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 with natural remedies. Read on to learn natural remedies for gallstones, plus tips to help prevent this condition.
How to treat gallstones without surgery
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-colored or gray stool, and diarrhea.
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.
1. 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 doctor before beginning any type of cleanse. It may not be safe for all people.
2. 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. This claim has spread due to a letter published in 1999, which detailed an anecdotal account of a woman successfully passing her gallstones with the use of apple juice. There are no scientific studies that support this claim, however.
3. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) 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 or effective.
There are some claims that yoga may help you naturally pass gallstones. Yoga was found in one study to improve lipid profile in people with diabetes. In another study, researchers looked at people with cholesterol gallstones and found that people with these types of gallstones were more likely to have abnormal lipid profiles. The researchers were unable to find a connection between these abnormal levels and the presence of gallstones, however.
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.
5. 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 doctor 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 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 doctor.
7. 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.
8. Castor oil pack
Castor oil packs are another folk remedy, and some people choose to use this method instead of a gallbladder cleanse. Warm cloths are 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 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.
One small study was done to look at the effects of acupuncture on cholecystitis in 60 participants. Cholecystitis is inflammation of the gallbladder. Acupuncture was found to relieve symptoms and reduce the volume of the gallbladder.
More research is needed to specifically look at the benefits of acupuncture for the treatment of gallstones.
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 insurance provider may cover part of the cost. Many cities also have community acupuncture centers. Acupuncture is administered in a room with other people instead of in a private setting. The cost for community acupuncture is often a lot more affordable than private acupuncture.
Other treatments for gallstones
Medications and surgery are often used to treat gallstones.
Two bile acids are often prescribed to dissolve smaller gallstones:
- ursodeoxycholic acid
- chenodeoxycholic acid
In an older study from 1989, ursodeoxycholic acid helped prevent gallstone formation in obese people who were following very low-calorie diets.
It may take up to two years for bile acids to treat gallstones. Gallstones may re-form when you stop taking the medication.
Surgery is often the recommended treatment for gallstones. Surgery, known as cholecystectomy, involves removing the gallbladder, so gallstones are not able to form again following this treatment.
A gallbladder is not needed for survival, and in most people, the body is able to compensate for the loss of the gallbladder with minimal side effects. Learn more about gallbladder removal surgery.
Tips for preventing gallstones
Gallstones are most common in:
- people 40 years and older
- people with diabetes
- people who are obese
- pregnant women
- people who take hormonal medications
- people who eat high-fat diets
A combination of genetics, diet, and lifestyle factors are likely the cause of gallstones formation.
A 2006 study reported that women who ate more fruits and vegetables had a lower risk for gallbladder removal surgery than women who ate the least fruits and vegetables. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables may help support a healthy gallbladder and reduce your risk for gallstones. It may also help with weight management.
Some foods may aggravate the gallbladder, including:
- refined sugar
- foods with lots of saturated fat
- food allergens
Talk to your doctor about specific foods you may want to avoid.
Obesity increases your risk for developing gallstones. Losing weight can be an important part of preventing gallstones, but the way you lose weight matters. Following a very low-calorie diet for weight loss may actually increase your risk for gallstones.
In a 2013 study, participants followed a one-year commercial weight loss program. During the program, one group of participants followed a very low-calorie diet (500 kcal/day) for 6-10 weeks. The other group followed a low-calorie diet (1200-1500 kcal/day) for three months. The group that followed the very low-calorie diet was three times more likely than the other group to develop gallstones that required hospitalization or surgery.
Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight loss program if you are trying to lose weight. They can help you develop a healthy weight loss plan.
There’s little research on the efficacy of natural treatments for gallstones.
Any herbs or supplements sold in the United States are not monitored for quality or purity by the Food and Drug Administration. Research any products carefully, talk to your doctor, and choose from a reputable company. If your doctor has recommended surgery, have an open conversation with them about other options you may be able to try first.