Gallstones are hard, stone like deposits that build up in the gallbladder. They range in size from tiny sand-like pebbles to large golf ball sized deposits. It is possible to have gallstones without experiencing any symptoms. However, symptoms usually develop when the gallstone/s block the cystic duck or the bile duct within the gallbladder. Symptoms include pain in the right upper or middle upper abdomen, fever, jaundice, clay-colored stools, nausea and vomiting. Gallstones are usually treated via surgery to remove the stones or the gallbladder itself. Medication may also be taken to dissolve the gallstones. What is the cause of these deposits? Read this article to learn more.
What causes gallstones?
There are several types of gallstones, cholesterol gallstones, pigment gallstones as well as gallstones caused by antibiotic use. Cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones are the most common with other types of gallstones being rare.
Cholesterol gallstones are the most common, with 80% of cases being caused by cholesterol build up. This type of gallstone is caused by cholesterol particles binding together within the gallbladder. This occurs when the liver either produces too much cholesterol to be properly dissolved or not enough bile acids to adequately dissolve the amount of cholesterol. The extra cholesterol sticks together and causes gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones can also be caused by two other processes. If a person already has gallstones their body forms particles of cholesterol more rapidly than normal creating larger gallstones. Gallbladder motility also contributes to the growth of cholesterol gallstones. If the gallbladder is not contracting as it should be then the bile remains in the gallbladder for longer allowing cholesterol particles to form.
Pigment gallstones make up 15% of the gallstones found in individuals from Europe and the Americas. Interestingly, in Southeast Asia pigment gallstones are the more common gallstone. Pigment gallstones are either black pigment stones or brown pigment stones. Pigment is a waste product produced by hemoglobin (oxygen carrying red blood cells). Hemoglobin is broken down into a chemical called bilirubin which is released into the blood. The liver removes this chemical from the blood and modifies it and then secretes it as part of bile.
Black pigment gallstones are caused by too much bilirubin in the bile. Bilirubin combines with calcium and other constitutes of bile forming pigment. These particles of pigment stick together and form hard, black stones that can grow over time.
Brown pigment gallstones are caused by poor motility of the gallbladder. When the gallbladder does not contract as it should bacteria can enter from the duodenum into the bile ducts and gallbladder. These bacteria alters the chemical nature of the bilirubin. This then combines with calcium to form pigment. The pigment will combine with fatty acids and cholesterol to form particles which bind together and cause gallstones.
Other contributors to the formation of gallstones include:
Gender – women are more like to develop gall stones than men.
Age – people over the age of 40 are more likely to develop gallstones.
Family history – if a first degree relative has gallstones it is likely that you will develop them too.
Weight – being overweight stresses your body systems and can contribute to gallstone development.
Diet – a diet high in fat, low in fiber and high in cholesterol increases the chance of gallstones.
Diabetes – people with diabetes secrete high levels of fatty acids which can increase the risk of gallstones.
Cholesterol lowering medication – this can cause the liver to secrete more cholesterol into bile putting you at greater risk.