Gallstones are hard particles that form in the gallbladder, and they can be difficult to detect or diagnose because they do not usually trigger external symptoms. These are known as "silent gallstones" and, as a rule, do not require treatment and are not a cause for concern. You may be carrying excess weight on your body if you have gallstones, but this is because obesity is a common cause of gallstones, rather than a side effect of them. Keep reading to learn more about gallstones, understand the links between body mass and the gallbladder, and discover when medical treatment is necessary.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones develop in the gallbladder - the organ beneath the liver that is responsible for the concentration of bile and its distribution in the digestive system. Stones develop as a result of chemical imbalances in the bile; in four out of five cases, excess cholesterol crystallizes and grows to form stones, and one in every five gallstones is formed from excess levels of bilirubin, a waste product created when red blood cells break down.
Stones can range from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a large pebble, and can form over many years. Usually, they form without external symptoms and do not pose a threat to a person's health. However, when a gallstone becomes trapped in a duct in the gallbladder, it may trigger intense bouts of abdominal pain known as gallbladder attacks. These attacks tend to follow a heavy meal and may last for up to five hours. Other symptoms of a trapped gallstone include jaundice, fever, light-colored urine, and the passing of clay-like stools.
Obesity and Other Causes of Gallstones
The primary cause of gallstones is excess cholesterol levels. Inevitably, this means that those who are overweight or obese - with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or greater - are among the most likely to develop stones, because they statistically show higher levels of cholesterol than those at a healthy weight. Studies have also found that those who carry their weight around their middle (as opposed to their hips and thighs) are more likely to have gallstones form.
Somewhat confusingly, those who have undergone extreme or rapid weight loss are also prone to developing gallstones, whether this is through very low calorie intake or weight loss surgeries, such as the insertion of a gastric band.
Estrogen can have a cholesterol-increasing effect on bile, so women are more susceptible to developing gallstones than men, particularly those who have been pregnant or taken hormone replacement therapy. Diabetics, sufferers of liver cirrhosis, and those with a family history of gallbladder issues are also among the most likely to develop gallstones.
How Are Gallstones Treated?
Gallstones are diagnosed through various methods, including ultrasounds, endoscopies, and other scans. Trapped stones are usually treated with the removal of the gallbladder itself during keyhole surgery. Though this may sound drastic, a person is still able to function normally without a gallbladder; bile, rather than being stored, concentrated, and secreted from the gallbladder, is constantly dripped through the digestive system straight from the liver.
Unless you are experiencing discomfort, it is best to focus on treating the cause of the gallstones rather than worrying too much about the stones themselves. If you are losing weight at a rapid pace, slow it down and aim for healthier, consistent weight loss of around 1 ½ pounds (700 g) per week. It's important to talk to your doctor if you are concerned about excess weight or think you may have a trapped gallstone.