs

    A couple of medications in the class of medications prescribed to lower cholesterol can increase your risk of gallstones. This may seem counter-intuitive as we have already discussed how cholesterol in the bile can form into stones. Apparently the problem is that two particular medications in this class can actually increase the amount of cholesterol in the bile as they work to decrease the amount of cholesterol in your blood. The two medications to watch out for are gemfibrozil (Lopid) and fenofibrate (Tricor). If you are on one of these medications, talk to your doctor to see if you are a candidate for switching to a different type of cholesterol medication.


    "Gallstones" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) Accessed February 24, 2012.

    "Gallstones and gallbladder disease - Symptoms" University of Maryland Medical Center Accessed February 24, 2012.

    Marschall, H. & Einarsson, C. "Gallstone disease" Journal of Internal Medicine 2007 261:529-542.

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