There is an old saying that people who are ‘fair, fat and forty’ are most likely to develop gallstones. If you take ‘fair’ to mean ‘the fairer sex’, then it’s true – the incidence of gallstones increases with age and strikes women, especially obese women, three times as often as men.
This is thought to be a result of hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, the birth control pill or hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Increased oestrogen levels encourage your gallbladder to relax – meaning that it can’t contract properly and expel gallstones as they begin to form.
Although 20 per cent of people over 65 develop gallstones, only about 4 per cent suffer any symptoms. Most people only find out they have gallstones when one gets stuck in the tube leading to the bile duct (called the cystic duct). If it isn’t quickly dislodged, this can be dangerous and cause spasm and inflammation of your gallbladder; excruciating pains in your upper right abdomen or back that can last for several hours; nausea and vomiting.
Gallstones can grow to the size of a golf ball and cause painful attacks
Gallstones form in your gallbladder, a little pear-shaped pouch located under your liver. It is responsible for storing bile and releasing it into your intestine to aid the digestion of food. Bile is made in your liver from cholesterol, lecithin, bile salts and pigments.
Your body’s only means of getting rid of excess cholesterol is by converting it into bile salts and removing it in your bile. Normally, bile salts keep cholesterol dissolved in the bile, but if there is too much cholesterol it crystallises into little solid specks – which can lead to the formation of gallstones the size of a marble, or even a golf ball!
Lose weight to lower your risk of gallstones… but don’t shed the pounds too quickly!
Your chance of developing gallstones doubles if you are just ten pounds overweight, and increases up to six times if you are obese. This is because obesity is associated with increased levels of cholesterol in your bile, which can lead to gallstones.
If you need to lose weight, following Dr Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, as set out in his book, Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution, is a safe and effective way of achieving your ideal weight. But make sure you regulate your weight loss carefully, and are not losing more than two or three pounds a week. Rapid weight loss itself increases the risk of gallstones, because it upsets the production of bile salts, which keep cholesterol soluble.
A diet that is low in fibre and high in sugar and refined carbohydrates is doubly damaging. It not only reduces the conversion of cholesterol into bile salts but also prevents the elimination of cholesterol in your stools, so that it is re-absorbed back into your blood stream.
Don’t be misled by medical dogma that dietary changes do nothing to prevent gallstones or stop them growing bigger
Likewise, don’t be misled by advice that following a low-fat diet will reduce the amount of cholesterol in your bile. Our bodies produce cholesterol on demand and one of its functions is to aid the metabolism of carbohydrates. In fact, the more carbohydrates you eat, the more cholesterol you produce!
To prevent gallstones, follow a low-carbohydrate diet, but include plenty of fibre from fresh green vegetables and salads. Including some vegetable protein, for instance from soybeans, will also help keep cholesterol dissolved in your bile.
Don’t skip meals – your liver needs the stimulation of regular food intake to keep on converting cholesterol into bile acids. To encourage your gallbladder to empty completely and flush out any solid particles of cholesterol, have a couple of tablespoons of olive oil with your main meal. A high consumption of olive oil has been shown to lower the incidence of gallstones.
Safe, natural alternatives to gallbladder surgery
If you already have gallstones and suffer from ‘gallbladder attacks’ – severe cramping pain accompanied by nausea – your doctor will probably advise you to have your gallbladder removed. Surgery can involve risks, the most common complication being injury to your bile ducts, which can leak bile and cause a potentially painful and dangerous infection that may require further surgery. Once your gallbladder is removed, bile flows into the small intestine more frequently, which can cause diarrhoea.
You may be advised that the best way to manage existing symptoms is, again, by following a low-fat diet. The once-popular theory behind this is that such attacks are due to the gallbladder contracting in response to fatty foods. However, recent research has shown that symptoms are just as likely to occur after a low-fat meal as after a high-fat one. Very low-fat diets are detrimental as they don’t stimulate your gallbladder to contract vigorously, meaning that tiny gallstones are not flushed out and can grow bigger.
Food allergies are also implicated in certain cases of gallbladder attacks (but not in the formation of gallstones). Eliminating the offending foods can be an effective form of treatment. In one study, all 69 subjects with gallbladder problems became symptom-free when the problem foods were identified and removed from their diets. Typical symptom-inducing foods, include eggs, pork, milk and coffee. It has been suggested that, in susceptible people, the body reacts to these foods by causing the ducts carrying bile to swell, impeding the flow of bile from the gallbladder.
Herbal remedies can improve bile flow and dissolve existing gallstones
The most powerful herbal remedies for gallbladder problems are dandelion and milk thistle. Dried and roasted dandelion root can be used as a healthy substitute for coffee but, to be sure of getting an effective dose of the active ingredients, pick a ‘standardised extract’. The standard dose of milk thistle is also based on its main active ingredient, silymarin. Most herbalists recommend a dose of between 75 and 200 mg of silymarin, taken three times a day.
A combination of natural chemicals called terpenes, found in the essential oils of plants, has also been found to dissolve gallstones and offer a safe alternative to surgery.
The phospholipid, lecithin, and its active ingredient, phosphatidyl choline, is an ingredient of bile that helps to protect against gallstone formation. A supplement of around 1,200 mg a day of lecithin helps prevent gallstones and may also be active in dissolving existing stones
Following these effective measures for the prevention and treatment of gallstones, can protect you from suffering painful and debilitating gallbladder attacks. They also offer a safe way of avoiding the potential risks of surgery, such as infection, bleeding or blood clots.
Natural Nutrients To Reduce Your Cholesterol
There are plenty of other natural solutions that can help you reduce a high cholesterol level too:
Dietary fibre will lock up the cholesterol in your bile salts, so that it is not reabsorbed, and will remove it in your stools. Raw salad leaves, broccoli and ‘GG-Bran’ crispbreads are suitable low-carbohydrate sources of fibre.
Lecithin emulsifies cholesterol and isolates it from the walls of your arteries so that it can’t stick to them. Take two tablespoons of lecithin granules daily.
Essential fatty acids, omega-6 from borage oil and omega-3 from fish oils (or linseed oil if you prefer), control cholesterol production, reduce your risk of blood clots, lower blood pressure and keep your arteries supple. Take 1,500 mg of each daily.
Niacin is one of the most effective cholesterol-lowering nutrients, outperforming many prescription medications. It also reduces blood fat levels and the risk of clot formation. Take 100 to 500 mg daily. Using the inositol hexanicotinate form will reduce the possibility of liver toxicity. Always take a high-dose vitamin-B
complex supplement at the same time.
Chromium reduces blood fat and cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. It also stabilises blood sugar levels and helps correct insulin resistance. 200 to 400 mcg daily is usually enough, but you may need up to 1,000 mcg if you are diabetic.
Pantethine, a derivative of pantothenic acid, plays a pivotal role in cholesterol metabolism. In one study, 900 mg a day caused a 32 per cent drop in blood fats and a 21 per cent drop in LDL, while HDL levels rose by 23 per cent. Take 500 to 1,000 mg a day.
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