Gallstones are dreaded deposits of hardened bilirubin, cholesterol, and bile that can block your bile ducts causing severe abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, high fever, and a potentially fatal infection. They usually occur when your body chemistry is thrown out of sync for a variety of reasons. Here are a few factors that increase your risk of developing gallstones:
- Certain Diseases: These include obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and intestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease.
- Certain Medications: Birth control pills, hormonal therapy for menopausal symptoms, and cholesterol-lowering medication.
- Family History: If you have a family history of gallstones, you have a higher risk of developing them yourself.
- Sex: Women are more predisposed to have gallstones probably due to extra estrogen production during pregnancy or hormonal therapy.
- Age: Being over 40 years of age.
- Ethnicity: Native Americans and Mexican Americans are at a higher risk.
- Diet: Consumption of a lot of calories from refined carbohydrates and too little of fiber.
Some of the risk factors such as family history, sex, age, and ethnicity cannot be modified, but you can still reduce your overall risk by taking a few precautions. These include:
- Maintain a Healthy Weight: If you are overweight, getting your weight down does significantly reduce your chances of developing gallstones. However, do not follow any crash diets as losing weight quickly can actually increase your risk.
- Have a Healthy Diet: A healthy diet will contain lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, nuts, and almonds. Stay away from sugars and refined carbs. Reduce fat intake, but you do not need to abstain from fats completely. In fact, monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, fish oil, and flax seed oil reduce the risk of developing gallstones. Even coffee and alcohol in moderate amounts may be good for your gallbladder.
- Exercise: Moderate-intensity exercise when performed regularly in combination with sensible dieting will help you lose the excess weight and decrease your risk of developing gallstones.
- Avoiding Certain Medications: If you are on hormonal therapy or cholesterol-lowering medication that increases your risk of developing gallstones, talk to your doctor about possible substitutes.
It is true that gallstones can be ‘silent’ and you could have one or quite a few gallstones that produce no symptoms, but why risk a gallbladder attack that can occur at any time? If you feel you might be at risk, a consultation with your doctor or a gastroenterologist will help you decide on a suitable course of action.