The Link Between High Cholesterol and Gallstones

If you’ve had gallstones, you know how painful they can be, but did you know there’s a link between high cholesterol and gallstones? At Advanced Laparoscopic Surgery, PC, we can help you if you suffer from gallstones. Our board-certified surgeon, David L. Chengelis, MD, has performed more than 2,000 laparoscopic surgeries to remove gallstones.

Here’s some information we put together about gallstones, the link with high cholesterol, and what you can do to prevent gallstones.

Gallstones 101

Gallstones form when fluids in your digestive tract solidify. These solid masses become trapped in your gallbladder, located in your upper abdomen. 

The bile in your gallbladder, which is a fluid, helps separate fats during digestion and moves waste into your small intestine. Sometimes the fluid, which may contain too much cholesterol — a waxy, fatty substance — becomes solid, forming gallstones. 

Gallstones range in size from as small as a grain of sand to as large as half the size of a tennis ball. You can develop just one or have several. When gallstones are painful, surgery is usually required. 

There are two types of gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are made mainly of hardened cholesterol, although they also contain other substances. If the stones contain more than 50% cholesterol, they’re classified as cholesterol gallstones. About three-quarters of all gallstones are cholesterol stones. 

Your body makes a certain amount of cholesterol that it needs to function, but eating too many foods high in saturated fats can increase your cholesterol to a level dangerous to your health. 

Pigment gallstones are brown or black and occur when your bile contains an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a substance formed when red blood cells decompose as part of the digestion process. It helps form bile, necessary for digesting your food. 

How gallstones form

Experts aren’t sure what causes gallstones, but some believe that excess cholesterol likely causes gallstones to develop. Your liver secretes cholesterol, which your bile normally dissolves, but if you produce an overabundance of cholesterol, the bile may not be able to break up all of it, and eventually stones could form. 

Too much bilirubin produced by your liver during digestion could also cause gallstones. Certain health conditions, including cirrhosis, infections, and blood disorders, can spur the liver to produce an excess of bilirubin. 

Finally, if your gallbladder doesn’t empty properly, bile can build up, possibly leading to gallstones. 

Risk factors for developing gallstones

From study and observation, researchers have identified risk factors for developing gallstones. Understanding these factors may help prevent a gallstone attack. 

Your age, gender, ethnic background, and genetic makeup can place you more at risk for gallstones. If you’re over 40, a woman, Native American, Hispanic, or if gallstones run in your family, you’re more at risk. 

Your lifestyle — including how much you exercise and what you eat — can contribute to your risk for gallstones. Researchers have connected having a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and a diet high in cholesterol and fat and low in fiber as factors that can lead to the formation of gallstones. You can also develop gallstones from a rapid weight-loss diet. 

Medical conditions like diabetes, intestinal infections, and cirrhosis of the liver may also cause gallstones. If you’re pregnant or on birth control pills, your estrogen levels can surge. Research shows that high levels of estrogen are associated with gallstones. 

Prevention 

Once you’re aware of the risk factors for gallstones, you can take steps to ward off this condition. 

Weight loss and healthy choices when eating 

If you’re overweight or obese, losing weight helps lower your risk for gallstones. Select a diet where the goal is to lose a pound or two per week. Don’t start fasting or choose a rapid weight-loss diet, because fasting can cause gallstones.

Processed meats, high-fat dairy, fried foods, and fast foods are high in saturated fats. Try to eliminate these foods, which raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and increase not only the risk of gallstones but of heart disease and other health issues. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables and foods high in fiber and low in saturated fats can help to reduce your gallstone risk. 

Exercise

Exercise is associated with a lower risk of gallbladder disease. Walking just 30 minutes five times a week helps keep you healthy. 

For the latest advances in laparoscopic and robotic surgical options, call our office to schedule an appointment with Dr. Chengelis.  

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