A gallbladder attack may come on suddenly with abdominal pain that lasts anywhere from 1 to 5 hours. After the pain goes away, it may be weeks or even months before you experience another attack or have other symptoms, like a fever, itchy skin, or jaundice.

This article will tell you about gallstones that form in the gallbladder, how they form, and ways you might prevent them by using statin medications or implementing lifestyle changes.

Gallstones are pieces of hardened material — cholesterol or bilirubin — that form inside the gallbladder. Stones range in size from as tiny as a grain of sand to as big as a pebble. You may have just one gallstone, but you typically get multiple.

When larger gallstones block the bile ducts, they cause bile to build up in the gallbladder (also called a gallbladder attack). You may experience sudden and worsening pain in the upper right of your abdomen during a gallbladder attack. Most gallstones are found in older people who don’t necessarily have any symptoms.

If your gallstones are causing pain and other symptoms, you may need surgery to remove them. If you’re asymptomatic, on the other hand, no treatment is necessary.

Around 1 out of every 5 gallstones are made out of cholesterol. One reason is that gallstones can be formed when the liver itself produces too much cholesterol. The bile can’t break down the cholesterol fast enough, so crystals form that eventually turn into gallstones.

One Korean study found that people in Western countries tend to have cholesterol gallstones while people in Asian countries tend to have bilirubin gallstones (also called pigment gallstones).

Through their research, they discovered that people in Western countries consume more fat overall from meat and fried foods. People in Asian countries, on the other hand, consume more carbohydrates. The data suggests a diet high in cholesterol may be a cause of cholesterol gallstones.

Women are at an increased risk of developing gallstones as well. This may be because estrogen, a female sex hormone, can increase cholesterol levels in the body.

Women who are taking the combination birth control pill and other estrogen-containing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are also at an increased risk due to the estrogen-cholesterol connection.

Studies show that statins may be a potential treatment for gallstones made of cholesterol. The way statins work is by reducing how much cholesterol is made by the liver.

When the liver makes less cholesterol, less cholesterol — specifically LDL cholesterol — circulates in the blood.

Both animal and human studies have also shown that moderate to high amounts of statin medications may help to prevent or even break up existing gallstones that are made of excess cholesterol.

So far, low statin use (between one and four prescriptions) doesn’t appear to have an impact on gallstones.

Additional research further supports the idea that statins may dissolve cholesterol gallstones. There’s a downside, though. These smaller stones may then travel to the pancreas and cause pancreatitis.

Overall, more research is needed before statins are widely prescribed to treat gallstones.

Yes, you may be able to lower your risk of cholesterol gallstones by changing your diet and making other changes to your lifestyle.

Here are some specific options that you can consider:

Food choices

Eating foods that are high in saturated fats increases your overall cholesterol levels, so avoiding these foods may help to lower them. In turn, lowering your cholesterol levels may decrease your risk of gallstones.

Foods to avoid may include:

  • full fall cheeses
  • coconut and palm oils
  • full fat butter or lard
  • higher fat-containing proteins

In general, try eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Some experts recommend eating nuts, like peanuts and cashews, for gallstone prevention.

Speak with your doctor about what dietary changes may make sense for you.

Weight loss

If you’re overweight, losing weight is another measure that may help to lower your cholesterol.

Being overweight or having obesity may increase how much cholesterol is in your bile. Losing weight through diet and regular exercise can help regulate your cholesterol levels.

Again, speak with your doctor about weight loss, as losing weight too quickly may actually increase your risk of developing gallstones.

Certain medications

Birth control or hormone replacement therapy may contain estrogen, which can also impact your possible risk if you take them.

Speak with your doctor about how these medications affect your risk.

Gallstones are caused by excess cholesterol in the gallbladder. Research shows that moderate to high use of statin drugs may help to break up gallstones, but more study is needed in this area.

Lifestyle changes with diet and exercise may help lower your risk of gallstones as well. If you’re dealing with gallbladder attacks, speak with your doctor about the options available to you and for any additional ways you may treat and prevent yourself from developing gallstones.