This month our Sussex health consultant takes a look at the painful problem of gallstones. The gallbladder is basically a storeroom for bile produced by the liver, until it is needed for the digestion of fats during a meal; at which point it contracts and expels its contents into a narrow passageway called the bile duct and ultimately into the intestinal tract.
Gallstones are the most common problem in the gallbladder. Cholesterol gallstones are the most common form and are primarily made up of undissolved cholesterol. Pigment gallstones are made up of excess bilirubin (a pigment that forms during the breakdown of red blood cells).
Stones in the gallbladder will tend to go undetected for a long time, but once a larger stone passing through the bile duct becomes lodged, it can cause intense pain, usually starting as a sharp cramp just under the right ribcage, which recurs and subsides. In some cases, the pain will shoot into the right shoulder or back. There may also be accompanying nausea and fever with chills. Sometimes a gallstone may block the flow of bile and this leads to jaundice, causing yellow and itchy skin. Ultimately a blockage near the end of the bile duct may lead to acute pancreatitis.
Colic caused by gallstones most typically occurs after eating rich, fried foods, coffee or legumes. Most gallbladder problems are associated with a poor diet and poor liver function. Essential fatty acids (EFAs), such as flax oil, stimulate the gallbladder by supporting the transport of cholesterol and by stimulating the production of bile. The modern-day Western diet predisposes people to gallstone formation since it is high in cholesterol from meat sources. It also lacks fibre because so many products are refined e.g. white rice, pasta, white flour and breads.
- Increase your fibre – a high-fibre diet is key in the prevention of gallstones. Especially beneficial is water-soluble fibre, such as the pectin found in apples and carrots or the gums found in oat bran and dried beans. Water-soluble fibre binds cholesterol and other harmful agents in the intestine and increases their elimination.
- Avoid animal fat or artificially hardened fats such as margarine and the fats found in most processed foods – gallstones are composed mostly of animal fat and cholesterol.
- Restrict intake of milk and milk products – the case in dairy foods promotes gallstone formation.
- Use alternative protein sources – soybean products such as tofu, as well as beans, lentils and whole grains. The added advantage of soybeans is that they contain lecithin which helps to reduce the risk of gallstones by mixing with cholesterol and fats in the gut.
- Use olive oil, along with nut and seed oils like flax seed or walnut oil – they all contain healthy essential fatty acids which are beneficial to the gallbladder, as they stimulate the flow of bile to flush out small stones. They also stimulate the production of enzymes that are needed to break down fat.
- Eat artichokes and rhubarb – they stimulate bile flow and help heal gall-bladder inflammation.
- Increase intake of lettuce, endive and chicory – they contain bitters that stimulate bile flow.
- Consider a vegetarian diet – statistics indicate that vegetarians have only half the gallstone risk compared with meat-eaters.
Coffee increases bile flow and studies indicate that those who drink two to three cups of regular coffee per day have a 40% lower risk of gallstones compared with those who do not drink coffee. Caffeine appears to be the protective ingredient, as decaffeinated coffee consumption does not provide the same protection. This of course needs to be balanced with the fact that caffeine can also aggravate symptoms of insomnia, peptic ulcer, panic attacks, and a variety of other conditions! Constipation has been linked to the risk of forming gallstones. When constipation is successfully resolved, it has been shown to reduce the risk of gallstone formation.
- Obese women have seven times the risk of forming gallstones compared with women who are not overweight. Even slightly overweight women have significantly higher risks. Weight-loss plans generally entail reducing dietary fat, a change that itself correlates with protection against gallstone formation and attacks.
- In women, an average of two to three hours per week of recreational exercise (such as cycling, jogging and swimming) reduced the risk of gallbladder surgery by about 20%.
- Use of birth control pills significantly increases a woman’s risk of developing gallstones.
- The most common medical treatment for gallstones is surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy).
- Mechanical shock waves (lithotripsy) may also be applied to break up the stones. Unfortunately, gallstones will commonly recur following non-surgical forms of treatment.
- A gallbladder flush can be very effective in eliminating small stones – this should be done under the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
- Castor oil packs are also a popular natural remedy for removing stones and relieving symptoms.
Nutritional supplement treatment options
Vitamin C is needed to convert cholesterol to bile acids and may reduce the risk of developing gallstones.
Betaine HCl – some studies indicate that people with gallstones are likely to have insufficient stomach acid.
Phosphatidyl choline (PC) – a purified extract from lecithin – is one of the components of bile that helps protect against gallstone formation. Studies suggest that supplementing with PC may help dissolve gallstones.
The amino acid l-methionine is necessary for lecithin formation.
Botanical treatment options
Milk thistle (silymarin) may be beneficial in preventing gallstones as it is known to reduce cholesterol levels in bile, which is one important way to reduce gallstone formation.
Barberry is a bitter that stimulates bile flow, eases liver congestion and acts as a laxative.
Swedish bitters tone the liver and stimulate bile production and expulsion.
Peppermint oil has been shown to dissolve gallstones. Use of peppermint or any other essential oil to dissolve gallstones should only be attempted under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Article contributed by Dr Tracy S Gates, DO, DIBAK, L.C.P.H., Consultant, Pure Bio Ltd. Copyright © Pure Bio Ltd 2021. All rights reserved. Pure Bio Ltd are a leading UK supplier of the highest quality PURE nutritional supplements, based in Horsham, West Sussex. Visit www.purebio.co.uk for all your nutritional supplement needs.