Biliary colic is a term used to describe pain that originates in your gallbladder or in the ducts leading from your gallbladder to your small intestine. Although “The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy” reports that fatty foods are not a specific precipitating cause of biliary colic, some people with gallbladder disease report increased symptoms after they eat certain foods, such as fats or dairy products.
Bile, a liquid composed of cholesterol, lecithin, salts, water, electrolytes and various waste products, is produced by your liver and stored in your gallbladder. Bile has several functions. It emulsifies dietary lipids and fat-soluble vitamins, facilitating their absorption; it provides a means for eliminating toxins, such as bilirubin and byproducts of drug metabolism; it enhances intestinal motion and improves elimination. Whenever food enters your small intestine, your gallbladder contracts and sends bile through a duct that empties into your duodenum. So, biliary colic is triggered by your gallbladder’s normal physiologic responses to feeding.
One of the most potent stimulators of gallbladder contraction is a hormone called cholecystokinin, which is produced by the cells lining your duodenum, the first section of your small intestine. Secretion of CCK, is triggered when protein- or lipid-rich material leaves your stomach and enters your duodenum. So, high-protein or fatty meals may elicit biliary colic to a greater degree than other foods. Interestingly, doctors use injectable CCK to test your gallbladder’s function looking for causes of upper abdominal pain.
Traditionally, fatty meals -- fried foods, oils, butter, cheese sauces, cream-filled pastries, mayonnaise and souffles are classic examples -- have been blamed for triggering biliary colic. However, because protein also stimulates CCK secretion, you should initially avoid protein-rich foods as well. Meats, dairy products, eggs and nuts are all frequently implicated as dietary triggers for biliary colic. Your personal triggers will probably differ from another person’s, so keep a food diary listing foods that cause symptoms, and introduce new foods gradually to identify which ones don't cause a problem.
Although specific foods can trigger biliary colic, any meal could cause your symptoms to erupt. Food you can tolerate on one day may cause problems on another. To add confusion, your symptoms can occur at night when your stomach is empty. An October 1985 article in “The Journal of Nuclear Medicine” demonstrated that you don’t have to have gallstones or other obvious signs of gallbladder disease to have biliary colic, and this condition sometimes progresses to the point that surgical removal of your gallbladder becomes necessary. If your symptoms persist or worsen despite dietary modifications, see your doctor to discuss your options.
- “The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 18th Edition: Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disorders”; Mark H. Beers, editor; 2006
- “Annals of Surgery”; Cholecystokinin Cholecystography in the Diagnosis of Gallbladder Disease; W.O. Griffen, et al.; May 1980
- “The Journal of Nuclear Medicine”; Cholecystokinin Cholescintigraphic Findings in the Cystic Duct Syndrome; D. Fink-Bennett, et al.; October 1985