Plant Protein Protects the Gallbladder
Women who eat more plant protein may be less likely to develop gallstones that require surgical removal of the gallbladder, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology (2004;160:11–8). Rich sources of plant-derived protein include legumes (such as soybeans, peanuts, black beans, and peas), buckwheat, nuts, and seeds.
The gallbladder is a small organ that stores bile made by the liver, located on the underside of the liver and connected by ducts to the liver and small intestine. When a meal is eaten, the gallbladder contracts and releases the stored bile into the small intestine to help digestion.
Cholesterol is a component of bile; when the bile contains too much cholesterol, stones can form in the gallbladder. Gallstones most commonly affect overweight women between the ages of 35 and 55. Native Americans, Caucasians, people with diabetes, and people taking hormone-replacement therapy or certain cholesterol-lowering drugs are also at an increased risk for gallstones. Many people with gallstones do not have any symptoms; others may experience attacks characterized by nausea, vomiting, bloating, and severe abdominal pain, commonly after eating fatty meals.
People with gallstone symptoms are often advised to have the gallbladder surgically removed, though surgery carries some risk of damage to the bile ducts. Other treatment options include orally administering bile acids to dissolve the stones and directing shock waves at the stones to break them into smaller pieces. Bile-acid therapy is successful about 50% of the time, but the gallstones frequently recur when treatment is discontinued. Shock-wave therapy creates smaller fragments of stones that can then be further broken down with bile-acid therapy; however, this treatment is also often a temporary solution.
Animal studies have demonstrated that diets high in plant-derived protein reduce gallstones formation. The new study gathered information from the Nurses’ Health Study for 20 years. Almost 90,000 women aged 30 to 55 completed questionnaires every two years regarding how often they ate certain foods during the previous year. Over 100 foods were included in the questionnaire.
During the 20-year study period, 7,831 women underwent surgery to remove their gallbladder. Women who ate the most plant-derived protein had a significantly lower risk of gallbladder removal than those who ate the least amount. Total protein consumption and the amount of animal protein in the diet had no effect on the risk of gallbladder removal.
In two other reports from the Nurses’ Health Study, women who ate diets high in fiber and frequently ate nuts were also found to be less likely to need gallbladder surgery.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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