Gallbladder sludge sounds like something that would crawl out of a swamp. In fact, it's a thick substance that can build up in your gallbladder, the organ in charge of storing bile produced by your liver. When the sludge builds up to excessive levels, it can lead to painful blockages, gallstones and a condition called cholecystitis. If this happens, you may need to make a few temporary changes to your diet.
Gallbladder Sludge Problems
On its own, gallbladder sludge, also sometimes referred to as biliary sludge, doesn't pose too much of a risk. It mainly affects pregnant women and those who have lost weight very quickly. Often, once the pregnancy is over and the weight is lost, the sludge problem resolves itself.
However, when this viscous material composed of microscopic particles of calcium compounds, bilirubin, cholesterol and other materials builds up to high levels, it can lead to more serious problems. The sludge itself may block the ducts in the biliary tract or form gallstones that pass into the cystic duct. When this occurs, the gallbladder swells, resulting in pain called biliary colic. Most cases of biliary colic resolve on their own. However, in 20 to 40 percent of people, the pain may return, according to Merck Manual.
If the blockage persists, it can lead to cholecystitis, which can cause inflammation and gallbladder infection. Common symptoms include:
- Intense, sudden pain in the upper right abdomen
- Pain that worsens with deep inhalation and spreads to the back
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loose bowel movements that are light in color
- Abdominal bloating
Cholecystitis can be short-term or chronic. In some cases, the gallbladder will need to be removed.
Foods to Avoid
Although diet has little to do with the development of gallbladder sludge, it can play a role in preventing gallstones. It will also play a role during attacks, or in the case that you need to have your gallbladder removed.
If you are having pain, nausea, vomiting or other uncomfortable symptoms, you likely won't feel much like eating. This is OK and recommended. Keeping your stomach empty until your symptoms subside can help the gallbladder rest. However, you should consult your doctor on the best dietary approach during this time.
Even if you need your gallbladder removed, there isn't a specific diet to follow. You may have post-surgery instructions on what to eat, but that has more to do with healing from the procedure. However, if you are having digestive issues, such as diarrhea, you may benefit from some short-term dietary adjustments:
- Lower your fat intake, especially fried and greasy foods and sauces. Mayo Clinic recommends choosing foods with no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.
- Increase your fiber intake from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which can normalize bowel movements. Do so gradually over a few weeks to avoid gas, bloating and cramping.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently. Each meal should include lean protein or fat-free dairy, as well as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Preventing Gallstones and Complications
A healthy diet and regular exercise can help reduce the risk of gallstones. The National Institutes of Health recommends:
- Food high in fiber such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Lean protein from chicken, fish, beans and low-fat dairy
- Healthy fats from fish and olive oil, which can help your gallbladder to regularly contract and empty
Any healthy diet, whether or not you have gallbladder problems, should be low in refined carbohydrates and sugar, as well as limit unhealthy fats in fried foods and desserts. Reducing your intake of these foods will naturally help maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight may increase the risk of gallstones and cholecystitis. Additionally, if you plan to lose weight, do so at a reasonable rate of no more than 2 pounds per week.