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What Are Gallstones? Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Dr. Agnes Joseph

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid.

Often an overlooked organ in the digestive system, the gallbladder must function optimally to aid toxin removal and dissolve harmful chemicals. The gallbladder is a small organ located just below the liver, and it holds and releases bile into the small intestine. It also releases the bile daily to allow fresh input from the liver.

You might remain unaware of the existence of your gallbladder until you get gallstones–these may be minute, or larger than lemons. They may cause a lot of pain and even impede the digestive process. While it is better to prevent the formation of gallstones, there are ways to deal with them even if you develop gallstones despite your best efforts.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid. They are formed in the liver and stored in the gallbladder for different reasons. Some gallstones are no bigger than a pinhead, while others may be as large as golf balls. While you may have just one gallstone that sits in the gallbladder without making its presence felt, you might also develop multiple gallstones that block the bile ducts and cause severe pain.

Why does one get gallstones?

Gallstones may form for a variety of reasons. The most common ones are:

Excess cholesterol in the bile: Bile is stored and secreted by the gallbladder daily to help digest fats and it secretes other materials excreted by the liver as part of the digestive process. When there is excess cholesterol in the bile stored by the gallbladder, the bile cannot dissolve all of it. This causes the cholesterol to build up into crystals and form gallstones.

Excess bilirubin in the bile: The body breaks down red blood cells and this process causes the production of bilirubin. Bilirubin is also produced when you have conditions like liver cirrhosis, blood infections, and biliary tract disorders. The excess bilirubin solidifies into gallstones.

Concentrated bile: At times, the gallbladder does not empty properly and leaves a residue of bile behind. This residue begins to pile up and becomes extremely concentrated, finally hardening into gallstones.

Your risk of developing gallstones increases with certain factors. These range from excess weight, poor diet (low fibre or high cholesterol or both), a sedentary lifestyle, predisposition to liver disease, having a family history of gallstones or gallbladder cancer, etc.

Are they painful?

They don’t cause any distress and you might not even know that you have them. But if the stone lodges in a duct, it can cause intense pain, fever, bile duct infection, and jaundice. You will feel rapidly advancing pain in the upper right abdomen, or just below the breastbone. Along with pain, you might also feel nauseated and unable to keep your food down.

If the gallstone is small enough, it can pass out of the bile duct and into the intestine, from where it is removed from the body via excretion. However, you might feel the gallstone passing through the intestine at certain points, and this can be painful.

How can they be treated?

As mentioned above, smaller gallstones might either sit in the gallbladder without causing pain or pass through the system without incident. However, larger gallstones are removed surgically. If the gallbladder is infected, your doctor might advise removing it.

Here are some measures to keep them at bay:

1. Have a low cholesterol, low fat diet: Add more fibre to your diet and keep away from foods high in sodium and trans fats.

2. Lose weight under supervision: Crash diets and excessive exercise may cause gallstones. Lose weight under your doctor’s supervision using a combination of moderate exercise and healthy meals. Stay away from protein powders and weight loss pills.

3. Drink a lot of water: Water helps in digestion and allows the liver, pancreas, kidneys, gallbladder and intestines to function properly.

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