Patient Care | Conditions
Gallstones are very common and can occur in up to one third of people. The causes are not completely understood but diet and an underlying problem with the gallbladder are thought to be linked to their formation. Most patients with gallstones are in the 30’s or 40’s and it more common in women. However, gallstones can be found in any age group. An ultrasound scan can detect gallstones 95% of the time. It is usually recommended that gallstones are removed (via a keyhole operation which removes the whole gallbladder) if they are causing symptoms. This can be done in most people as a day case procedure which means they can go home the same day. Gallstones may occasionally cause other problems such as pancreatitis and jaundice.
Typically, gallstones causes
- upper abdominal pain
- bloating (often made worse by fatty meals)
What causes Gallstones?
It is thought that gallstones develop because of an imbalance in the chemical make-up of bile inside the gallbladder. In most cases the levels of cholesterol in bile become too high and the excess cholesterol forms into stones. Gallstones are very common. It is estimated that more than one in every 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority of people will develop symptoms. You are more at risk of developing gallstones if you are:
- overweight or obese
- female – women are two to three times more likely to be affected by gallstone disease than men
- 40 or over – most cases of gallstone disease first develop in people aged 40 or older and the risk increases as you get older
- a mother – women who have had children have an increased risk of gallstone disease, which may be because the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy increase cholesterol levels
Preventing Measures outlined by NHS Choices
From the limited evidence available, changes to your diet and losing weight (if you are overweight) may help prevent gallstones.
Because of the role cholesterol appears to play in the formation of gallstones, it is advisable to avoid eating too many fatty foods with a high cholesterol content.
Foods high in cholesterol include:
- meat pies
- sausages and fatty cuts of meat
- butter and lard
- cakes and biscuits
A healthy, balanced diet is recommended. This includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and wholegrains.
There is also evidence that regularly eating nuts, such as peanuts or cashews, can help reduce your risk of developing gallstones.
Drinking small amounts of alcohol may also help reduce your risk of gallstones, but you should not exceed the NHS guidelines of three to four units a day for men and two to three units a day for women as this can lead to liver problems and other health conditions.
Being overweight, particularly being obese, increases the amount of cholesterol in your bile, which in turn increases your risk of developing gallstones. You should therefore control your weight by eating a healthy diet and taking plenty of regular exercise.
However, avoid low-calorie, rapid-weight-loss diets. There is evidence they can disrupt your bile chemistry and increase your risk of developing gallstones. A more gradual weight loss plan is recommended.