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Natural Approaches to Gallstones

by Janet Bevan(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 54 - July 2000

Four Christmases ago as I was drinking a glass of cream liqueur, I experienced a violent burning pain in my right side. It was bad enough to leave me doubled up on the sofa.

The pain lasted long into the night as I tossed and turned, with only a hot water bottle for comfort.

It eased after a few days, although a dull ache remained and I constantly had the taste of bile in my mouth. I put it down to over-indulgence during the Festive Season, and forgot about it until my next attack which took place during the early hours....

This attack was far worse than the previous. As well as having the red-hot poker in my right side, I also experienced a dreadful pain that started in the pit of my stomach, worked itself around to my back where it stabbed like a knife, and rose alarmingly to a fierce crescendo up to my neck and shoulders, causing me to sweat profusely and almost pass out. The crescendo would then lower, and just as I thought it had passed, it would rise again. I really thought that I was experiencing a heart-attack. I felt so ill that an emergency doctor was called. He ruled out a heart attack and appendicitis. Perhaps, he said, I had a stomach ulcer. He could not prescribe anything to alleviate my pain and advised me to take paracetamol and see my GP immediately.

My GP was sympathetic and prescribed Zantac (an anti-ulcer drug). He also suspected an ulcer and I was sent for a barium meal X-ray which studies the digestive tract. However, this proved negative. Over the months I experienced a few more attacks: some mild, some awesome, and I was prescribed Colofac (an antispasmodic) and was sent to have ultrasound, a technique for visualizing internal organs. This revealed that I had gallstones.

The author
The author

The Gallbladder

Bile produced in the liver is stored and concentrated in the gallbladder, a small pear-shaped pouch situated under the right lower rib margin. This bile then travels down the bile duct where it is released into the duodenum.

Gallstones

Most gallstones form because there is an extremely high concentration of cholesterol in the bile. There are three main types of gallstones: cholesterol; bile pigments, although these are rare; and mixed, which are made up of cholesterol, calcium and bile pigments. Cholesterol stones are normally solitary and large, whereas mixed stones are small and there may be many of them. Gallstones can be quite symptomless, but if they become large enough to obstruct the bile duct they can lead to inflammation, jaundice and severe biliary colic (which is what I experienced). Other symptoms include: wind and bloating, nausea and vomiting.

Who Gets Gallstones?

Although approximately 25% of the population have gallstones, only 20% develop symptoms. Before adolescence, gallbladder disease is uncommon. The incidence increases significantly after the age of forty although gallstones are less common in men. The risk factors are: high fat diets that do not include much fibre, obesity, constant dieting with rapid weight loss, lipid lowering drugs, Crohn's Disease and genetics. Other factors for women can include use of the Pill, HRT and multiple pregnancies.

I am a woman in my forties, and although not obese, tend to store fat around my middle. Since my teens I have been a yo-yo dieter and although I considered my diet healthy, I did tend to supplement it with chocolate and cream cakes!

The Surgeon

My GP informed me that I had small multi-stones and I was referred to a key-hole surgeon. The surgeon briefly examined me and said that it would be a simple procedure: I would have my gallbladder removed by key-hole surgery (laparoscopy). However, if when I was 'opened up' my gallbladder was found to be too inflamed then it would be removed by traditional surgery and I would be left with a large envelope-shaped scar across my back. I asked him if my stones could be dissolved chemically and he said that this was not possible as they were not cholesterol ones. I also enquired if they could be shattered by laser treatment and I was told that this too was impossible as laser treatment was only successful on large stones. The only option was key-hole surgery, sooner rather than later. The gallbladder is a non-essential organ, and the surgeon said that I would soon adapt to life without it.

The Aftermath

I decided that for the time being I could live with my gallstones. My bad attacks were, at present, manageable. If my condition worsened to the extent that my quality of life suffered then I would not hesitate to have surgery. I decided that I would invent a programme for myself based on diet, natural and homeopathic remedies and exercise to help myself, which are listed below. I do not mean that I take all of these products at once! I alternate my tablets and potions as necessary, depending upon whether I have an attack or not, and its severity.

Self-Help

Firstly, drink lots of still water, a litre or more throughout the day. For breakfast I have cereal sprinkled with lecithin, which helps break down fat in food. I also try and drink several cups of dandelion tea. Dandelion is a bitter tonic which cleanses and stimulates the liver and gallbladder.

It is important to follow a low-fat diet. It will not stop you getting 'gallbladder attacks' but will certainly lessen them: chicken, fish, salads, wholemeal bread and plenty of fresh fruit. Olive oil is beneficial, dribbled over salads. A small glass of white wine daily helps stimulate the gallbladder. Obviously, avoid fatty and heavily spiced food as well as pickles.

One important point to note is never drink alcohol (including wine) or fizzy drinks on a flight. Once you have landed, the effect of alcohol, fizz and a pressurized cabin really makes the gallstones rattle!

I also put myself on a course of Weleda's Choleodoron, suggested to me by a homeopathic doctor I visited. It is an elixir; I take three drops in water several times a day. Its ingredients include Greater Celandine, a herb that cleanses the gallbladder and stimulates bile flow.

I try to take regularly, Bioforce's Milk Thistle Complex, another bile stimulant. At other times I take Bioforce's tincture of Berberis vulgaris which is Barberry and is used as a bitter digestive remedy. Another helpful remedy is New Era's Magnesium Phosphate tissue salts which can be dissolved on the tongue. This helps with flatulence and spasmodic nerve pains. A good supplement is Safflower Seed Oil capsules. Safflower is a bitter aromatic herb which helps to stimulate the gallbladder, as well as containing essential fatty acids.

Another product I would recommend is Potter's GB tablets, a herbal remedy that contains Black Root and Wahoo Bark which are liver stimulants, and Kava, a local anaesthetic and sedative which relaxes muscles. Good for when the pain is nagging.

Over the counter products which I find helpful are soluble Solpadeine (Codeine and Paracetamol), good for not too bad gallbladder pain; Windcheaters, small green capsules containing Dimethicone. These are good for the bloated feeling I sometimes experience. Finally, Buscopan to help with spasms.

Prescribed drugs: Zantac (in a lower dosage this can be bought over the counter); it helps control the acidity that gallstones cause. A course of antibiotics can also be taken if the gallbladder is inflamed.

I am a stressed person as I lead a busy life and I find this exacerbates my gallstone problem. I recently went on a wonderful holistic writing holiday in exotic Tobago run by the Skyros Centre and I felt de-stressed living in a friendly environment with stimulating company, and following a healthy diet. I have to admit my health was at its optimum; I never had an ache or pain of any kind.

I also try and have regular reflexology treatments. Reflexology is a safe, natural healing therapy, a form of therapeutic massage which uses a specific pressure technique which works on precise reflex points of the feet. This technique stimulates the body's own healing abilities and reduces stress and cleanses the body of impurities.

Stretching exercises are also incorporated in my self-help treatment. I practise gentle stretching which frees the midriff and helps congestion.

At present, I have my gallstone pain under control and have avoided the need for surgery. However, as stated previously, I would not hesitate to have an operation should the real need arise. Obviously, all the above medications and treatments will not benefit everyone, but they are always worth trying if you, like me, wish to avoid surgery.

Most products mentioned above will be available from good health shops.

Useful Addresses

The British Homeopathic Association, 27a Devonshire Street, London W1N 1RJ. Tel: 020-7935 2163.

Association of Reflexologists, 27 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3XX. Tel: 0870 567 3320.

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About Janet Bevan

Janet Bevan is a free-lance journalist with a particular interest in the holistic approach to health.

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