Gallstones, Cholesterol and Superfoods
What are Gallstones?
Gallstones (also known as cholelithiasis) are pebble-like substances that form in your gallbladder (the organ responsible for storing bile). It is a common and costly digestive disease, often causing acute pain which results in hospitalisation. Women are twice as likely as men to develop gallstones. The higher prevalence of gallstones in women is thought to be caused by multiple pregnancies, obesity and rapid weight loss. Many people undergo cholecystectomy (surgical removal of the gallbladder) each year.
How Gallstones form
The normal function of your gallbladder is as a storage place for bile which is a liquid produced in the liver.
Bile is a fluid whose normal function is to help your body digest fats. It aids in the digestion and absorption of fats in the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine). After eating fats, as your body begins the digestive process, your gallbladder contracts and pushes the stored bile into the common bile duct, which brings the liquid to your small intestine to aid digestion.
Gallstones form when the liquid bile hardens and changes to hard pieces of stone-like material which can then block the common bile duct, causing symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, or what is often called a gallbladder attack.
Types of Gallstones
Gallstones are a solid formation of cholesterol and bile salts. Eighty percent of gallstones are classified as either cholesterol stones or pigment stones.
Cholesterol Stones: The medical community’s current belief is that cholesterol stones are the result of bile that is made of too much cholesterol or bilirubin and not enough bile salts. Cholesterol stones may also form when the gallbladder fails to properly empty itself during the digestive process.
Pigment Stones: Medical science remains unsure about what causes pigment stones in the gallbladder. Those who develop pigment stones most often include people who have cirrhosis of the liver, biliary tract infections, and hereditary blood disorders which include sickle cell anaemia. These are all conditions that lead to the formation of too much bilirubin.
However, research shows that approximately 80 to 90 percent of all gallstones are cholesterol gallstones which form when the liver begins secreting bile that is abnormally saturated with cholesterol. The excess cholesterol crystallises and then forms stones which are stored in the gallbladder or the cystic duct. Gallstones can also form due to low levels of bile acids and bile lecithin.
So, the long and the short of it remains that when bile contains too much cholesterol or other materials, it can harden into gallstones. These gallstones can then block the normal flow of bile from the gallbladder, which can lead to pain.
Symptoms of Gallstones
In many cases, gallstones produce no symptoms. However, symptoms can arise when gallstones block the bile ducts (tubes that transport bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine for use in digestion). These symptoms, collectively referred to as biliary colic or a ‘gallbladder attack,’ may develop suddenly. They may include:
- Pain in the right upper abdomen that builds rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
- Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
- Pain under the right shoulder
Since blockages in the bile ducts can be complicated by a serious infection or a rupture in the gallbladder, you should contact your doctor if you think you've suffered a gallbladder attack. If your symptoms are accompanied by prolonged pain (lasting for hours), nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, a yellowish colouring in the skin or the whites of your eyes, and/or clay-coloured stools, seek immediate medical attention.
Increased risk factors for Gallstones
Previously, the typical gallstone patient was fair, fat and over forty. However, today gallstones are seen in younger patients, perhaps due to the large amount of fast foods being consumed. Risk factors which can lead to an increased incidence of gallstones include the ‘Four Fs:’ fat, female, fertile and flatulent, as well as sickle cell disease (bilirubin), cirrhosis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, pancreatic disease, and hyperparathyroidism.
The following conditions increase your risk of developing gallstones:
- Use of hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills
- A family history of gallstones
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating a diet high in fat and cholesterol and low in fibre
- Rapid weight loss
- Being aged over 60
- Use of cholesterol-lowering drugs
Standard and conventional treatment may include medication to dissolve the gallstones. If biliary colic or biliary infections recur frequently, surgery to remove your gallbladder may be performed.
If gallstones do not produce any symptoms, treatment is not required.
The best way to prevent gallstones is to minimise the risk factors. In addition, the practice of yoga stretches lowers your risk of developing gallstones.
Natural Remedies for Gallstones
Although research on the use of alternative medicine in treating or preventing gallstones is limited, the following natural substances may help protect against gallstones:
- Fibre: Research suggests that following a diet rich in fibre may help prevent gallstone formation. Fibre sources include whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, psyllium and flaxseed.
- Vitamin C: In a study of 13,130 adults published in 2000, researchers found that women with higher levels of vitamin C were less likely to develop gallstones. Vitamin C, which is essential for converting cholesterol to bile acids, is available in a number of fruits and vegetables (including citrus, berries, broccoli, and kale), as well as in supplement form.
- Milk Thistle: Silibinin (a compound found in the herb milk thistle) has been found to reduce cholesterol levels in bile, which may in turn keep gallstones from forming. However, the data on this is very limited.
Digestive BasicsAll foods provide our bodies with energy, but so-called ‘superfoods’ have the added potential of helping protect against disease. Here are some top superfoods to lower cholesterol, plus tips on how to incorporate them into your diet.
Whole grain oats contain cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre. Studies show that individuals with high cholesterol (over 200 mg/dl) who eat one bowl of oatmeal daily lower their cholesterol by an average of 8% to 23%.
Preparation Tip: Sprinkle your oatmeal (be sure to look for whole grain rolled oats) with ½ tsp of cinnamon for an added nutritional boost, as cinnamon appears to lower average blood glucose levels and may reduce disease causing inflammation. Come and try Nirvana's scrumptious rolled oats for breakfast.
LEGUMES (Beans, Lentils and Chickpeas)
Legumes are an excellent source of fibre and serve as a great substitute for meat in many dishes.
Preparation Tip: beans, lentils and legumes are a fantastic way to add fibre to any meal and make a tasty addition to soups, stews, and salads. Add a ¼ teaspoon paprika and cayenne pepper to hummus (a Middle Eastern ground chickpea dip) for a zesty nutritional bonus. Shanti Yoga 'Body and Soul' meals are a delicious way to eat your way to health. Every meal includes legumes for variety and health. Cooked fresh daily, you can pick up a meal after yoga for $10, or stock your freezer with our frozen meals for $7 each.
Often the total grams of fat in avocados scares people. The fat found in avocados is mostly ‘good’ fat. Research shows that regular consumption of avocados can help decrease your total cholesterol and increase your HDL (‘good’ cholesterol).
It is better to purchase firm avocados and wait a few days for them to ripen before using them. If you are in a hurry for them to ripen, you can place them in a paper bag and keep them at room temperature to speed the process. Hass avocados are all black, firm and with a slightly soft top. These should be used shortly after purchase. If the avocado is already quite soft to the touch, it will likely be over-ripe by the time you prepare your dish.
Preparation Tip: Homemade guacamole is a great complement to any meal. Here is a recipe from ‘Food for Life’ by Shanti Gowans. There are over one hundred delicious and healthy recipes and there is also excellent information about Ayurveda in this book.
Shanti Gowans is the globally recognised author and founder of Shanti Yoga™, Meditation and Ayurveda for the self, family and community.
Shantiji has brought the concepts and practices of a healthy body and a still mind to thousands of Australians through her Yoga and Meditation programs on national television... Read more about Shantiji's biography
Travel with Shanti & Peter Gowans this November for a trip of a lifetime.