The Link Between Heartburn and Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the body. High cholesterol doesn't usually cause noticeable symptoms, although it can lead to major health risks like heart attack and stroke. Most of the cholesterol in our bodies is produced in the liver, though some of it comes from the foods we eat. The body needs some cholesterol, as it is important to the body's cell membranes and to the production of certain hormones, and helps act as insulation for your nerves. Cholesterol also aids in the manufacture of bile (which is stored in the gallbladder and helps digest fats).

Cholesterol blood test results
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When There Are High Cholesterol Levels in the Body

There are different ways to measure cholesterol in the body. You may be familiar with total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol—also known as the bad cholesterol, and HDL—aka the good cholesterol, and how these levels affect heart health. You may also know how too much of this fatty substance can also lead to a buildup of fat in the arteries, which may cause atherosclerosis, a disease that slows or stops blood flow.

But having too much cholesterol in the body can cause other health problems, specifically, it may cause the formation of gallstones. There are two types of gallstones—cholesterol stones and pigment stones. Cholesterol stones are made mostly of hardened cholesterol, and are usually yellowish-green in color, while Pigment stones are made of bilirubin, and are the stones are usually small and dark in color. Cholesterol stones are the most common type of gallstone to develop, occurring in approximately 80% of patients with gallstones.

Gallstones can be as small as grains of sand or as big as golf balls. Smaller stones are more common, though bigger stones do develop.

Could Heartburn Be a Sign of High Cholesterol?

Gallstones or gallbladder disease silently lurks in about 80% of the people it affects. The other 20% may experience an intense pain, or what is commonly known as a "gallbladder attack," which may often occur after eating a fatty meal.

Sometimes the symptoms of gallstones can be mistaken for heartburn because people are more familiar with heartburn. But the conditions are different from each other.

Symptoms of gallstones include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that rapidly worsens and can last from a few minutes to several hours
  • Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
  • Pain under the right shoulder
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Intolerance of fatty foods
  • Gas
  • Indigestion

If you have any of the above symptoms along with any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor right away:

  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Jaundice (yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes)
  • Clay-colored stools

At this point, your doctor may order liver function tests and an abdominal ultrasound. Your physician may also opt to run these tests if you are suffering from chronic abdominal or gastrointestinal symptoms.

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Article Sources
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  1. Harvard Health Publishing. How it's made: cholesterol production in your body. Updated July 31, 2019.

  2. MedlinePlus. Gallstones. Updated January 6, 2020.

  3. John Hopkins Medicine. Gallstone disease.

  4. Ibrahim M, Sarvepalli S, Morris-stiff G, et al. Gallstones: Watch and wait, or intervene?. Cleve Clin J Med. 2018;85(4):323-331. doi:10.3949.ccjm.85a.17035

  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms and causes of gallstones.