Q&A: Three factors that affect gallbladder health

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Gallbladder

Q: How do the “3Fs” increase my risk for gallstones?  

A: The gallbladder is an organ that stores bile produced by the liver and aids in digesting and absorbing fats. Gallstones and other related diseases occur when bile concentrates and thickens in the gallbladder. This often causes inflammation, infection, and obstruction of bile flow, leading to pain and discomfort.

As one of the most common digestive diseases, it is no surprise more than 20 million Americans suffer from gallstones each year. However, a large majority of those affected by gallstones have one or more of the “3F” risk factors: They are female, have a high percentage of body fat or are forty years or older.

Female: Women represent nearly 70 percent of gallstone diagnoses annually. Women naturally have high levels of estrogen, which can accelerate the formation of gallstones. Pregnancy or use of birth control pills can also contribute to gallstones.

Fat: Body mass index (BMI), which measures your height-to-weight ratio, plays a large part in your risk of gallstones. Most gallstones form from cholesterol deposits in bile, and people with high BMIs typically have higher levels of cholesterol in their bile. In addition, dramatic weight gain or loss increases cholesterol production in the liver. However, medication can help prevent gallstone formation during rapid weight loss.

Forty: After age 40, the risk of gallstones increases for both men and women. Reduced efficiency of the liver and gallbladder, increased cholesterol, and spiked estrogen levels in women during pregnancy and premenopause can all lead to gallstones.

While some people develop gallstones without any symptoms, others can experience back pain, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and inflammation. Early detection with ultrasound can allow physicians to break up gallstones before symptoms become too severe. A change of diet and lifestyle can help prevent future recurrences.

Omeche Idoko, M.D., is a primary-care physician at Mercy Family Healthcare Associates.