Your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located in the upper right part of your abdomen. Along with your liver and pancreas, your gallbladder is a part of your biliary system.
Your biliary system focuses on the production, storage, and release of bile, a liquid that’s important for the digestion of fats. Your gallbladder’s specific function is to store bile until it needs to be released into your small intestine.
You probably know that consuming alcohol can affect your liver. But have you ever wondered whether alcohol can also impact your gallbladder?
Let’s look at what’s known about alcohol’s effect on your gallbladder, what else can cause gallbladder issues, and how to keep your gallbladder healthy.
Gallstones are deposits of a substance, often cholesterol, that harden and accumulate in your gallbladder. They’re common, affecting 10 to 15 percent of people in the United States.
What does the research say?
A 2019 analysis published in the journal
How exactly alcohol reduces gallstone risk is unknown. One theory is that alcohol consumption increases the rate at which the gallbladder empties. This would reduce the amount of bile that lingers in the gallbladder, lowering the risk of stone formation.
However, research hasn’t supported this finding. Instead, researchers have observed
Other ideas about how alcohol lowers gallstone risk are related to cholesterol, which many gallstones are made up of. For example, it’s possible that alcohol consumption
We mentioned moderate alcohol consumption above, but what exactly does that mean?
- 1 drink per day for women
- 2 drinks per day for men
The amount that’s considered one drink varies based on the type of alcohol you’re consuming. A standard drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol content)
While moderate alcohol consumption may lower your risk of gallstones, drinking too much alcohol can have a negative impact on your health in several ways.
Binge drinking and heavy drinking may seem similar, but they have different definitions:
- Binge drinking: 4 or more drinks on the same occasion for women or 5 or more drinks on the same occasion for men
- Heavy drinking: binge drinking 5 or more days in the past month
Engaging in frequent binge drinking or heavy drinking can increase your risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Excessive alcohol consumption is also associated with an increased risk of:
- injury due to car accidents or falls
- engaging in sex without a barrier method or sex with multiple partners
- problems with memory and coordination
- infections due to a weakened immune system
- pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation of the pancreas
- various health conditions, including alcohol-related liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke
- some types of cancer, such as breast cancer, liver cancer, and colon cancer
- mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression
If you believe that you or a loved one has a dependence on alcohol, there are many resources you can turn to for help and support. These include:
- Your primary care doctor. If you have concerns about your alcohol consumption, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They can offer guidance and potential treatment options.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The SAMHSA national helpline (1-800-662-4357) is available 24/7. It’s free and confidential and can provide you with treatment center referrals.
- Alcohol Treatment Navigator. Maintained by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), this resource can help you find the right treatment programs and providers.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is a support group that may help you on your journey to quit drinking. There are AA support groups throughout the country. Visit AA’s website to search for a group near you.
- Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a support group for the family and friends of people with alcohol use disorder. As with AA, there are many Al-Anon groups across the country. Go to Al-Anon’s website to find a group that meets in your area.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common gallbladder issues and what can put you at risk for each of them.
Gallstones are hard objects that can develop in your gallbladder. They’re often made up of either cholesterol or bilirubin and can vary in size and number. It’s believed that gallstones form when your bile contains too much of either of these substances.
There are many risk factors for developing gallstones. Some are out of your control, while others are related to underlying conditions or lifestyle habits.
You may be at a higher risk of developing gallstones if you:
- are female
- have a family history of gallstones
- are over 40
- are of Mexican American or Native American descent
- eat a diet that’s high in fat or cholesterol and low in fiber
- have obesity
- have an underlying health condition such as diabetes, liver disease, or sickle cell disease
- have lost weight very quickly
- have extra estrogen in your body due to pregnancy, oral contraceptives, or hormone replacement therapy
The presence of gallstones can sometimes lead to complications within your biliary system, particularly when they block the flow of bile. We’ll discuss some of these conditions below.
Cholecystitis is a condition where your gallbladder becomes inflamed. This most often happens when a gallstone blocks one of your biliary ducts, causing bile to back up in your gallbladder. It can also happen due to growths like polyps or tumors.
Pain due to cholecystitis is often more severe and prolonged than it is with gallstones. Other symptoms can include fever, nausea, and vomiting.
Gallbladder disease without stones
This condition is sometimes also called acalculous gallbladder disease. This is when gallbladder inflammation occurs without gallstones being present. The symptoms are similar to those of cholecystitis.
Gallbladder disease without stones is often seen in people who have experienced severe physical trauma or burns or who have an autoimmune condition like lupus. Having heart or abdominal surgery can also be a risk factor for this disease.
Choledocholithiasis occurs when a gallstone blocks your common bile duct, the tube that transports bile from your liver to your small intestine. A blockage in this area can cause bile to accumulate in your liver.
Choledocholithiasis causes pain in the upper right part of your abdomen. Other symptoms can include:
Polyps are growths that can occur in your gallbladder. Most gallbladder polyps are benign (noncancerous). In rare cases, they can be malignant (cancerous). Little is known about the risk factors for developing gallbladder polyps.
A gallbladder polyp may not cause any symptoms. However, if it blocks a duct, it can cause symptoms like pain, nausea, and vomiting.
You can take several steps to help keep your gallbladder healthy and functioning well:
- Increase your fiber intake. Foods that are high in fiber include whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Eat more healthy fats. Foods rich in healthy fats include fish, nuts, olive oil, and avocados.
- Cut back on some foods. Reduce your intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates.
- Get active when you can. Regular exercise is beneficial for your overall health. It can also help you maintain a moderate weight and prevent gallstones.
- If necessary, lose weight safely and slowly. If you have a high body weight and your doctor recommends losing weight, aim to do so gradually. Your doctor can help you find a safe approach.
Research has found that moderate alcohol consumption may help reduce the risk of gallstones, although researchers aren’t sure how this occurs.
While drinking in moderation may lower the risk of gallstones, excess alcohol consumption can increase your risk of many health conditions.
If you believe that you or a loved one misuses alcohol, there are many resources available to help.