Millions of people are affected by gallbladder disease, which happens when the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ located below the liver, becomes inflamed or infected — a condition called cholecystitis — or blocked, as a result of gallstones, the main condition affecting the gallbladder.
Gallstones are hard deposits that form in your gallbladder. There are two types of gallstones:
cholesterol gallstones, which are most common and made up of excess cholesterol
pigment gallstones, which are made up of excess bilirubin
Surgery is a common treatment for gallstones, but you may be able to treat them non-surgically and also by natural remedies.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Gallbladder disease can affect anyone, but some people are more vulnerable than others. You are most at risk of having gallbladder problems, such as gallstones, if you:
Are a woman
Are over 40 years old
Have a family history of gallbladder problems
Are overweight or obese
Take certain medications
have Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
have a condition that affects the flow of bile – such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), primary sclerosing cholangitis, or obstetric cholestasis
have recently lost weight (from either dieting or weight-loss surgery)
Are Native American or Mexican-American
The more boxes you tick, the more likely you are to develop gallstones and other gallbladder problems.
There are a number of factors that can increase a person's risk of developing gallbladder disease and gallstones. Some of these factors can be modified, such as your diet, while others cannot, such as your genes or ethnic background.
Gallbladder Problems: Risk Factors You Cannot Change
Gender: Women are twice as likely as men to develop gallstones. Pregnant women and those taking hormone replacement therapy are more at risk for gallstones due to higher oestrogen levels. Too much oestrogen (for example from taking the pill) can increase cholesterol in the bile and lessen gallbladder movement, increasing the risk of gallstones.
Genes: The predisposition to develop gallstones and gallbladder disease often runs in families, suggesting that there may be a genetic link. A mutation in a gene that controls the movement of cholesterol from the liver to the bile duct may increase a person's risk of gallstones. Also, defects in certain proteins may increase the risk of gallbladder disease in some people.
Age: People over the age of 40 are at increased risk for gallstones. This is because as you get older your body tends to release more cholesterol into bile, which makes it more likely that stones will form in the gallbladder.
Ethnicity: Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are more likely to develop gallstones than other ethnic groups, probably as a result of dietary and genetic factors. Americans of European descent are also at higher risk.
Gallbladder Problems: Risk Factors You Can Change
Overweight and obesity: People who are even moderately overweight or obese are at increased risk of having gallbladder problems. When you are overweight, the liver produces too much cholesterol, overloading the bile and increasing the risk for gallstones.
Fluctuations in weight: Rapid weight loss as a result of fasting or crash diets, and weight cycling — losing and then regaining weight — can increase cholesterol production in the liver, increasing a person's risk of gallstones.
Diet: Diet plays a major role in gallbladder disease because diet influences your weight. People who are overweight and eat a high-fat, high-cholesterol, low-fibre diet are at increased risk of developing gallstones. In addition, too much heme iron — iron found in meat and seafood — may increase gallstone formation in men.
Medications: Certain cholesterol-lowering medications, such as gemfibrozil (Lopid) and fenofibrate (Tricor), can increase a person's risk of gallstones. While these medications successfully decrease blood cholesterol, they increase the amount of cholesterol in the bile, increasing the chance for gallstones to develop. Other drugs that may increase the risk of gallstones include octreotide (Sandostatin) and a group of diuretics known as thiazides. Octreotide is used to treat certain hormonal disorders and severe diarrhoea caused by cancer tumours. An antibiotic called Ceftriaxone has also been known to cause gallstones. If you are concerned that a medication you are taking may increase your risk of gallbladder disease, talk to your doctor. There may be another medication that will do the same thing without increasing your risk for gallbladder problems.
Gallbladder Problems: Other Risk Factors
Diabetes and metabolic syndrome: People with diabetes are at increased risk of developing gallstones and a type of gallbladder disease called acalculous cholecystitis, meaning gallbladder disease without gallstones. Also, people with metabolic syndrome — marked by obesity with abdominal fat, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar — may be at increased risk for gallstones.
Crohn's disease and other medical conditions: People with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder, are also at increased risk of gallbladder disease. In addition, cirrhosis of the liver and certain blood disorders, such as sickle-cell anaemia, also increase a person's risk of pigment gallstones, gallstones that are made up of bilirubin instead of cholesterol.
Surgery: People who undergo bariatric surgery to lose weight are at increased risk for gallstones. Organ transplant surgery may also increase the risk of gallstones, and it is not uncommon for some doctors to recommend that their patients have their gallbladder removed before undergoing an organ transplant.
As you can see, many factors may increase your risk of developing gallbladder problems. While you can't do much about your genes or ethnicity, you can watch your weight and eat healthy. Maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of serious health problems, including gallbladder disease.
NON-SURGICAL TREATMENT FOR GALLSTONES
Gallstones can be treated without surgery if they meet certain criteria.
If you have gallstones, knowing what's available to remove or otherwise treat them can help you in making your treatment decisions. Discuss these treatment options with your doctor and find the one that's right for you.
The gallbladder’s main function is to store bile, a substance secreted by the liver that helps with digestion. Sometimes, bile contents crystallize and form gallstones.
Gallstones, which can be as small as a grain of salt or as large as a golf ball, can cause some serious problems. They can block ducts inside the organ, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed. It gets worse, when a gallstone passes out of the gallbladder duct and into the main bile duct, it can lead to a bile duct infection that can ultimately cause inflammation of the pancreas.
Many patients have gallbladder surgery to alleviate pain and to avoid these potential serious conditions caused by gallstones. In fact, surgery — in this case, a cholecystectomy, or gallbladder removal — is the most common form of treatment for gallstones. However, the fact that surgically removing gallstones requires the removal of an entire organ has led to a growing interest in non-surgical treatments for gallstones.
Why Treatment Is Necessary
Some people who have gallstones never exhibit any symptoms, while others experience severe pain. About a quarter of newly diagnosed patients with gallstones will need treatment. The pain is typically located in the upper abdomen or right side of the body.
Besides alleviating symptoms, treatment for gallstones is necessary to avoid a progression that can result in severe conditions such as acute cholecystitis, the condition in which the gallstone blocks the gallbladder ducts, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed and infected. Patients with acute cholecystitis are usually hospitalised and receive antibiotics, pain medications, and often surgery.
Oral Bile Acids - In some cases, gallstones can be treated with medications. Certain chemicals, ursodiol or chenodiol, which have been shown to dissolve some gallstones, are available in oral bile acid pills. These medicines work by thinning the bile, which allows gallstones to dissolve.
While these pills can be effective and are generally well tolerated by patients, medical treatment of gallstones is limited to people whose stones are small and made of cholesterol. However, if you do not have symptoms, the most common treatment is to “wait and see,” because the risks outweigh the benefits for both medical and surgical treatments. If you have gallbladder symptoms, surgical treatments are preferred unless you are at high risk, and then drug treatments may be utilised.
Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy - Another non-surgical treatment for which gallstones must meet certain criteria is extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy (ESWL). It is most effective on solitary gallstones that are less than 2 centimetres in diameter, so fewer than 15 percent of patients are eligible for ESWL. The goal of the treatment is to break up, or fragment, gallstones by sending shock waves through the soft tissue of the body.
Contact Dissolution Therapy - This non-surgical treatment option involves injecting a solvent known as methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) into the gallbladder to dissolve the gallstones. Initial studies have shown that MTBE rapidly dissolves gallstones — but there can be some serious side effects such as severe burning pain, so patients should inquire about their doctor’s level of experience with performing this procedure.
Percutaneous Cholecystostomy - This is a non-surgical treatment option, but it’s most effective when followed by gallbladder removal. Percutaneous cholecystostomy is typically saved for seriously ill patients who cannot tolerate surgery right away. The procedure involves using a needle to withdraw fluid from the gallbladder and then inserting a catheter through the skin to drain the fluid. The catheter is left in place for a number of weeks, after which gallbladder removal surgery is performed to prevent recurrence.
If you have gallstones, knowing what's available to remove or otherwise treat them can help you in making your treatment decisions. Discuss these treatment options with your doctor and find the one that's right for you.
NATURAL TREATMENT FOR GALLSTONES
Gallstones can cause sharp, intense pain in the upper right part of the abdomen. This pain may radiate to your back and up to your shoulder blade. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, light-coloured or grey stool, and diarrhoea.
Talk with your doctor before trying to treat gallstones on your own. Your doctor can help you receive the correct diagnosis. They can also advise you on all of your treatment options. If you have yellowing of the eyes, fever or chills, and intense abdominal pain, seek medical care immediately.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight - Being overweight or obese might increase your chances of having gallstones (especially females who are overweight) since studies suggest that obese people might produce high levels of cholesterol in their livers. Research shows that people who don’t maintain a healthy weight might experience more inflammation and swelling within the gallbladder, especially if they have large amounts of fat around their waist that signifies underlying visceral fat stores around the organs.
The healthiest thing for your body overall is to maintain your weight and stay within a healthy range.” Yo-yo dieting (gaining and losing over and over again) has negative impacts on your hormones, digestion, immune system and metabolism. Weight cycling is believed to increase the chances for gallstones, so if you think you need to lose weight for health reasons, do so in a moderate way by taking it slow and avoiding crash diets or fad-diet programs that restrict calories too much.
Avoid Rapid Weight Loss and Fad Diets - Obesity seems to be a bigger risk factor for gallstones than weight loss, however rapid weight loss can trigger deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances and other issues that increase the odds for gallstone formation. Research shows that people who lose more than 1.5 kilograms per week might have a greater chance of getting gallstones than those who lose weight more slowly and without radical measures.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), very low-calorie diets and weight-loss surgery may lead to a higher risk of gallstones.
This is also true in people who have weight-loss surgery and rapidly slim down by following a very low-calorie diet. Most experts recommend losing no more than 1 kilogram per week, which is a slow and steady improvement that won’t cause the body to rebound in terms of digestion too dramatically.
Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet that Supports Liver and Gallbladder Health - Your diet can dramatically impact liver and gallbladder health and determine whether or not you properly produce and release cholesterol particles into bile. To regulate your body’s use of cholesterol, consume more anti-inflammatory foods − which have numerous benefits in addition to lowering risk for gallstones. An anti-inflammatory diet also lowers high-oestrogen foods that can contribute to oestrogen excess.
Try to eat more high-fibre foods, like all types of vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes and in moderation gluten-free grains. Processed foods are more refined and usually contain less fibre, but are higher in sugar, artificial ingredients and inflammatory compounds like vegetable oils. Beets, artichokes and dandelion greens are great choices for supporting digestive health since these vegetables help improve bile flow, which breaks down fat.
When it comes to fats, focus on easily digestible healthy fats like fish oil, coconut oil and olive oil that are supportive of your liver and help your gallbladder contract and empty on a regular basis. Coconut oil contains the easiest form of fat for the body to digest, which are medium-chained fatty acids (MCFAs). Sprouted seeds such as flax, chia, hemp and pumpkin seeds are also beneficial since they are easy to digest and can reduce inflammation.
To support gallbladder health best, I recommend consuming healthy fats in small amounts over the course of the day, only about one tablespoon of oils at one time, or about 2 tablespoons of sprouted nuts and seeds. This is because you don’t want to overconsume fat and put stress on the organs.
Remember that many people come into contact with all types of “toxins” every day, from chemicals in household products to water and air pollution. One of the main ways the body rids itself of toxins is through the liver, which works very hard to clean the blood, produce the bile needed to digest fat, break down hormones and store essential nutrients.
Dietary factors that can increase gallbladder risk include eating high levels of cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fatty acids, refined sugar and possibly legumes. Consuming a vegetarian diet is also associated with decreased risk, as is avoiding allergenic foods. To help cleanse the liver, remove the following foods from your diet as much as possible:
hydrogenated oils (canola, corn, sunflower, safflower)
conventional, farm-raised animal products or dairy products (which are difficult to digest and often pro-inflammatory)
Focus on adding more fresh produce and vegetable juices, organic and grass-fed animal products, and potassium-rich foods — like avocado, leafy greens, tomato, sweet potato and bananas.
Be More Active - People who are more active tend to have better protection against gallstones. You’re probably already aware of the many benefits of exercise — regular physical activity not only improves your general health, but it can also be beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight without needing to dramatically cut calories, plus it can boost digestive functions.
The general recommendation for most adults who are capable of being active is to aim for 30–60 minutes of moderately intense exercise each day or a bit less if you also practice high intensity workouts, like HIIT or burst training, that accomplish the same benefits in less time.
Reconsider Taking Birth Control Pills or Unnecessary Medications - Birth control pills and some hormonal medications increase the body’s oestrogen stores, which has an influence on cholesterol production and storage (in addition to body weight in some cases). In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers found a “statistically significant increase in the risk of gallbladder” in women who took oral contraceptives, though the compounds in the birth control pills may play a role in these results.
If you’ve been experiencing gallstones or they run in your family, talk to your doctor about other treatment options, such as non-hormonal birth control.
Gallbladder cleanse - There are several reasons why gallstones may form:
Your liver may secrete more bile than it can dissolve.
Your body may have excess pigment called bilirubin, which cannot be dissolved.
The gallbladder might not empty completely or as frequently as it needs to.
Some people claim that a gallbladder cleanse or flush can help break up the gallstones and empty the gallbladder. There is no scientific evidence to support these claims, however. The body is able to cleanse and flush itself.
Still, some people consume a combination of olive oil, juice, and herbs for two or more days. During that time, they’re not supposed to consume anything other than the oil mixture. There’s no standard mixture or recipe. This mixture can be dangerous for people with diabetes, or those who experience low blood sugar.
One study looked at the role of olive oil and sunflower oil on gallstones. The researchers found that while olive oil had an effect on bile consumption, it did not affect the gallstones.
Talk to your healthcare professional before beginning any type of cleanse. It may not be safe for all people.
Apple juice - Some people use apple juice to treat gallstones. That’s because they believe apple juice may soften gallstones and can help you pass the stones. However, there are no scientific studies that support this claim.
Drinking lots of fruit juice may not be healthy for you if you suffer from diabetes, hypoglycaemia, stomach ulcers, and other conditions.
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) - This is a popular health supplement that’s often included in cleanses. While ACV may have positive effects on blood sugar, there are no studies to support the use of ACV for the treatment of gallstones. There is little evidence that cleanses are needed nor effective.
Yoga - There are some claims that yoga may help you naturally pass gallstones. Yoga was found to improve lipid profile in people with diabetes. While yoga may help relieve some of the symptoms associated with gallstones, there is no scientific evidence to support the use of yoga for the treatment of gallstones.
Milk thistle - Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, may help treat liver and gallbladder disorders. It’s thought to stimulate both organs, but researchers have not specifically looked at the benefits of milk thistle for the treatment of gallstones.
Milk thistle is available in pill form as a supplement. Talk to your healthcare professional before using milk thistle, especially if you have diabetes. Milk thistle may lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. It’s also possible to be allergic to milk thistle.
Artichoke - Artichoke has been found to be beneficial for gallbladder function. It helps stimulate bile and is also beneficial for the liver. No studies have looked at the effect of artichoke on the treatment of gallstones.
Artichoke can be steamed, pickled, or grilled. There is no harm in eating artichoke if you’re able to tolerate it. Artichoke in pill form or sold as a supplement should only be taken after you speak to your healthcare professional.
Gold coin grass - Gold coin grass, or Lysimachiae herba, is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat gallstones. It’s been linked to reduced gallstone formation. Some people recommend taking gold coin grass before beginning a gallstone cleanse to help soften the stones.
You can purchase gold coin grass in powder or liquid form. These supplements may be found at natural foods stores or other places where supplements are sold.
Castor oil pack - Castor oil packs are another folk remedy, and some people choose to use this method instead of a gallbladder cleanse. A warm clothe is oaked in castor oil, which you then place on your abdomen. The packs are supposed to relieve pain and help treat your gallstones. There are no scientific studies to support claims that this treatment is effective.
Acupuncture - Acupuncture may help relieve some of the pain from gallstones by reducing spasms, easing bile flow, and restoring proper function. Acupuncture has been reported to treat gallstones, but more research is needed.
Acupuncture is relatively safe. When choosing an acupuncturist, look for a licensed acupuncturist and make sure that they are using new, single-use needles. In some cases, your health insurance provider may cover part of the cost.
BENEFICIAL SUPPLEMENTS FOR GALLSTONES
Several supplements and natural herbs can help improve liver health and reduce inflammation, which are both important for regulating the production and use of cholesterol. These include:
Turmeric - (aids in digestion, fights inflammation and supports liver metabolism)
Milk thistle - (eliminates build-up of medications, heavy metals, etc., within the liver)
Dandelion root - (helps the liver eliminate toxins by acting as a natural diuretic)
Activated charcoal (binds to toxins and helps remove them)
Lipase enzymes - (2 caps with meals helps improve fat digestion and the use of bile)
Bile salts or ox bile - (500–1,000 milligrams with meals can improve gallbladder function and the breakdown of fats)