The presence of stones, or calculi, in the gallbladder and adjacent ducts (collectively called the biliary tract) is a common phenomenon, but does not always cause painful symptoms.
In truth, many people who have gallstones (about 80 percent) remain asymptomatic for long periods of time. Painful symptoms and a sluggish gallbladder arise when a stone passes into one of the ducts leading to the intestinal tract. Stones then irritate the lining of these sensitive ducts, causing pain, and may completely block a duct, causing bile fluid to build up behind the stone. Bile buildup leads to irritation and inflammation.
Gallstones affect nearly 20 million Americans (one in ten), most commonly women and members of ethnic groups. Predisposing factors may include aging, heredity, obesity, pregnancy, estrogen use, and a fatty, acidic diet, common in the West.
Gallstones are frequently asymptomatic. The earliest signs of gallbladder problems are nausea, burping and hiccup. When severe symptoms develop they can become a medical emergency. Such symptoms include intense, escalating pain in the upper abdomen that may spread to the right shoulder blade or back. Pain occurs after meals and can last several hours. Nausea and vomiting may ensue, along with heartburn, diarrhea, cramps, gas, and bloating. Other serious symptoms include tea or coffee-colored urine, fever and chills, and/or yellowing of the skin and eyes, indicating jaundice.
Bile is produced in the liver and passed through ducts that go into the intestines to breakdown fat. Without adequate bile, you cannot digest fats and cannot absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D and K. Some of the bile that does not go immediately to the intestines is held in a sac called the gallbladder. When a fatty meals is eaten and when extra bile is needed, the gallbladder sends it from storage along a duct to the intestines to aid in digestion.
A diet that consists of many processed foods, unhealthy fats (saturated), trans-fats (margarine), acidic foods (cola, alcohol), and junk food over time can lead to a problem with the gallbladder. The flow of bile is slowed, the bile becomes thick, and sludge, crystals, or eventually stones can build up from the liver, down the ducts of the gallbladder. The debris eventually forms small or large deposits called gallstones.
Too often the surgeon’s choice is to remove the gallbladder. This will not usually solve the long-term problem, and if the diet is not improved, the sludge, crystals and debris will eventually build up in the ducts leading into the liver.
NOTE: When you lose your gallbladder (which is critical for the digestion of fats), to some degree, you will have digestive problems the rest of your life! Without adequate enzymes (to break down fatty foods) you will continue to suffer from indigestion, nausea, cramps, and burps. Since bile is a potent antioxidant in the body, removal of the gallbladder may cause immune system weakening as time goes on.
Many nutritionists believe that diet is the most important factor in gallstone development. Gallstones rarely develop in Asia and Africa where diets consist of foods that are more traditional, unprocessed, and easy to digest. Most studies link saturated fats (i.e. butter, margarine, coconut and palm oils) as a contributing factor. The unsaturated and monounsaturated fats (i.e. olive oil, soy oil) appear to play a protective role. Omega-3 fats like flaxseed oil and fish oil may prevent gallstones.
A low-protein, low-fat diet is encouraged. Fiber (from plant foods) may prevent gallstone formation. Dietary fiber appears to deter the synthesis and absorption of secondary bile acids that are linked to an increase in the cholesterol saturation of bile, resulting in gallstone formation. Some nutritionists suggest eating a Mediterranean diet with lots of vegetables, salads, olive oil, beets, and whole grains.
Other dietary suggestions:
- Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Eliminate all hydrogenated fats and oils; increase unsaturated, raw, and fresh oils.
- Eliminate or minimize refined carbohydrates (sugars and sweets), alcohol, processed foods, fried foods, and caffeine.
- Minimize intake of all dairy products and gluten-containing grains. Both are highly allergic foods.
- Drink 6-8 glasses of pure, filtered water daily.
- Avoid lettuce and foods in the cabbage family (broccoli, cabbage, kale, and asparagus) until bile function normalizes.
- Sugar consumption may pose a risk of gallstone formation. Regular consumption of diet (aspartame) and sugar-laced cola and soft drinks may be a major risk factor in developing gallstones.
When analyzed, gallstones frequently consist of calcium oxalate and cholesterol. This does not mean that a patient should minimize calcium intake; on the contrary, excess calcium is being leached out of the body and retained in the gallbladder because of too much acidity in the diet. Food allergies also have a connection to gallbladder symptoms, and pathological changes to gallbladder tissue may follow exposure to certain food allergens. The foods most likely to cause symptoms include eggs, pork, onions, poultry, cow’s milk, coffee, oranges, and nuts.
Increased sugar consumption will promote an increased insulin release from the pancreas, which increases cholesterol synthesis in the liver—a condition favoring some stone formation. Eating sugar has also been related to increased serum triglyceride levels, which is associated with the cholesterol saturation of bile.
The Gallbladder Flush
There is a gallstone therapy that is controversial (according to the medical community), but effective. Mix five ounces of Coca-Cola Classic and six ounces of virgin olive oil with two tablespoons of lemon juice. Drink cool at bedtime and follow the next morning by 10 ounces of Citrate of Magnesia. Stay very close to the bathroom. Then take eight ounces of apple juice (malic acid) morning and night for 30-90 days. This will flush out the dirty solids that precipitate out of the bile to produce stones. Drink lots of water during this cleanse.
The large amount of olive oil combines with the purge causing the gallbladder to constrict over and over, flushing debris, stale bile, stones, and crystals from your system into the intestines, and eventually out of the body into the toilet. The whole procedure may take two days.
- DIETARY FIBER
Dietary fiber appears to deter the synthesis and absorption of secondary bile acids that are linked to the increased cholesterol saturation of bile, leading to gallstone formation. Take PSYLLIUM HUSK (1-3 teaspoons daily), freshly ground FLAXSEEDS, or other fiber products, along with plenty of water throughout the day. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
Cholagogues are gastro-intestinal agents that stimulate the flow of bile in the duodenum. MILK THISTLE (Silymarin) protects liver functions, prevents cellular damage; increases intracellular anti-oxidant activity against destruction by free radicals, and has a beneficial effect on the gallbladder. Dosage: 200-600 mg/day. DANDELION stimulates the production of bile. ARTICHOKE lowers cholesterol by decreasing its production in the liver, and increases bile flow to the liver and gallbladder. Artichoke extract (Cynara scolymus) supports healthy gallbladder function.
- PANCREATIC ENZYMES
Higher doses of enzymes (amylase, pepsin, bromelain, and papain) may help decrease inflammation in the gallbladder and improve digestion (poor digestion is a common symptom when the gallbladder is sluggish).
- VITAMIN C
A deficiency of vitamin C may lead to the formation of cholesterol gallstones. Vitamin C treatment can significantly increase the concentration of phospholipids in bile. Phospholipids serve as a barrier for the cell that serves to protect us, thus extra vitamin C can be serve to protect the cell from the environment. Dosage: 500-2,000 mg daily.
- OTHER ANTIOXIDANTS
Other antioxidants may be as important as other dietary considerations. Oxidative stress of the liver and gallbladder may lead to unfavorable changes in bile composition, precipitating both cholesterol and pigment stone formation. The best antioxidant supplements include vitamin E (tocopherol), manganese, and methionine. Selenium, beta-carotene, and zinc are less important.
- CHANCA PIEDRA
This South American herb is known by indigenous healers as “stone-breaker” in Spanish. It is well-known as a natural remedy for kidney and gallstones, liver protection, high cholesterol, and cancer prevention. It also has an analgesic effect. Dosage: 500 mg (in extract) used 2-3 times a day. See qualified practitioner.
Lecithin is a natural component of fatty foods. Aside from bile acids, phospholipids such as lecithin are the principal bile components that keep cholesterol in solution. Low levels of lecithin have been associated with gallstone formation. Natural free-range chicken eggs are an excellent source of lecithin. Studies show that as little as 300mg of lecithin per day can raise lecithin levels in the bile. Dosage: 1,000 mg twice a day, or 1 tablespoon of liquid.
This amino acid is thought to improve bile flow and help dissolve small cholesterol gallstones. Dosage: 1,000 mg twice a day for 3 months.
- TUMERIC (CURCUMIN)
This herb may prevent gallstones by stimulating the contraction of the gallbladder and stimulating bile flow. Dosage: 2-3 grams a day.
- REGULAR EXERCISE
Recent studies show that regular exercise significantly lowers the risk of developing gallstones; the more active the better.
Chanca Piedra Extract. Raintree Nutrition Tropical Plant Database. www.rain-tree.com
Gustafsson, U, et al. The Effect of Vitamin C in High Doses on Plasma and Bilary Lipid Composition in Patients with Gallstones, Eur J. Clin Invest, 1997;27: 387-391.
Roberts, AJ, O’Brien, ME, Subak-Sharpe, G. Nutraceuticals- The Complete Encyclopedia Penguin-Putman Inc. New York, NY. Jan. 2001.
West, B. Gallstones and Gallbladder. Health Alert, July 2004. 21(7): 2-4.
Wolfson, D. Getting Gallstone Relief. Nutrition Science News, Jan. 2000. 5(1): 19-23.