Woman with gallbladder pain
Experiencing a gallbladder attack can be summed up in one word: painful. Gallbladder attacks are caused by gallstones (a buildup of bile). The attacks can cause sudden—and very intense—pain, so excruciating that it can cause nausea or chills. Learning this, there is likely one question on your mind: How can you prevent it from happening?
While gallstones or gallbladder attacks aren’t always preventable, there are some ways you can lower your risk, including avoiding one habit in particular.
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What Is the Gallbladder, Anyway?
“The gallbladder is a small three- to four-inch pear-shaped organ in the upper-right part of the abdomen, under the liver,” explains Dr. Lance Uradomo, MD, MPH, an interventional gastroenterologist at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, California. Dr. Uradomo explains that the gallbladder stores bile, which is a fluid the liver produces to break down and digest fats.
Dr. Mejdi Ahmad, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Medical Offices in Manhattan and a contributor to LabFinder, says that this fluid is a balanced mixture of cholesterol, bilirubin and bile salts. “Any imbalance can set off the formation of gallstones, which is when bile fluid crystals form and aggregate in clumps of varying size,” he says. Dr. Ahmad explains that, normally, bile fluid is released after passing the bile duct into the small intestine. While the function of the gallbladder is not essential, its role in digestion remains important.
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“We don’t really think about our gallbladder until something goes wrong with it such as gallstones, a blockage, an infection, or inflammation which can be very painful and sometimes lead to life-threatening complications,” Dr. Uradomo says.
The Number One Habit To Avoid To Keep Your Gallbladder Healthy—and What To Do Instead
Dr. Ahmad explains that certain factors put someone more at risk of getting gallstones and experiencing a gallbladder attack. He says that women are more at risk than men and that people 40 and older are more at risk. Additionally, he says that Native Americans and Mexican Americans can develop gallstones more easily than other groups. Black Americans are least likely to get gallstones or experience a gallbladder attack. If gallstones run in your family, you are more likely to experience them too.
Regardless of whether these risk factors apply to you or not, there is one action both doctors say everyone can take to keep their gallbladder healthy: avoid eating a diet that’s high in saturated fat. “That means choosing lean meats for your protein, chicken or fish. And don’t eat—or at least limit—full-fat dairy food, red meats and processed meats,” Dr. Uradomo says. “A diet that is high in fat and that includes a lot of sugary soft drinks, processed meats, red meat, full-fat dairy products, and refined grains is not for anyone who wants a healthy gallbladder.”
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Both doctors emphasize that the best way to keep your gallbladder healthy is to consume “healthy fats” found in olive oil and fish, while minimizing refined carbohydrates, sugar, and fried foods. In addition to this, both doctors recommend eating fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
In addition to being mindful of your diet, Dr. Ahmad says that drinking enough water is also important for gallbladder health. Additionally, he says consuming moderate amounts of caffeine may reduce the risk of gallstones. “Certain bitters, dandelion, lemon oil and phosphatidylcholine [found in eggs, soybeans, mustard, and other foods] can help reduce gallbladder inflammation and prevent gallstone formation,” he adds. Since maintaining a healthy weight is linked to keeping the gallbladder healthy, Dr. Uradomo says that exercising regularly is another way to keep your gallbladder healthy.
If you are at high risk for developing gallstones, Dr. Ahmad says you may benefit from a medication called ursodiol, which can be used to help prevent some gallstones. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn more about how it works and if you are a good fit.
The best way to keep your gallbladder healthy is the same as the best way to keep your body healthy as a whole: Eat a diet high in fiber, lean protein and healthy fats while minimizing consumption of ultra-processed foods. With these habits in place, you’ll be taking the most important steps in keeping your gallbladder healthy. That way, you can go back to not thinking about it at all.
Next up, find out what 18 foods nutritionists say are the absolute best for gut health.