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Does Alcohol Cause Gallstones? (How & Why)

Some people drink it socially, some do it to look cool, and some fall into the trap of addiction and drink even when they don’t want to. Addiction is a beast that can only be understood if you’ve experienced it, and those struggling with it have limited options when it comes to getting help. Despite all of the adverse and dangerous side effects of alcohol consumption, it still ranks as one of the most consumed substances on the planet. 

There’s a quote that says, “everything in moderation.” That is true, moderation is the key to balance, but for individuals who have an addiction, moderation is not achievable. The 26.9 percent who participate in binge drinking in the last month can attest to this, and another seven percent reported that they had engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month according to a 2015 statistic. There is a fine line between controlled drinking and binge drinking, and many fall when trying to balance that.

In the United States alone, an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related cases annually. Alcohol deaths are considered the third leading preventable cause of death in our developed nation. Annually, alcohol misuse cost the country $249 billion, and three-quarters of these costs relate to binge drinking.

Additionally, more than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems that could potentially set them up for a life of drinking as well. Alcohol presents many dangers that range from an overdose, death from drunk driving, severe withdrawals that can be deadly, or the complete erosion of one’s life from poor choices and lowered inhibitions. One question that is seldom raised about alcohol, however, is the connection between alcohol and gallstones. We are aware of the other negative effects of alcohol, but are gallstones one of them?

Gallstones are extremely painful, and there is a story about a woman named Suzie who just retired from a 30-year career as a paralegal. Excited about her next chapter, Suzie and her husband decided to take the cruise of a lifetime in Europe. Unfortunately, she found herself crippled by abdominal pain and nausea, but shrugged it off as indigestion and moved forward with her trip of a lifetime. 

Far away from home in Germany, the pain grew out of control. She kept putting it off saying she’ll be home to Seattle in a week. Once she returned home, a CT scan showed “stones and sludge in there,” according to the doctor. She then had an ultrasound, which confirmed she had a gallstone the size of a plum. Fortunately, she was scheduled for surgery soon thereafter and began the healing process.

It was a painful experience, and while it was not related to alcohol, the anecdote was meant to describe how painful gallstones can be. Alcohol isn’t directly associated with gallstones, but that doesn’t mean drinking in excess can’t contribute to the development of them. Let’s take a more in-depth look at what you should know about the gallbladder and gallstones.

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The Gallbladder and Gallstones

Our gallbladder is a small organ that typically flies under the radar unless a problem were to arise. It’s normal not to give much thought to its existence, but if you develop a problem, it can be excruciating as we’ve described above.

Gallbladders are small organs located under the liver, below the rib cage. It connects the intestine and liver through tubes known as bile ducts. Bile, which is stored in the gallbladder, is fluid produced by the liver meant to break down the fat from meals. Bile is vital in the digestion of fat, and also helps you to absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins. 

On occasion, gallstones can form and cause discomfort. Gallstones are small collections of solid material that can develop in our gallbladder. They can appear as small stones, or be smaller, and be made entirely of cholesterol. Often it is entirely from pigment, which is calcium and bilirubin.

The formation of gallstones is a direct result of chemicals that make up bile which is out of balance and occur when your cholesterol levels are higher than the acid levels.

Sometimes these symptoms won’t be felt, but other times the pain is severe. The most common symptoms of gallstones is pain in the abdomen, but you can also endure nausea and vomiting. Gallstones that aren’t causing problems generally don’t require treatment, but in more severe cases, they can require antibiotics, surgery, or a combination of both.

Does Alcohol Cause Gallstones?

While it is not discussed as often as liver or kidney problems caused by alcohol, it is still a question that concerns many who drink. Is there a relationship between alcohol and gallstones? The reason people may believe gallstones are linked to alcohol is that the gallbladder is attached to the liver, and this is one of the organs that can endure the most damage from excessive drinking. There is not enough research that shows how alcohol affects the gallbladder or leads to the creation of gallstones directly.

Do not think that it cannot occur, however, because there are some indirect links to alcohol and gallstones. Your gallbladder has a direct interaction with the liver, and if the functionality of the liver is impaired, it can create havoc for the gallbladder. If you have a liver problem because of alcohol, it could make it more likely to have bile that’s imbalanced, which as we described above is a direct result of gallstones.

The obese are more prone to developing gallstones because of a high-fat diet, and people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are often heavier than non-drinkers.

Moderate drinking is associated with having a lower risk of developing gallstones, and if you’re already diagnosed with the problem, it would be in your best interest to keep your alcohol intake at a minimal level.

How Do I Prevent Gallstones?

If you are drinking, the first way to prevent gallstones is to stop drinking altogether. If you must drink, however, you must limit your intake to minimal levels. Because cholesterol plays a role in the formation of gallstones, it’s advisable to stop eating foods with high saturated fat content. Some of these foods include:

  • Cream
  • Hard cheeses
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Food that contains coconut or palm oil
  • Butter
  • Sausages, and fatty cuts of meat

A healthy balanced diet is recommended, which includes fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Evidence also suggests that regularly eating nuts, such as peanuts or cashews can reduce the risk of developing gallstones. 

If you have been diagnosed with gallstones, but are experiencing difficulty abstaining from drinking substantial amounts of alcohol, it may indicate you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder. If that is the case, you are going to require some assistance that allows you to stop drinking safely. As we’ve discussed, alcohol can be deadly during the withdrawal phase, and the safest way to mitigate any dangers is to attend medical detoxification. It will allow you to transition into sobriety with assistance, and start working on your long-term health.

Sources

(n.d.). from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gallstones/prevention/

Can You Drink Beer With Gallstone Problems? (n.d.). from https://www.livestrong.com/article/542981-can-you-drink-beer-with-gallstone-problems/

Wang, J., Duan, X., Li, B., & Jiang, X. (2017, April). Alcohol consumption and risk of gallstone disease: A meta-analysis. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27926662

Patient Story: Gall Bladder Surgery. (n.d.). from https://www.swedish.org/services/swedish-surgical-specialists/patient-story-gallbladder

Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

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