You’re wobbling your way to the toilet for another pee break, you can’t sleep well because the baby’s constantly kicking and you keep on forgetting where you placed the car keys! With these and many other pregnancy quirks that drive you nuts, the last thing you want is to add gallbladder issues to the list of your worries.
Some of the symptoms of gallbladder disease are similar to the weird feeling you have to endure as an expectant mother. Nausea, bloating, vomiting, gas, acid reflux, constipation, and foggy brain are common woes that both gallbladder patients and pregnant moms experience. If that’s how you’re feeling, then you may just shrug and say it’s just normal. However, more pronounced symptoms like pain between shoulder blades, tenderness under the right rib cage, and strange-looking stools clearly spell trouble. If you notice any of these things beyond the first trimester or you just have a feeling that something is not right with your body, don’t take a chance. Consult your doctor about your gallbladder. Via ultrasound, you may be able to confirm whether you have a gallbladder problem or not.
While there are more than 30 different conditions or lifestyle choices that contribute to the formation of gallstones or cholelithiasis, the medical profession (excluding researchers) is still teaching the 4 “F’s” to their medical students, namely: female, forty, fertile and fat. Apart from being derogatory, it alludes to the inevitability of gallbladder disease for women as they bear children, either now or later. Although that mnemonic is an inaccurate generalization, it, unfortunately, has a certain degree of truth to it.
At the age of 40, a woman may have already had several pregnancies. Statistics also show that there is a greater possibility of weight gain or obesity as we grow older. As for fertility, the term does not refer to the ability to conceive, but rather to conceive. More pregnancies tend to increase the chances of developing gallstones. The basis of this assumption is the number of months spent with each successive pregnancy, with an increase in hormones. Elevated hormone levels during pregnancy, particularly progesterone, cause the gallbladder to function less efficiently. Birth control pills and medications containing estrogen also trigger the same reaction.
Given these explanations, the risk of developing gallbladder diseases (especially gallstones) indeed comes with the baby package or during a woman’s childbearing age. Whether you have a gallbladder or not, these hormonal factors greatly affect the flow and quality of bile. Bile is the substance produced in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and released to the intestines to digest fats and help assimilate fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
What can possibly happen?
Since the gallbladder is closely working with the liver, the pancreas, and the gastrointestinal system as a whole, any irregularities in its function can start a series of health problems.
First, it is possible for the gallbladder not to drain completely when needed. This means that we can have an insufficient amount of bile for digestion. Worse, if bile sits in the gallbladder for a long time, it may cause calcification of the gallbladder or the formation of gallstones.
Second, abnormal gallbladder performance may encourage the formation of biliary sludge or the thickening of the bile. This can be aggravated by the supersaturation of the bile due to excess hormones. This means that you may develop a higher ratio of cholesterol to bile salts. Over time, these bile conditions can lead to gallstones. It is no wonder that gallstones and pregnancy just seem to go together!
The third possibility is that the lack of bile due to a deficiency or sludge may result in constipation since bile is a major contributor to the movement of the bowel.
Lastly, gallstones may obstruct biliary ducts. This can also lead to cholecystitis or the inflammation of the gallbladder. Gallstones in themselves do not cause pain most of the time but complications like these can be very painful. Infections arising from gallbladder diseases may also have an effect on the baby. When you are suffering from a gallbladder attack, you may find it very difficult to eat or rest, thereby depriving yourself and your baby of the care and nutrition you both need.
What do you do then?
Despite the inevitable risk, there is still good news for pregnant women. Yes, you are more likely to develop gallbladder disease during pregnancy. However, there is still something you can do to prevent it or to stop any pre-existing gallbladder problems from getting any worse. If you’re planning a pregnancy or if you are within the childbearing age, this is also for you. Take note of the magic word – DIET. Pregnant or not, what you eat spells the difference between a healthy or a problematic gallbladder. Here are some suggestions:
Dietary Tips to Avoid Gallstone and Gallbladder Symptoms During Pregnancy
Note: If you are having difficulty eating due to gallbladder pain, these tips, as well as the supplements, should tone those symptoms down enough to increase your calories and especially your fats.
- Do not overeat – Contrary to popular belief, eating for two doesn’t mean you have to double up your food portions to keep your little one full. Your baby can only take so much and all of the excess food can take its toll on you. Overeating makes digestion difficult and can trigger gallbladder attacks. Moreover, it can lead to unnecessary weight gain during pregnancy which can make childbirth and recovery more difficult.
- Choose your fats wisely – Since the gallbladder is already under stress due to hormones going overdrive during pregnancy, it would be best to avoid bad fats. This means saying no to fried, oily, and trans-fat-laden foods. Since you still need fats for your own nourishment and the baby’s, try to find healthier alternatives. Instead of getting that fat slab of pork for your protein, why not try cold-water fish like cod or trout? Saturated fat from small amounts of lean, grass-fed meat is a good choice too. The omega-3 fatty acids from these are beneficial not just for you but for your child’s development.
- Watch your sugar – Aside from fats, you should also steer clear of foods with high sugar content. High sugar diets are linked to gallstone formation in anyone. And a high sugar diet during pregnancy may lead to gestational diabetes. People with diabetes often have high triglyceride levels, a condition that is linked to the development of gallstones.
- Avoid refined foods- Notwithstanding the fact that refined foods offer you very little nutrients and fiber (compared to whole foods), these types of foods also usually contain high sodium and refined sugar. Heavily processed foods are also commonly high in fat and calories. To prolong shelf life, there are often subjected to a number of preservatives that can take their toll on you in the long run. And none of these additives are good for the baby.
- Load up on Vitamin D – Aside from supporting fetal growth and development, vitamin D also benefits soon-to-be moms by boosting biliary and gastrointestinal health. Vitamin D improves bile movement, thus preventing bile stasis, biliary sludge, and the formation of gallstones. It even helps in maintaining healthy gut flora. Vitamin D deficiency may also lead to secondary Vitamin B deficiency necessary for optimum digestion and metabolism .
- Add to every meal at least one food that is known to be helpful to the gallbladder like artichokes and beets.
- Know your food allergies– Food sensitivities can lead to painful gallbladder attacks. Common food allergens are gluten and dairy. Eggs, pork, and onion are the 3 top foods that trigger gallbladder attacks. For a list of foods to eat and to avoid, you may explore the diet section of the website.
If you can keep a gallbladder-friendly diet coupled with exercise, enough rest, and appropriate supplementation throughout your pregnancy, that would greatly help your body maintain its normal functions.
Gallbladder and Pregnancy: Will supplements help?
Of course! Our bodies need as much help as possible when we’re planning for a pregnancy and especially when we’re on our way. If you are religiously following your OB-gynecologist’s advice, then taking vitamins and supplements may no longer be new to you. For example, folic acid, calcium, and iron are often recommended to mommies-to-be.
To care for your gallbladder, you can go beyond diet and you could take supplements that support your bile throughout the last two trimesters. There are also natural ways to help you with your sugar cravings or false hunger that may cause you to unnecessarily gain weight and run the risk of diabetes. Keeping a healthy diet with the proper food portions will definitely make digestion easier as well.
Pregnant with Gallstones?
If you have confirmed that you are pregnant with gallstones or any other gallbladder disease, it will be up to you and your doctor to determine the next step. For “silent gallstones” or gallstones not causing any pain, you may be advised to wait and see while keeping a healthy diet and lifestyle. Doctors may also prescribe ursodeoxycholic acid or bile salts to give you relief from gallbladder symptoms. Other conservative treatments include the use of intravenous fluids, antispasmodics, certain antibiotics, and correction of electrolyte imbalance.
In cases when there is already infection, inflammation or blockage within the biliary system, your doctor may decide to remove your gallbladder. However, this is not the preferred treatment and it would still need to be cleared on a case-to-case basis. Unless symptoms are acute, cholecystectomy is usually done during the second trimester of pregnancy to minimize the risk of affecting the baby. The surgical technique that is most commonly used is laparoscopy as this is a lot less invasive than other procedures.
Physical movement moves your “chi”, your lymph, your blood, and your bile. It also helps to move the bowel. Exercise can also help your mood. It can get uncomfortable to move during the last trimester for some. However, lack of movement just contributes to the stagnation of the bile and the gallbladder which adds to discomfort in other areas. So try to get in at least some light exercise on a daily basis.
Females are twice as likely as males to develop gallbladder issues. Unfortunately, the risk of gallstones and other related diseases increases with the number of pregnancies and as you get older. Gallbladder removal is also not a foolproof way to rid you of these symptoms. Therefore, keeping an active lifestyle and staying away from other possible causes of gallbladder problems will always be a good thing. And continuing a healthy diet even after pregnancy will surely work to your advantage.