People who develop painful gallstones are generally given one of three treatments—a drug to dissolve the stone slowly over several months or even years…a tube down the throat through which a doctor removes the stone…or surgery to remove the entire gallbladder.
I don’t know about you, but none of these options sounds enticing to me! I wondered, Isn’t there a natural way to treat gallstones?
It turns out, for a certain subset of people who have a gallstone, there is, I learned recently from Andrew L. Rubman, ND, founder and medical director of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, and a regular contributor to Daily Health News.
If you currently have a gallstone or are at high-risk for developing one—for instance, if you’d had a gallstone before…you’re over 60…are female…are taking certain medications, such as certain cholesterol-lowering drugs…you have a family history of gallstones…you are overweight or obese…you have diabetes…or you regularly skip meals—you’ll definitely want to know about it.
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THE PROBLEM WITH GALLSTONES
The gallbladder is a small, muscular organ that stores bile, a liquid made by the liver that’s needed to digest fat. (You can actually still digest fats if your gallbladder is removed, but it’s a less efficient process because then the bile goes directly from the liver into the small intestine, without being concentrated by the gallbladder, and this can result in diarrhea.) When you eat any kind of fat, the gallbladder contracts to release some bile into the bile duct. But if a gallstone forms and blocks the bile duct, bile becomes trapped and the contractions against the stone cause pain.
Many people who have a gallstone, which can be as tiny as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball, don’t even realize it. Some gallstones don’t ever cause symptoms…some cause immediate pain…others can cause delayed symptoms years after developing. But when they do cause pain, whether it’s mild or extremely severe, the pain is usually a persistent, throbbing sensation that’s felt under the ribs on the right upper side of the belly and tends to last several minutes to several hours—usually after eating, and especially after eating a high-fat meal. Often, when a person is getting an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan for another medical reason, a doctor will happen to spot a gallstone, and that will be the first indication that the patient has one. But gallstones often do hurt. If you ever experience the type of pain described above and it’s unexplained, ask your doctor about checking for a gallstone, Dr. Rubman said.
If a gallstone is causing pain, it’s important to treat it—not only to relieve your pain. If you let a painful gallstone linger, it could lead to serious problems, such as inflammation and degeneration of the gallbladder or blockage or infection of the bile duct. (If a gallstone isn’t causing pain, it’s probably very tiny and may pass through your body without treatment, but check with your doctor to see whether treatment is a good idea.)
A NATURAL ALTERNATIVE
Dr. Rubman told me that there’s a botanical remedy that has cured many of his patients. Now, it won’t work on every patient with a gallstone, he said—only those with a gallstone that’s no more than about eight millimeters in diameter (about the size of half a dime) and causes only mild to moderate pain. The patient also needs to have a healthy gallbladder and no signs of total bile duct obstruction or infection (fever, chills, vomiting or jaundice). If you meet the criteria, Dr. Rubman suggested asking a naturopathic doctor about trying the following two-pronged, week-long approach—but only under the ND’s careful supervision. In other words, make sure that an ND gives you these supplements…tells you how much and when and how to take them…and checks in with you regularly to see how much they’re helping. Dr. Rubman said that he sometimes gives his patients both of the following supplements at once and he sometimes gives them one first and the other second—it depends on a variety of factors, and your doctor can make the call.
1. Release the grip on the gallstone. Dr. Rubman gives the patient a daily supplement, an extract from the Hyoscyamus niger plant that is known for its antispasmodic effects. It allows the bile duct to relax its grasp on the stone, so it helps push the gallstone through the colon and out of the body. This particular extract can be harmful, even lethal, if misused, and it is sold exclusively to physicians (not to general consumers). Your ND can prescribe it safely based on your age, weight, medical history and whatever medications and/or supplements you may already be taking.
2. Shrink the gallstone. In addition to prescribing the above supplement, Dr. Rubman prescribes an additional supplement that improves the flow of bile and degrades the gallstone, allowing it to pass through the digestive system more easily. Dr. Rubman often prescribes two or three daily tablets of Priority Lipo. It’s a blend of about 16 different botanicals and nutrients such as vitamin B-6, magnesium and choline. It’s made by a company called Priority One—a bottle of 120 capsules (a 30-day supply, according to the dosing instructions on the bottle) costs about $33 at www.PureFormulas.com. Side effects may include temporary indigestion, upset stomach or loose stools. It does contain an extract of a plant called barberry, which should not be consumed by pregnant or lactating women. Anyone who has chronic liver disease may need extra supervision while taking the supplement, since it stimulates liver function.
Dr. Rubman said that this program usually works within a week, and you’ll know that it has worked when you stop feeling pain. (Even if the gallstone shifts in position but doesn’t actually pass, you’ll still feel pain.) Whenever you have a bowel movement that week, you can look for your gallstone in the bowel movement if you feel like digging for it, but since it was relatively small to begin with and since Dr. Rubman’s natural treatment can degrade it and make it even smaller, you might not feel it pass. If you want to know for sure that it’s gone, ask an MD or ND to give you a scan (either an ultrasound, MRI or CT).
If you and your doctor decide that you should try Dr. Rubman’s gallstone treatment and the regimen is unsuccessful, you and your ND may decide to consult a gastroenterologist to discuss other treatment options.