There is no evidence to indicate that alcohol can actually cause gallstones; in fact there is some research that suggests that moderate consumption may reduce the risk of developing the condition. This does not mean that people should begin drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in order to prevent the development of gallstones. This is because heavy alcohol intake can indirectly lead to the formation of these stones and possibly exacerbate existing symptoms. Those individuals who are already dealing with this problem should avoid drinking until their physician says it is safe to do so.
Gallstones get their name because they are very much like small stones – they are hard and have the same appearance as pebbles. They can be made from different materials including cholesterol. These stones form in the liquid bile that is stored in the gallbladder; this bile is needed so that the body can extract fats from food. Gallstones can stay in the gallbladder without causing too mischief but eventually they can move into a duct and cause a blockage. It is this that leads to the problems associated with these stones.
If people develop gallstones it can lead to a number of complications including:
* Biliary colic is pain caused by the gallstone as they block either the common bile duct or the hepatic ducts.
* Acute cholecystitis occurs when the gallstone leads to an inflammation of the gallbladder.
* Acute cholangitis is where the gallstone leads to inflammation in the bile ducts.
* Sometimes a gallstone can block the entrance to the pancreas and cause inflammation to arise there – this is known as pancreatitis.
Many people who have gallstones will not experience any symptoms. There diagnosis is only discovered during an x-ray or other medical investigation. The most usual symptoms that people will experience with gallstones include:
* Pain around the stomach area between the belly button and the breast bone
* Pain that radiates from the upper right abdomen to the shoulder blade. Some people can mistake this pain for cardiac symptoms (and vice versa); it is therefore to always take such pain seriously.
* Nausea and vomiting
* A high temperature
* Rapid heart beat
* Yellowing of the skin and eyes – this is called jaundice
* Some people may develop some mental confusion
The last three symptoms on this list are mostly associated with acute cholangitis.
There are a number of causes and risk factors associated with gallstones including:
* Gallstones are believed to occur because of a chemical imbalance in the composition of bile. This may be connected to the amount of cholesterol that people have in their diet.
* Any condition that increases the production of bile can encourage stone formation
* There seems to be a heredity component to this condition; those people who have a close family member with a history of gallstone problems may be more at risk of developing it.
* Losing weight quickly
* Women who have gone through pregnancy
* As people get older they are more likely to develop gallstones
* Those individuals who have cirrhosis of the liver can develop gallstones as a complication of the scarring on this organ
* People with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s Disease
* Certain medications may encourage the formation of these stones
* Anyone who has had an organ or bone marrow transplant may be more at risk
Some research indicates that regularly drinking a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce the risk of developing gallstones. This is good news for those who are social drinkers. It should not give any comfort to heavy drinkers because such consumption can increase the risk of developing liver cirrhosis which encourages stone formation. If people develop pancreatitis due to their gallstones then they can exacerbate the problem by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. If people already have symptoms of gallstones they should avoid drinking alcohol at all.
If the gallstone is not causing any symptoms the usual way of managing is to just wait and watch. If the gallstones are causing problems already there will be a number of treatment options depending on the symptoms including:
* Sometimes it may be necessary to take a medication that will help dissolve cholesterol gallstones. The problem with this type of drug is that it can take as long as 2 years to be effective. This is why in many cases medication will not be sufficient if the individual is already dealing with a great deal of discomfort. Another problem is that the gallstones may return later.
* The usual way to remove gallstones is use a surgical technique known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This is a type of keyhole surgery that only involves small surgical cuts.
* Sometimes it may be necessary to perform an open cholecystectomy. This involves a much larger incision than the laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
* Electrohydraulic shock wave lithotripsy is an option for those who are unable to undergo surgery. It involves using a high intensity acoustic pulse to break up the stones. This treatment is effective but the stones may come back afterwards.
It is not possible for people to completely prevent the development of these stones. There are things that people can do to reduce the risk such as:
* Maintaining a healthy body weight
* It might be best to avoid sudden weight loss that involves crash diets. It is better to lose weight in a controlled and sustainable way.
* Only drinking alcohol at recommended levels will prevent the individual from developing cirrhosis due to alcoholic liver disease which can lead to stones.
* It is suggested that people avoid foods that are fatty and have high cholesterol content.