The Gallstones-Alcohol Connection: Can Alcohol Protect You From Gallstones?

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The Gallstones-Alcohol Connection

For years, small studies suggested that moderate alcohol consumption could minimize a person’s chances of developing gallstones. Alcohol is usually seen as off-limits for many people, but these studies seemed to indicate that moderate alcohol consumption could actually be healthy.

The Nurses’ Health Study, which spanned two decades from 1980 to 2000, studied over 80,000 women and discovered an inverse relationship between alcohol intake and gallstone production. Since then, additional studies have been attempting to refine scientific understanding of this relationship.

Explanation of the Connection

The suggested explanation of the connection between alcohol and gallstones is as follows. Gallstones usually form from hardened cholesterol in the gallbladder bile. Alcohol reduces the levels of cholesterol in the bile, which minimizes the number of gallstones that develop. Alcohol consumption can also increase the levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which both protects against heart problems and changes the composition of any cholesterol in the bile, minimizing the chances of developing gallstones.

How Much Alcohol?

Doctors and their patients have wondered just how much alcohol is recommended in order to avoid developing gallstones. In June 2009, a study conducted at the University of East Anglia examined the precise quantitative effect of alcohol on gallstone formation. The study found that each unit of alcohol consumed per week can reduce a person’s risk of developing gallstones by 3 percent. That means that drinking only two units of alcohol a day can reduce the risk of developing gallstones by about a third. This research was conducted by following over 25,000 people for ten years, monitoring their alcohol intake and then examining which of them developed gallstones.

What Naysayers Point Out

Some empirical studies such as one published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology tackle the fact that many of the studies that examined the gallstones-alcohol connection showed a relationship between the two, but not necessarily a causal relationship. In other words, it could be that having symptoms of gallstones makes a person less likely to desire alcoholic beverages.

It could also be that an unrelated factor, such as overall diet or socioeconomic status can affect both the amount of alcohol that a person drinks and the likelihood that the person will develop gallstones. Some empirical studies find no causative association between gallstones and alcohol consumption, whereas others do find this causation.

When to Avoid Alcohol

Although studies do seem to suggest that drinking alcohol can reduce the development of gallstones, some people should avoid alcohol as much as possible. These include recovering alcoholics or people who have difficulty limiting themselves to a moderate amount of alcohol, children and adolescents, women who are or may become pregnant, people taking certain prescription drugs, people with certain medical conditions, and people who operate heavy machinery. People should also abstain from alcohol consumption before operating any vehicle at all. These people should take other measures to avoid gallstone formation, such as going on a high-fiber diet.