Understanding Gallstones: Causes, Treatment & Natural Remedies

If you’re currently dealing with gallstones or have had them before, you don’t need an article to tell you just how debilitating the symptoms can be. Whether it’s the excruciating pain and discomfort or the nausea and vomiting, this common health issue can be quite debilitating, affecting various aspects of your life. Fortunately, there are several treatments available that can help alleviate the symptoms and effectively manage gallstone-related issues. From non-invasive options such as medication and lifestyle changes to minimally invasive procedures like endoscopic removal and lithotripsy, there’s certainly no shortage of solutions that can get you back to feeling and living well. In this article, you’ll learn all about gallstones, including the different treatment approaches, natural remedies and tips that will help you regain control of your health and finally get rid of those unbearable symptoms.

gallstones fact sheet

What are Gallstones?

Gallstones are hardened deposits of bile that can develop in the gallbladder. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny grains to large golf balls. Some people develop just one gallstone, while others develop many gallstones at the same time. And whether you’re dealing with just one or several, gallstones can produce some really uncomfortable symptoms including,

  • Sudden pain in the top right of your abdomen
  • Sudden and intense pain in the middle of your abdomen below your breastbone
  • Pain between your shoulder blades
  • Pain in your right shoulder
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

These symptoms can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours. However, it’s important to note that gallstones typically don’t produce any signs or symptoms until they become lodged in a duct, creating a blockage. So, many people don’t even realize they have gallstones until they start to feel the pain and discomfort that they produce.

There are also two types of gallstones that you may be experiencing. The most common type is the cholesterol gallstone, which typically has a yellow coloration and are largely made up of undissolved cholesterol, as well as other substances. The other type of gallstones are called pigment gallstones and they have a dark brown or black hue and occur when there is an excess of bilirubin in the bile.

What Causes Gallstones?

The exact cause of gallstones is still unclear. However, there are various factors that medical health professionals and clinical studies have found to contribute to the development of gallstones, including:

  • Excess cholesterol: Many gallstones (75%) are made up of cholesterol, so it’s believed that having excess cholesterol is a big contributor. Bile typically contains the necessary chemicals to dissolve cholesterol produced by the liver. However, if the liver produces more cholesterol than the bile can handle, it may crystallize and eventually form stones.
  • Excess bilirubin: 25% of gallstones are made up of bilirubin. This is a byproduct of red blood cell breakdown and several conditions, such as liver cirrhosis, biliary tract infections, and specific blood disorders can cause the liver to produce excessive bilirubin.
  • Gallbladder stasis: When the gallbladder fails to empty completely or frequently enough, some bile remains and eventually turns into a kind of sludge that eventually crystalizes into stones.

Now, you could go one step further and look into the factors that cause excess cholesterol, bilirubin, and gallbladder stasis to find the underlying causes of each. For example, obesity, poor diet and diabetes are all common reasons someone has high cholesterol. So, one may argue that those are actually the main cause and not the excess cholesterol. However, from a general standpoint, these are the main causes.

Why it’s Important to Treat Gallstones

Think of your gallbladder as an essential player in the biliary system, a network of interconnected organs responsible for transporting bile. This vital fluid flows through a series of tubes in your body known as bile ducts. Bile, which is produced by the liver, travels through these ducts to reach the gallbladder and eventually the small intestine; the pancreas also uses these ducts to release its own digestive juices.

However, when a gallstone blocks the opening of your gallbladder, it can obstruct the smooth flow of bile, causing many symptoms. If a gallstone manages to make its way out of the gallbladder and into the bile ducts, it can create a blockage, and disrupt the normal flow of bile which leads to a buildup of pressure and pain on the surrounding organs. This can lead to further complications, including:

  • Inflammation in the gallbladder (cholecystitis): This can occur when a gallstone becomes lodged in the neck of the gallbladder, causing severe pain and fever.
  • Blockage in the common bile duct: These tubes are responsible for bile flowing from the gallbladder or liver to the small intestine and when they become blocked from a gallstone, this can lead to severe pain, jaundice, and an infection in the bile duct.
  • Blockage in the pancreatic duct: The pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the common bile duct and a blockage can cause pancreatitis, which often comes with intense and constant abdominal pain and sometimes requires hospitalization.
  • Gallbladder cancer: People with a history of gallstones have an increased risk of developing gallbladder cancer. However, gallbladder cancer is extremely rare.
  • Gallbladder disease: When gallstones get stuck and cause inflammation, this can cause long-term damage over-time and even lead to scarring of the tissues and a complete disruption to the functioning of your gallbladder. When this happens, you are also more likely to experience infections in your gallbladder.
  • Liver disease: When a gallbladder creates a block anywhere in the biliary symptom, this can cause bile to backup into your liver, leading to inflammation, long-term scarring over time, increased risk of infection and a disruption to the functioning of your liver.
  • Cholangitis: Inflammation in the bile ducts can lead to short-term infections and long-term scarring. Scarring causes narrowing of the bile ducts, which hinders the flow of bile and can lead to persistent bile-flow problems, even after the blockage is removed.
  • Jaundice: When bile backs up, it can enter the bloodstream, leading to illness as bile carries toxins that the liver typically filters out from the body
  • Malabsorption: Since bile plays a crucial role in breaking down fats and facilitating the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine, when it can’t reach the small intestine, malabsorption issues may arise.

If you think you may be dealing with gallstones, it’s recommended to see your doctor to receive a proper diagnosis. From there, you’ll be able to determine the best course of action to start the healing process.

What is the Treatment for Gallstones?

Gallstones that are not producing any symptoms can typically be managed naturally and without medical intervention, as they will pass into your intestines and out of your body. However, gallstones that have become stuck in a duct may require surgery to have them removed. Some common treatment options used to remove gallstones are:

  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP):  A non-surgical procedure used to remove gallstones from the bile ducts that involves passing a long tube through the throat to reach the bile ducts, allowing for the extraction of gallstones.
  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: A minimally invasive surgical technique that involves making small incisions in the abdomen to remove the gallbladder.
  • Open surgery: In serious cases, open surgery may be which involves a larger incision and typically leads to a longer hospital stay and recovery period at home.
  • Medications: Ursodiol (Actigall) and chenodiol (Chenix) are two medications used in oral dissolution therapy to break up gallstones. These medications contain bile acids that help dissolve cholesterol stones over-time.
  • Shock wave lithotripsy: This procedure involves the use of a machine called a lithotripter, which generates shock waves that pass through the body and break gallstones into smaller fragments.
  • Percutaneous drainage of the gallbladder: This method involves entering a surgical needle into the gallbladder to draw out the bile and using a tube for continuous drainage.

Natural Remedies for Treating Gallstones

Whether you’re waiting for a gallstone removal surgery and looking for a natural way to ease your symptoms or hoping to prevent gallstones altogether, there are plenty of options available.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Reduce Cholesterol in Your Diet

With the majority of gallstones being made up of excess cholesterol, reducing the cholesterol in your diet can be a great way to reduce your risk of developing gallstones. Some simple ways to do just that include:

  • Cut back on fried and fast foods: These foods are often cooked in saturated fats, which increase LDL cholesterol (the “bad” type).
  • Use healthy plant oils instead of animal fats when cooking.
  • Swap red meat for fish: Red meat is high in saturated fats, while fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, promoting HDL cholesterol (the “good” type).
  • Eat more plant-based foods: Incorporating high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet can help eliminate excess cholesterol from your body.

Lose Weight Gradually

Maintaining a healthy weight is imperative for all aspects of your health, including the prevention and treatment of gallstones. However, what may surprise you is how you lose weight can either increase or decrease your risk of developing gallstones. For example, rapid weight loss has been shown to increase one’s likelihood of having gallstones. So, gradual weight loss is the way to go. Aim to lose weight at a rate of one to two pounds per week.

Drink Lemon Water

When life hands you lemons, make lemon water! A common natural remedy used to treat gallstones involves combining the juice of four lemons with warm water and a small amount of vitamin C. Drinking a glass of this lemon juice mixture each day for a few weeks is believed to help with the elimination of gallstones and alleviate associated pain.

Drink Dandelion Tea

Dandelions aren’t just weeds that grow uncontrollably in your yard; they’re also a powerhouse of medicinal properties that can help strengthen your overall health and improve gallbladder function. Steep a teaspoon of dried dandelion in hot water, covering it for approximately five minutes. Drink a cup of this tea two to three times daily for natural relief from gallstone pain and discomfort.

Pour a Glass of Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is commonly at the top of the list for natural health remedies. When it comes to treating gallstones, its acidic nature can help dissolve gallstones, while also providing relief from painful symptoms. Additionally, apple cider vinegar can help regulate cholesterol production in the liver, reducing the likelihood of new gallstones forming.

Just mix a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with apple juice, and you may experience significant pain relief within fifteen minutes. You can also drink apple cider vinegar mixed with lemon juice each day to assist in the dissolution of gallstones.

It’s important to take the proper action needed to treat gallstones to avoid the serious health complications and debilitating symptoms that can come when these pesky clusters go untreated.  Not only will treatment help you address the health issues that can stem from gallstones, but it is also imperative for restoring your mental and emotion health, as well as your quality of life. As you can see from the symptoms mentioned above, having gallstones can take a serious toll on your overall health and wellness. The pain can make it difficult to do the things you once enjoyed doing, and even make it difficult to go to work each day. Plus, you deserve to feel good and not have the gallstone symptoms dictating what you can and can’t do. And the best way to get back up on your feet without gallstones dragging you down is a pro-active approach and proper treatment, whatever that may look like for you.

Leave a Comment