A medical professional shows a 3-D diagram of a gallstone.
Treatment for gallstones may come in the form of antibiotics or surgery. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

I recently heard about two patients who ended up in the hospital with gallstones just a short while after they gave birth to their babies.

They both ended up having their gallbladders removed.

Women who experience gallstones after their child is born will typically experience this within two to four months after delivery.

More than 25 million people suffer from gallstones, but women encounter this at a much greater rate than men—and that’s before pregnancy is factored in.

You are indeed more prone to gallstones when you’re pregnant.

Why? The extra estrogen in your body. Among its various effects, estrogen increases cholesterol.

Progesterone can also lead to gallstones. This hormone relaxes tissue, including within the gallbladder.

Battling blockages

About the size of a pear, the gallbladder is located below the liver.

Though you can live without it, the gallbladder does have its use.

The liver makes bile, which is stored in the gallbladder. When we eat food—especially high-fat food—bile is released from the gallbladder and sent to the intestines to aid in digestion.

In some cases, the bile crystalizes and forms gallstones. These can be as small as sand or as large as a golf ball.

Gallstones are usually composed of calcium bilirubinate, cholesterol and calcium carbonate.

It’s critical to understand that gallstones can cause a problem when they block ducts. They won’t allow the bile to leave, which can cause inflammation, or cholecystitis.

People may have gallstones and not even know it. Symptoms only tend to arise when the stones block or obstruct the body’s natural processes.

Symptoms include:

  • Upper abdomen pain, which can radiate to right shoulder and back
  • Steady pain after eating fatty meals
  • Abdominal pain lasting longer than five hours after eating
  • Fever or chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Yellowing of the eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements

In the past we’ve looked at a condition called cholestasis of pregnancy, which entails symptoms similar to those experienced by gallstones.

Testing for gallstones can involve an ultrasound, which helps doctors visualize what is happening. A blood test can also reveal signs of infection.

Doctors can use CT and MRI imaging to further uncover problems.

Antibiotics may be used if there are signs of infection, but doctors may turn to surgery to remove the gallstones or the gallbladder.

Promoting prevention

There are some steps you can take to help reduce the chances of developing gallstones.

First and foremost: Eat healthy and keep your weight under control. Yes, if you’re pregnant you will be gaining weight—you are growing a human being inside you. But excess weight isn’t helpful.

Other useful tips:

  • Limit bad fats and make sure you’re getting healthy fats, which are monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eat a high-fiber diet and whole foods.
  • Eat healthy nuts.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep hydrated.
  • Keep fit with exercise.
  • If you have diabetes, keep watch on your numbers. Having diabetes puts you at a greater risk.