Gallstones – How Dietary Changes And Supplements Can Help

Gallstones are hard deposits of bile components formed in the gallbladder or bile ducts. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that lies below the liver in the upper right abdomen. It stores bile, a liquid made in the liver which is moved to the gallbladder for release to help break down fats into fatty acids when their digestion is needed.

The gallbladder also sends bile to the small intestine, a process that allows our bloodstream to easily absorb fat soluble vitamins. Gallstones are typically formed when there is an excess of cholesterol in the bile relative to that of bile salts and phospholipids, causing the acids in it to crystalize, eventually forming gallstones5

Gallstones are of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the Western world and are present in 10–20% of the general population.

Gallstone blockages can cause mild to severe pain and can lead to numerous complications, including gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis) and bile duct infection. Gallstones are also linked to increased risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Other symptoms you might experience include nausea, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and dark urine.

Obesity is also a risk factor for gallstones.

Doctors typically treat mild and infrequent gallbladder pains with anti-inflammatory or pain medication. If the symptoms are more severe and frequent, surgery for the removal of the gallbladder is often recommended. 

The best way to handle gallstones is to prevent them through a healthy diet, but if you already suffer from gallstones, some dietary modifications will help.

How Dietary Changes Can Help

Poor eating habits and consuming food rich in fats and sugars contribute to gallstones and gallbladder disease. A diet rich in cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fats, and refined sugar is best avoided if you suffer from gallstones or wish to prevent them from forming.

Also fried foods are best avoided as it is more difficult to break down such excess fats. Fried food consumption may cause gallbladder pain. 

Knowing which foods to choose and which to avoid can help the gallbladder stay healthy, especially for people who have already experienced gallstones and gallbladder issues. Increasing nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables and fruits in your diet can tremendously improve gallbladder function and prevent further complications. Additionally, plant based proteins, mono, and polyunsaturated fats can protect against gallstone formation, as well as caffeine. A gallbladder diet goal is to reduce the stress that certain foods imposes on the organ, either by easing digestion or by supporting the health of the gallbladder. [1]

A high fiber diet eases digestion as it reduces the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Sources of fiber include nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. 

Omega-3 fatty acids help protect the gallbladder. They actually help gallstone dissolution. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in seeds, nuts, and in cold-water fish. 

Also, moderate caffeine consumption can protect the function of the gallbladder (The best caffeine sources include green tea which also has potent antioxidant activity through EGCG (a green tea flavonoid), as well as dark chocolate and freshly ground coffee).

Consuming a vegetarian diet is also associated with decreased risk for developing gallstones and suffering from gall bladder disease. Consumption of fat from meat and fried foods increases the risk of cholesterol gallstones. Also identifying and avoiding the consumption of allergenic foods helps to prevent gallstone formation.

Supplements can also be of help in the prevention of future gallstone formation and in the breakdown of gallstones.

Supplements that help prevent gallstone formation and support a healthy gallbladder include:

1. Vitamin C – this water-soluble vitamin is well-known for neutralizing free radicals and decreasing oxidative stress, which is a contributing factor in gallstone formation. Vitamin C is also a cofactor for the enzyme 7?-hydroxylase, a rate-limiting enzyme in the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids. [2-5]

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids – omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements from fish or plant based omega 3 supplements can prevent gallstones by improving bile composition and preventing crystallization.

3. S-adenosylmethionine – SAMe has protective effects on the liver and improves bile flow, especially in people with certain liver diseases

4. Curcumin – this turmeric extract can reduce the likelihood of gallstone formation by improving cholesterol and lipid metabolism. It also reduces gallbladder inflammation and normalizes bile acid metabolism.

5. Iron – Iron deficiency plays a role in the pathogenesis of gallstone formation in humans. An iron-deficient diet shows a higher incidence of cholesterol crystals in bile. [6]

Other supplement suggestions include Vitamin E, Melatonin, and Milk Thistle.

Also lowered alcohol consumption or preferably no alcohol consumption decreases the risk of developing gallstones. (7)

All in all, by following a healthy diet with lots of nutrient, antioxidant and fiber-rich foods, you are likely to have a healthy gallbladder and a very low-risk of symptomatic gallstone formation.

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References:

  • [1] Alan R Gaby. Nutritional approaches to prevention and treatment of gallstones. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Sep;14(3):258-67. 
  • [2]Hornig D, Weiser H. Ascorbic acid and cholesterol: effect of graded oral intakes on cholesterol conversion to bile acids in guinea-pigs. Experientia 1976;32:687- 689.
  • [3] Ginter E, Bobek P, Vargova D. Tissue levels and optimum dosage of vitamin C in guinea pigs. Nutr Metab 1979;23:217-226.
  • [4] Ginter E, Mikus L. Reduction of gallstone formation by ascorbic acid in hamsters. Experientia 1977;33:716-717.
  • [5] Jenkins SA. Vitamin C and gallstone formation: a preliminary report. Experientia 1977;33:1616-1617.
  • [6] Gaby AR. Nutritional approaches to prevention and treatment of gallstones. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Sep;14(3):258-67. PMID: 19803550.
  • [7] Thornton J, Symes C, Heaton K. Moderate alcohol intake reduces bile cholesterol saturation and raises HDL cholesterol. Lancet 1983;2:819-822.

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