What are Gallstones?
Gallstones are solid pieces of material that develop in the gallbladder and look like small stones or pebbles. Gallstones may be as small as grains of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop several hundreds of tiny stones or one large one, or a combination of both.
There are two types of gallstones, cholesterol stones and pigment stones. Cholesterol stones are yellowish-green in color and consist of hardened cholesterol – they make about 80 percent of gallstones. They are formed when bile contains too much cholesterol. Pigment stones are small and dark, and consist of bilirubin and calcium.
Most people with gallstones are not even aware that they have them because they do not get ill from them. However, if a gallstone leaves your gallbladder and gets stuck in the passageway from your gallbladder to your intestine, you will experience severe pain in the right upper part of your abdomen and upper back. Because the gallbladder is an organ that we can live without, if it is removed, bile will flow out of the liver through the hepatic ducts into the common bile duct and directly into the small intestine.
Gallstones are often diagnosed when testing for other health conditions such as a heart disease, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, appendicitis, pancreatitis, or hepatitis.
If gallstones are suspected, your health practitioner may perform certain tests that include:
- Ultrasound exam
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
- Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan)
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Blood tests
The symptoms of gallstones include:
- Pain under the right shoulder
- Pain in the right upper abdomen that increases quickly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
- Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
What Causes Gallstones?
Digestive juices (bile) are stored in the gallbladder, and when juices harden and become solid, they form into pieces of stones called gallstones. Bile consists of water, cholesterol, fats, bile salts, proteins, and a waste product known as bilirubin. If there is too much cholesterol, bile salts, or bilirubin in bile, it can harden into gallstones.
Gallstones are made of cholesterol and bile pigments. Cholesterol stones may form when bile contains too much cholesterol or bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. These stones may even form when the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough. If one of these stones partially or completely blocks the normal flow of bile may cause a biliary colic attack together with nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Gallbladder attacks typically follow after a fatty meal. When stones continuously block the drainage of bile, inflammation or infection of the gallbladder and bile ducts, acute pancreatitis and jaundice may be caused.
Help for Gallstones
Most people who have gallstones without any symptoms do not require treatment. However, if you experience frequent attacks of pain, it may be necessary to have your gallbladder removed. This type of surgery is called a cholecystectomy. Sound wave therapy is another treatment option used for people who may have a risk in surgery – they may suffer from heart problems, lung disease or be elderly. Medication may be used to dissolve gallstones, but this treatment is very expensive.
Natural and holistic treatments have been used for thousands of years to promote liver health and functioning. Herbal remedies are gentle to use and improve the natural ability of the body to detox and cleanse the system. Herbs such as Silybum marianus (Milk Thistle) are an excellent liver tonic with powerful antioxidant properties. Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion) improves gall bladder functioning and bile flow. In addition, Verbena officinalis (Vervain or Wild Hyssop) is highly recommended as a hepatic (liver) tonic but is also beneficial for overall health.
More Information on Gallstones
Tips for the prevention of gallstones
- Eat a low-fat, low cholesterol diet
- Maintain a healthy weight and lose weight if you are overweight
- Monitor your cholesterol levels
- Exercise regularly to help regulate the bile that passes through your system
- Avoid refined sugars and complex carbohydrates
- Increase your intake of fiber
- Diabetics should learn to control their condition so as to prevent gallbladder disease
- Consult with your doctor whether you should take estrogen after menopause or high dose birth control pills, as they are believed to cause gallstones