A HEALTHY diet and lifestyle is key to avoiding most health problems. But with gallstones, thought to affect as many as one in six people, with famous sufferers including the likes of Eric Clapton and the Dalai Lama, it’s not quite that simple.
In fact some lifestyle factors which may seem healthy, like low-fat diets and losing weight quickly, plus not drinking alcohol, can actually make gallstones more likely.
One of the most common medical and surgical conditions, it’s believed they occur due to chemical imbalances in bile stored in the gallbladder; this leads to tiny crystals developing, which can grow into gallstones, ranging from many as small as grains of sand, to one the size of a pebble.
GP Dr Sarah Brewer, whose book Overcoming Gallstones has just been published, points out that 70% of gallstones are made from cholesterol, and a diet high in saturated fat and pre-formed cholesterol increases the amount of the substance being pumped by the liver into bile, making it more likely gallstones will form. However, she warns that “the opposite is also true”. A diet that’s unusually low in fat can promote gallstones, as the gallbladder mainly contracts in response to dietary fats, so it empties less frequently if a low-fat diet is followed, or if dieters eat less regularly than normal. Bile can pool in the gallbladder, giving gallstones more chance to form.
Dr Brewer references a study of almost 90,000 nurses, which found that losing 4kg-10kg in weight over a two year period increased the risk of gallstones by 44%, and those who lost more than 10kg were almost twice as likely to develop them, with a 94% increased risk. Avoiding gallstones may even be aided by a moderate intake of alcohol.
Dr Brewer says: “Alcohol acts as a solvent, helping to stop the components of gallstones precipitating out of the solution in stored bile. This is probably the main way in which a moderate intake of alcohol reduces gallstone formation — but please don’t use this as an excuse to increase your intake!
“And you may think you’re doing good by trying to lose weight, cutting back on fats and being really strict on your diet, but your gallbladder can become underactive, the bile in it sludges, and you’re more likely to develop stones.But other than that, it’s all the usual messages — eat lots of fruit and vegetables, high fibre, nuts.
You can take steps to reduce the risk, and even if you do develop gallstones, not everybody has symptoms. “Where lifestyle factors are a probably cause, there’s lots you can do to ensure ... you don’t develop more gallstones,” advises Dr Brewer, who’s also a registered nutritionist.
She says plant sterols, fibre and vitamin C can all help prevent the condition, and a diet rich in monounsaturated fats from foods like olive, Macadamia nut and avocado oils can also be beneficial, as can omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, like those found in flaxseed, walnut and fish oils.
Dr Brewer says nutritional and herbal supplements, like vitamin C, magnesium and lecithin, may help to reduce stone formation or enlargement. “If you eat the right food and take the right supplements, and avoid things that are going to make gallstones worse, then you can live with them quite happily— and many people do, without even knowing they’ve got them.”