Your gallbladder is a small organ that can cause big problems if you don’t take care of it. When working properly this pouch the size of a deflated balloon stores bile produced by the liver. It squeezes that bile into the small intestine to help with digestion, particularly foods with higher fat content. That’s when it’s working properly.
“Most problems that arise from the gallbladder are due to gallstones. About 20 percent of people will develop gallstones at some point in their life, but only about 20 percent of people with stones will have problems because of those stones,” said Toby Enniss, MD, FACS, acute care surgeon with University of Utah Health. “The problems that can be related to gallstones are determined by where in the bile duct system a stone becomes lodged, blocking the normal flow of bile. This blockage can lead to inflammation involving the gallbladder, the liver, or even the pancreas. In severe cases, the effects of gallstones can be life-threatening. Once someone has experienced one complication of gallstones, the risk of further complications increases dramatically. The role of surgery is most often to prevent further complications once someone has had problems caused by gallstones.”
Causes of Gallbladder Stones
So, what increases the likelihood someone will develop gallstones? “Factors that have been found to have an increased risk of developing gallstones include increasing age, being female, and obesity. Gallstones are also more common in certain families which suggests a genetic component as a risk factor.
Dietary risk factors have proven more difficult to identify. The most consistent results from scientific studies are that simple sugars and saturated fats increase the risk of gallstones whereas fiber reduces this risk,” said Dr. Enniss. “Other diet-related factors that have been shown to increase the risk of gallstones are frequent fasting and rapid weight loss.”
Managing Your Risks
What does this mean for the average person? “When it comes to your gallbladder, there is no secret solution. It is about following generally healthy habits,” says Dr. Enniss.
Watch Your Diet
- Avoid excessive amounts of saturated fats and animal fats.
- Cut out refined carbohydrates from foods such as candy, soft drinks, cakes, cookies, and white breads.
- Increase dietary fiber through fruits and vegetables.
There are some who suggest that doing a gallbladder cleanse can help reduce the risk of stones and other problems and improve overall gallbladder health. However, there is no evidence that any of these cleanses work. “You could actually end up making yourself sick,” said Enniss. “Lots of people report having severe gastrointestinal distress after doing one of these cleanses.”
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Beyond a gallbladder friendly diet there are several lifestyle changes you can make to improve your overall health – and the health of your gallbladder.
- Maintain a healthy weight and stay active.
- Avoid rapid weight loss, which can cause your gallbladder to work harder than usual.
- Stop smoking. You already know it’s bad for you, and it has been found to contribute to cancer of the gallbladder.
“If you are living a healthy lifestyle it is very likely you will have a healthy gallbladder,” said Ennis. “What’s good for you is good for it.”