Some 10-15% of adults in the U.S. experience the pain of gallstones.  In fact, it's a digestive concern that sends more people to the hospital each year than any other. And, unfortunately, the rate of gallstone attacks has been continually rising. There is a good chance that you or someone you know will have to deal with this painful condition at some point in your life. There are some things you can do to help avoid gallstones but, before we get to that, we should first explain what gallstones are.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are crystallized enzymes, bile salts, and cholesterol that can form into small clumps in your gallbladder. The gallbladder is the organ that supplies the liver with bile, which is used to digest protein. When gallstones do form, they can come in an array of shapes and sizes. In fact, most gallstones are actually very small and many pass unnoticed. These are called silent gallstones.
However, this isn’t always the case. When gallstones don’t pass right away, they continue to grow. Sometimes they get so big they actually block bile flow from the gallbladder, totally blocking the gall duct. This leads to a painful condition called biliary colic. Gallstones can be microscopic, and most are, but some end up as large as a golf ball. These extreme cases can lead not only to gall duct blockage but can even irritate the liver. As you might imagine, this can be incredibly uncomfortable, even requiring a hospital visit. Some cases even warrant surgery!
What Causes Gallstones?
Several factors can lead to the development of gallstones, of which there are two types: cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones . Cholesterol gallstones form when undissolved cholesterol collects in the gallbladder or the biliary duct which leads to the small intestine. Pigment gallstones occur when too much bilirubin (byproduct of red blood cell breakdown with bile) remains in the gallbladder or gall duct. Gallstones can also occur when the gallbladder does not empty as frequently as it should. When this happens, bile becomes concentrated and encourages crystallization of cholesterol or bilirubin.
Additional factors that increase a person’s likelihood of developing gallstones:
- Low HDL
- Inadequate diet
- Crohn’s disease
- Blood disorders
- Rapid weight loss
- Family history 
What are the Symptoms?
While “silent” gallstones pass without incident, larger ones can cause tremendous pain that lasts for hours. One of the most common symptoms is a rapidly intensifying pain on the upper-right side of the abdomen or even pain in the right shoulder. In certain cases, the pain can become so intense that you can neither sit still nor find a comfortable position.
In the most severe cases, gallstones can lead to fever with chills. If there is an extreme amount of bilirubin buildup, the skin may take on a yellow color. Typically, the more severe the symptoms are the more serious the blockage has become. Some cases may even end in surgery, with the worst case requiring a cholecystectomy, which is the removal of the gallbladder.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to naturally help reduce the risk of gallstone formation. First, eat meals that contain fat. Each time you do, your gallbladder releases bile to break it down. When the bile is flowing regularly, the chances of crystals forming are greatly reduced.
Exercise can also have a tremendous effect. The New England Journal of Medicine has reported that in a study of over 60,000 women, those who sat for more than 40 hours per week at work experienced gallstones much more frequently than those who were more active. A similar study by the Harvard School of Public Health involved over 45,000 men who exercised for 30 minutes 5 times each week. This study found that exercise reduced the risk of gallstones by over 33 percent. Of course, exercise can also go a long way towards maintaining a healthy body.
Foods that Help Reduce Risk of Gallstones
There are also some foods that can help with reducing your risk of developing gallstones. Nuts like pecans, walnuts, and cashews provide the right type of fats and proteins that help keep bile flowing and the bile ducts clear. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has reported that women who eat five ounces of nuts or more per week have fewer cases of gallstones and are less likely to require gallbladder surgery.  And in addition to the fats and proteins that help fight gallstones, nuts are also loaded with vitamins and minerals that can help with weight management. 
Even if you aren’t getting enough of these foods in your regular diet, it is possible to support your gallbladder through supplementation.
Other Foods & Nutrients for Gallbladder Support
Some nutrients can help support your gallbladder as a compliment to a healthy diet.
1. Vitamin C
This is a simple and affordable way to reduce your risk. Most importantly, it’s effective. In fact, vitamin C can cut your risk of developing gallstones by half. One trait that people love is how easy it is to add vitamin C to your diet.
2. Lemon Juice
Lemon juice shares some properties with bile and stomach acid. This makes it very effective at breaking down fats and cholesterol and help detoxify the liver. Combining the juice of one fresh, organic lemon with just a tablespoon of olive oil is a tremendous way to stimulate bile flow and help stop crystallization.
3. Chanca Piedra
Found in traditional therapies from around the world, chanca piedra is used to promote gallbladder and kidney health. It supports normal bile flow, which helps to cleanse the bile ducts.
4. Gravel Root
Gravel root, commonly known as the Joe-Pye weed, is another herb that has been used for thousands of years, best known for its soothing properties  and other health benefits, which includes the ability to keep gallstones from forming.
Curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, has been found to discourage gallstones.  Turmeric is also known for being a powerful antioxidant with soothing abilities and numerous additional health benefits.
- University of Maryland Medical Center Gallstones and Gallbladder Disease. Last reviewed August 26, 2012.
- Michael F. Leitzmann, M.D., M.P.H., Eric B. Rimm, Sc.D., Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., Donna Spiegelman, Sc.D., Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., Meir J. Stampfer, M.D., Dr.P.H., Graham A. Colditz, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Edward Giovannucci, M.D., Sc.D. Recreational Physical Activity and the Risk of Cholecystectomy in Women. N Engl J Med 1999; 341:777-784. September 9, 1999DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199909093411101.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.