Gallstones are hardened deposits that are formed from digestive fluid called bile present inside the gallbladder, a small pear shaped organ located behind the liver on the right side of your abdomen. The bile is produced by the liver but stored in the gallbladder and released into the small intestine.
Gallstones once formed, may grow, shrink, or remain of the same size for many years. During this time new stones can be formed, while existing ones can even dissolve or be expelled out of the body (1).
Gallstones can range in size varying from smaller than a grain of sand to larger than a golf ball. Although the exact reason behind the formation of gallstones is not known, a chemical imbalance in the bile composition present in the gallbladder is thought to be responsible for it (2).
There are two types of gallstones, namely cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones.
Cholesterol gallstones are made from the deposits of cholesterol and are usually greenish yellow in color. According to the American Medical Association, 80 percent of gallstones are made of hardened cholesterol that develops when there is too much cholesterol in the gallbladder.
Pigment gallstones are made of bilirubin and are smaller and darker in color. Other causes include high levels of bilirubin and concentration of bile in the gallbladder.
Gallstones by themselves do not cause any pain and need not be treated. But when they obstruct the bile ducts, they can cause sudden severe pain in the upper right abdomen. The pain caused by gallstones may last for a few minutes to several hours. If gallstones are large or many in number, they can cause pain while eating fatty or fried foods.
People can be without any symptoms for gallstones (asymptomatic) or they can have mild to severe symptoms for gallstones (symptomatic). People also experience nausea, vomiting, dark urine, clayey colored stools, diarrhea, burping, indigestion and stomach pain.
Blockage of ducts leading to the liver, gallbladder and pancreas by gallstones can lead to further complications other than severe pain including jaundice (yellowing of skin), cholangitis (infection of the bile duct), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
Prolonged presence of stones in the gallbladder increases the risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
Pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, liver disease, a sedentary lifestyle, oral contraceptives, a high fat diet, Crohn’s disease, Inflammatory bowel Syndrome (IBS), recent weight loss (either through diet or surgery), certain medications and forms of anemia are some of the risk factors of gallstones.
People older than 40 years of age, females, family history of gallstones, and people of Native American or Hispanic descent have a greater risk of developing gallstones.
Gallstones can cause lot of pain and affect the quality of life. So, consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. There are several natural home remedies too that you can use to prevent and treat gallstones.
Note: If you have jaundice, persistent pain or fever, seek medical help immediately.
Here are the top 10 home remedies for gallstones.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
The acidic nature of apple cider vinegar stops the liver from making cholesterol that is responsible for forming the most common type of gallstones. It also plays a key role in dissolving gallstones and alleviating pain.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a glass of apple juice. Drink it whenever you have a gallstone attack. This will significantly ease the pain within 15 minutes.
- Alternatively, you can add 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice to a glass of warm water. Drink it on an empty stomach in the morning. Doing this regularly for weeks can dissolve gallstones and prevent pain.
2. Lemon Juice
Another good remedy for preventing gallstones or controlling gallstone attacks is lemon juice.. Lemons are a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.
Lemons are a rich source of bioactive compounds like ascorbic acid or vitamin C and flavonoids which have antioxidant and disinfectant properties.
Ascorbic acid is reported to diminish the risk of gallbladder diseases. According to a study done in 2017, natural vinaigrette made up of olive oil and lemon juice was successful in dissolving gallstones 100 percent after immersion in the solution for 7 days in a lab experiment (3).
A mixture of olive oil and lemon juice is popularly used for gallstone flushing. However further work needs to be done to validate this fact.
Lemon juice and peels also stop your liver from making cholesterol, which helps in faster recovery. The pectin in lemon juice helps get rid of gallbladder pain attributed to stones.
Plus, the vitamin C in lemon juice makes cholesterol more water soluble, which promotes faster elimination of waste products.
- Drink fresh juice squeezed from 4 lemons each day on an empty stomach. Follow the drink with a glass of water. Continue this therapy for a week.
- Alternatively, you can drink 4 tablespoons of lemon juice mixed in a glass of warm water every day on an empty stomach. Continue this treatment for several weeks until the gallstones are eliminated from the body.
Peppermint aids digestion by stimulating the flow of bile and other digestive juices. The use of mint for medicinal purposes dates back to the ancient Greek civilization, where it was commonly used to aid digestion and gallbladder diseases.
Menthol is the active ingredient of peppermint oil, while menthol, menthone, cineol are other active constituents (4).
A combination of peppermint oil and caraway oil was shown to relax the gallbladder and also help in gallbladder emptying in a study published in 2003 (5).
A trial study published in 1985 showed that a compound which had menthol as the main ingredient was successful in dissolving gallstones (6). Thus peppermint may help dissolve gallstones and help in the treatment of gallbladder disease (7).
Plus, it has compounds called terpenes that can effectively dissolve gallstones. It is also believed to help relax spasms and relieve acute gallbladder pain.
- Boil 1 cup of water.
- Add 1 teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves.
- Remove from heat, cover and steep for 5 minutes.
- Strain and sweeten with a little honey.
- Enjoy the tea while it is still warm, twice daily for 4 to 6 weeks. Drink it between meals for maximum results.
Note: If you are using peppermint oil, be careful to use only at recommended doses as higher doses can be toxic. Peppermint oil should not be used by infants, very young children, pregnant or lactating women even at recommended doses.
4. Vegetable Juice
When suffering from gallstones, it is essential to cut down on fried and fatty foods and follow a strict diet based on fruit and vegetable juices for 1 or 2 weeks.
A study that followed 80,898 women for a 20-year period concluded that increased intake of vegetarian protein minimized the risk of gallbladder surgeries. It was found that high consumption of fruits and vegetables reduced the chances of gallstones in these women (8).
A mixed vegetable juice made of beetroot, cucumber and carrots is a good remedy for gallstones.
Beetroot helps cleanse the liver and strengthens the gallbladder. Cucumber’s high water content is great for detoxifying the liver and gallbladder. Carrots are rich in carotenoids, vitamin C, and other nutrients that are good for the immune system.
- Extract the juice from 1 beetroot, 1 cucumber and 4 medium-size carrots.
- Mix them and drink this juice twice a day.
- Follow this remedy for 2 weeks and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your condition.
Psyllium is a very good source of soluble fiber, hence it is considered a good remedy for gallstones. The seeds of psyllium are used commercially for the production of mucilage. This mucilage is rich in polysaccharides like arabinose, xylose, and other sugars. It is used in the treatment of constipation, IBS (inflammatory bowel syndrome), diarrhea, obesity, diabetes and colon cancer (9).
The fiber in psyllium binds to the cholesterol in bile and helps prevent gallstones from forming. Thus it decreases biliary cholesterol (10). High intake of dietary fiber is linked to decreased incidence of gallstones. Plus, it promotes normal bowel movements, which reduces risk of the gallbladder system becoming congested.
- Add 1 tablespoon of psyllium powder to a glass of water.
- Mix well and drink it 2 times a day.
- Repeat daily until your gallstones are gone.
Note: When taking psyllium, make sure you drink lots of water as it absorbs water.
Dandelion is another very useful herb for the treatment of gallstones. Dandelion root is recommended for restoring the function of the liver and bile, indigestion and loss of appetite by the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP). Dandelion leaves are a rich source of vitamin A12.
It is also a mild laxative and aids digestion. It is used in traditional medicine for treating jaundice, insomnia, skin diseases and constipation.
It contains a compound known as taraxacin that helps in bile excretion from the liver. This also helps detoxify and metabolize fat accumulated in the liver. When the liver starts functioning properly, it aids gallbladder functioning (11).
- Place 1 teaspoon of dried dandelion root in a cup. Pour hot water in the cup, cover it and let it steep for 10 minutes. Strain and add honey for taste. Drink this tea 2 or 3 times a day for 1 or 2 weeks.
- Alternatively, you can prepare an herbal tea by adding 2 teaspoons of marshmallow root and 1 teaspoon of Oregon grape root to 4 cups of water. Let it simmer for 15 minutes and then remove from heat. Now, add 2 teaspoons of dried dandelion leaves and 1 teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves. Allow it to steep for 15 minutes. Finally, strain and drink this tea throughout the day.
- Also, you can eat the tender dandelion greens by adding them to your salad or steaming them.
Note: Those who are diabetic should avoid dandelion.
7. Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is another good cure for gallstones. Milk thistle was recommended by the famous English herbalist Culpepper to cleanse the liver, spleen and treat conditions like jaundice and gallstones.
Currently it is also said to have innumerable health benefits on the liver including liver cirrhosis, liver poisoning, alcoholic fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and viral hepatitis.
Milk thistle contains a bitter substance which is a mixture of different flavonoids called silymarin. The major bioactive principles of silymarin are silybin, silychristin and silidianin which act as antioxidants and help in liver repair.
Silymarin has many medicinal benefits including being a demulcent and stimulation of bile. Increased bile production in turn decreases the concentration of bile and helps flush out gallstones. Milk thistle also helps soothe an inflamed gallbladder (12).
- Grind 1 tablespoon of milk thistle seeds in a coffee grinder or crush them in a mortar and pestle. Put the crushed seeds in 3 cups of water and boil. Turn off the heat, then let it steep for 20 minutes. Strain the tea, add honey for taste and drink it 2 or 3 times a day for 1 week.
- You can also take this herb in supplement form. For proper dosage, consult your doctor. Usually, it is suggested to take 420 mg regular standardized milk thistle extract a day in 3 divided doses. If the extract contains phosphatidylcholine then the standard dose is 100 to 200 mg, 2 or 3 times a day.
Note: Milk thistle is considered to be relatively safe to use when taken orally at recommended doses. There are very few side effects like nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, intestinal gas and loss of appetite. Pregnant women, lactating mothers, children, diabetics and those taking medications must consult their doctor before taking this herb.
8. Castor Oil
Castor oil has many medicinal and healing properties that can help minimize and reduce the number of gallstones.
Its anti-inflammatory properties help neutralize inflammation, internal swelling, and reduce pain.
Castor oil acts as a wetting agent that helps in dissolving the gallstones. In a study published in the Japanese journal of surgery, a water soluble mixture made from limonene (a compound from lemon) and modified castor oil was quite successful in dissolving different types of gallstones namely cholesterol stones, bile pigment-calcium stones and fatty acid-calcium stones. This preparation was also found to be safe (13).
- Warm 1 cup of pure, cold-pressed castor oil in a pan.
- Soak a piece of cheesecloth in the warm oil and squeeze out the excess oil.
- Put the wet cheesecloth over the right side of your stomach where the gallbladder is located.
- Cover the cheese cloth with a plastic sheet.
- Place a hot water bag on the plastic sheet for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Follow this treatment at least 3 times a week until you recover completely.
Pears can also provide relief from gallstone pain and other symptoms. The pear fruit is rich in sugars, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, amino acids, etc.
Arbutin, chlorogenic acid, catechin, quercetin and triterpenes are the major bioactive constituents of pear and are also present in the peels. The phenols in pears possess strong antioxidant property. The triterpenes present in pears are responsible for its anti-inflammatory property which help combat gallbladder inflammation (14).
The compound pectin present in pears helps soften cholesterol-filled gallstones, which in turn get flushed out of your body easily.
- Mix ½ glass of pear juice with ½ glass of hot water. Mix in 2 tablespoons of honey. Drink this juice 3 times a day for 2 weeks.
- Alternatively, peel and de-seed some pears. Cut the pears in small pieces and cook them in water for about 20 minutes. Eat a bowl of the warm cooked pears twice daily for 2 weeks.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia found that wine can actually help prevent gallstone attacks. They studied the diets of 25,639 people over 10 years. Those who drank two units of wine (a medium-sized glass of wine) daily reduced their risk of developing gallstones by one third (15).
Alcohol consumption in moderate amounts is said to decrease the risk of gallstones from 10 to 50 percent in comparison to abstainers (16).
When suffering from gallstone pain, drink ½ glass of wine and within 20 minutes you will get relief from the pain. In fact, ½ glass of wine daily can also reduce the amount of gallstone attacks by as much as 40 percent.
Note: One needs to be very cautious with alcohol as a remedy for gallstones. It should not be an excuse for drinking wine. Those who have abstained need not develop a habit of drinking alcohol for the sake of getting rid of gallstones, as the cons of alcohol consumption outweigh the pros.
Before taking any of the herbal remedies such as dandelion, peppermint or milk thistle, make sure to first consult your doctor as they may not be suitable in some cases.
Also, along with these remedies, you need to drink plenty of water. Water helps keep bile in the gallbladder and assists the body in breaking down fat that could otherwise worsen your condition. For maximum benefits, drink 6 to 8 glasses of water daily.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Sudeep Tanwar MBBS (Gastroenterologist)
Can gallstones pass through urine?
No, when gallstones move out of the gallbladder, they enter the tubes that join the intestine (the cystic duct and bile duct). If these stones do not get stuck in these tubes they then pass out of the body in the stool.
As the urinary tract is not involved in this process, gallstones do not pass through the urine.
Can drinking plenty of water help with gallstones?
It is important to remain adequately hydrated to keep healthy. Both liver and kidney function are negatively affected by dehydration.
Maintaining hydration (2-3 litres of water per day) helps keep the intestinal liver system (entero-hepatic circulation) working well and bile flow normal.
Does the pain from gallstones come and go?
Yes, the pain from gallstones can come and go.
Typical biliary colic is caused by gallstones blocking the cystic duct. Gallstones are however mobile structures and as a result the blockage can be temporary allowing pain to pass. Gallstone blockage can also cause infection and inflammation during which the pain can be of a different character.
Can gallstones be cured without gallbladder removal surgery?
In selected cases, medication which aims to dissolve the gallstones (oral dissolution therapy) can be effective. Oral dissolution therapy can, however, take months to work and is normally only effective for small cholesterol stones.
Endoscopic stenting of the gallbladder (endoscopic transpapillary gallbladder stenting) can also be used to prevent symptoms, but stents may need to be changed and in some cases symptoms may persist despite successful stenting.
Is beer considered beneficial for gallstones?
There is some evidence that mild alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of developing gallstones. Regardless, this evidence is weakand I would not recommend consuming more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
What food items can trigger a gallstone attack?
Bile is made by the liver and helps our body digest food including fats. The function of the gallbladder is to store bile. After we eat any food, the gallbladder contracts and empties the bile into the digestive tract. Gallstone attacks can be triggered by contraction of the gallbladder.
The consumption of fatty foods, more than any other type of food, results in the contraction of the gallbladder. As such, avoiding fatty foods can be a useful strategy to prevent gallstone related pain.
What are the drawbacks of leaving a gallstone untreated?
In addition to severe pain, some of the complications caused by gallstones can be serious or even fatal!
Gallstones can obstruct the cystic duct of the liver causing cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). Cholecystitis should be treated with antibiotics but even with antibiotic therapy the gallbladder can rupture; this can be life-threatening without an emergency operation.
Gallstones can also pass into the tube that drains the liver into the intestine (the common bile duct). Gallstones can block this tube causing severe complications. These include infection (cholangitis), obstruction of liver drainage (jaundice) and inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). Again, these complications can be serious or even life threatening.
Gallstones stuck in the common bile duct are best removed by a specialised endoscopic procedure called ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography).
Please enlighten our readers on how to prevent gallstones.
As cholesterol is used by the body to make gallstones, avoiding foods with high saturated fats can help reduce the risk of developing gallstones.
Foods with high saturated fat content include butter, ghee, cheese, paneer, cakes and biscuits. I would recommend eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (5 portions a day).
Being overweight increases the amount of cholesterol in the bile so it is important to maintain a normal weight to reduce your risk of developing gallstones.
About Dr. Sudeep Tanwar, MBBS (Lond), MRCP (UK), FRCP, FEBGH, Ph.D. (UCL): Dr Tanwar qualified from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in 2001 and is on the GMC specialist register as a consultant in Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Internal Medicine. In 2014, he was appointed as a Consultant Gastroenterologist with a specialist interest in HPB medicine and interventional endoscopy at Barts Health NHS Trust. Dr. Tanwar is also an honorary consultant at the Royal Free Hospital London.
Alongside his expertise in minimally-invasive diagnostic techniques, Dr. Tanwar also performs complex endoscopic procedures such as enteral stenting and ERCP. He also has the largest experience in the UK of endoscopic gallbladder stenting as a non-operative procedure for symptomatic gallbladder disease (endoscopic transpapillary gallbladder stenting).”
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