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Crash Dieting Affects Cholesterol and Causes Painful Gallstones

Are you motivated to lose your love handles in anticipation of bathing suit season? Good for you!

But: Don’t go overboard with dieting, because losing weight too rapidly can lead to gallstones. Here’s why…

When calories consumed don’t meet the body’s energy needs, the body metabolizes its stored fat for energy. This stimulates the liver to secrete extra bile—a fluid that’s composed mostly of cholesterol and salts and that helps break down fats—into your gallbladder. If weight is lost very quickly, the amount of cholesterol in the bile rises, turning the liquid into a thick sludge and interfering with the proper emptying of the gallbladder.

As bile salts accumulate in the gallbladder, crystals form and grow into hard lumps. Called gallstones, these can number from one to hundreds and range from the size of a grain of salt to a golf ball.

When a gallstone blocks the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the intestine, inflammation sets in, triggering excruciating upper-abdominal pain that lasts for hours or even days and perhaps even requires surgical removal of the gallbladder.

This would definitely put a damper on your warm-weather fun!

Fortunately, you can prevent that problem by dieting in a certain way.


Andrew L. Rubman, ND, medical director of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, told me how dieters can reduce gallstone risk…

For safety’s sake, weight loss ideally should be undertaken under medical supervision. But let’s face it—in the real world, people often try to lose weight on their own. A good guideline to follow, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, is to take off about two pounds per week. That said, if you are under medical supervision, you may be able to safely lose significantly more—perhaps even up to 10 pounds per week, Dr. Rubman said—thanks to the improved fat removal that comes with better digestion and proper bile flow.

Don’t go too long without eating. Skipping meals decreases gallbladder contractions, preventing the gallbladder from emptying out the bile.

Eat plenty of the following veggies—bitter leafy greens (arugula, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, beet greens), artichokes, rhubarb, broccoli, sauerkraut, beets, garlic and onions. These foods stimulate the formation of bile with sufficient bile salt content to maintain proper bile flow, Dr. Rubman said.

Avoid trans fats, such as those found in many fried foods, crackers, chips and baked goods—these increase the amount of cholesterol secreted into the bile and the amount of work the gallbladder must do to release bile. But don’t go too low in fat in general—you need some healthful fats in your diet to stimulate bile flow. Best: Get about 15% of your calories from “good” fats, such as the cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Surprising: Egg yolks also are helpful, Dr. Rubman said, because they are a good source of HDL “good” cholesterol.

Go ahead and have some coffee. In a study of 80,000 nurses, drinking two or more cups of caffeinated coffee daily cut gallstone risk by about 20%. Reason: Caffeine may reduce formation of cholesterol crystals that become gallstones…and also may stimulate gallbladder contractions, flushing away crystals.

Cut back on sugar. Excess sugar consumption is associated with insulin resistance, a condition that boosts the liver’s production of cholesterol.

Guard against constipation by eating plenty of high-fiber whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Because the body eliminates bile via the stool, constipation allows sludgy old bile to accumulate.

Exercise—it’s very good for the gallbladder and has been shown to reduce gallstone risk. Dr. Rubman recommended doing some form of physical activity at least three times a week for at least a half-hour—for example, walk briskly at a rate at which you are not panting but your skin feels moist.


Certain supplements help reduce gallstone risk while you’re dieting—and continue to support good health after weight loss is achieved. To make sure that the supplements won’t interact with any drugs you may take or interfere with any medical condition you may have, Dr. Rubman recommended talking with a nutrition-oriented doctor about the following…

Vitamin-B complex. The B vitamins, particularly vitamin B-12, boost production of red blood cells, which help keep the gallbladder functioning properly.

Glucomannan (made from the root of the konjac plant). This dietary fiber powder, taken by capsule 30 minutes before meals with a full glass of water, works to bind fat and improve normal bowel function—so it helps prevent the constipation that could contribute to gallstone formation.

The digestive enzyme supplement DuoZyme (from Dr. Rubman said that this brand-name product is similar in composition to the gallstone-dissolving medication ursodiol (Actigall) but costs much less. You can get DuoZyme through your health-care professional.

If you do wind up with a gallstone diagnosis despite your prevention efforts, check out another recent Daily Health News article, “Get Rid of a Gallstone—Naturally.” The information there may allow you to deal with the problem without drugs or surgery.

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