From time to time, we’ve all experienced stomach trouble, oftentimes caused by something we ate – or ate too much of. Summer is the season of cookouts, vacations, and lots of excuses for getting out of our usual healthy-eating routines. But beware! Overindulging in warm-weather fare, like burgers, fried chicken, fatty dips, and ice cream, might bring on more than just the occasional tummy ache.

So, when is that pain in the gut a sign of something more serious – like a gallbladder attack?

But first, what is a gallbladder? The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped, sac-like organ in the right upper part of the abdomen, just under the liver. It releases bile into the small intestine to help break down the foods you eat – particularly fatty foods. If something slows or blocks the flow of bile from the gallbladder, a number of problems can result.

Three common causes of gallbladder pain are:

Cholelithiasis. Gallstones develop when there is more cholesterol in the bile secreted by your liver than it can dissolve, often caused by the fatty foods in our Western diet. 

Cholecystitis. Inflammation or irritation of the gallbladder that occurs when the gallbladder doesn’t squeeze as well it should or gallstones get stuck in the bile duct.

Biliary dyskinesia. When the gallbladder simply does not work properly. There are no gallstones present, although the symptoms may be the same. 

Gallbladder disease is actually one of the most common problems surgeons across America see and treat. In fact, 20% of women and 10% of men have gallstones by the age of 60.

Symptoms include:

• Cramping or sharp pain in the upper right or upper middle portion of the abdomen.

• Pain that may extend beneath the right shoulder blade or to the back.

• Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

These symptoms generally begin 30 to 60 minutes after eating; they come and go, and are more pronounced after consuming fatty foods. More serious symptoms include severe pain, yellowing of the skin and eyes and fever. In that case, you should seek immediate care.

Once gallbladder disease become a problem, the most common treatment options are either medications that can help dissolve gallstones, or surgery to remove the gallbladder.

Unfortunately, medications are usually ineffective and when they do actually work, patients often develop recurrence of the stones as soon as they stop taking them.

While gallstones can be hereditary, most of them are due to what we eat. So, the best thing you can do to prevent gallbladder disease is adjust your diet – and get some exercise.

• Eat foods containing monounsaturated fats (olive and canola oils) or omega-3 fatty acids (canola, flaxseed and fish oil).

• Avoid saturated fats like what is found in butter, meats, and other animal products.

• Increase your intake of fiber.

• Enjoy lots of nuts, fruits and vegetables.

• Watch your sugar intake.

• Eat fewer simple carbohydrates (pastas and bread).

You can still enjoy your summer and keep your gallbladder happy. Just skip the fries and have a salad with your burger!

Deanna Mansker, M.D., FACS, CWSP, is a board-certified general surgeon with Beaufort Memorial Surgical Specialists in Okatie and Beaufort.