The pain of a gallbladder attack can drive sufferers to seek relief from home remedies such as Epsom salts or a combination of apple cider vinegar and olive oil. While some members of the natural healing community advocate these agents for a gallbladder cleanse, no scientific evidence suggests that they're effective, says the Mayo Clinic.
What Is a Gallbladder Cleanse?
A gallbladder flush or cleanse involves consuming herbs, olive oil and fruit juice for two days. Because natural health practitioners have their own recipes, no standard formula exists. Proponents claim the cleanse fosters the disintegration of gallstones and results in their excretion.
The repeated doses of olive oil have a laxative effect, which leads to the expulsion of lumps in the stool. However, examination shows that, instead of being gallstones, the lumps are merely composed of oil and other materials. Such cleanses can involve side effects like diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and pain, warns the Mayo Clinic. In addition, the herbs used in them may carry health risks.
Are Epsom Salts Treatments Dangerous?
Taking Epsom salts baths shouldn't be confused with the ingestion of Epsom salts. While some natural health practitioners prescribe taking Epsom salts by mouth as a gallstone remedy, doctors advise against it. The Cleveland Clinic cautions that this home remedy is for external use only and should never be ingested. Epsom salts taken internally can cause serious side effects like severe diarrhea, sudden and dramatic episodes of which may lead to dehydration and pose a danger.
A 2017 report published in the British Medical Journal documents the threat to health from Epsom salts treatments for gallstones. It relates the case of a 38-year-old man who was prescribed 3 tablespoons of Epsom salts in water for 15 days to dissolve gallstones. The treatment resulted in a severe liver injury. Other possible effects of large doses of Epsom salts include heart arrhythmias, electrolyte imbalances and kidney damage, the authors noted.
Apple Cider Vinegar Precautions
A few studies show that apple cider vinegar is beneficial for certain medical conditions, reports the University of Chicago Medicine (UCM). Some practitioners recommend it for the gallbladder, but no scientific evidence, to date, supports this use.
Nonetheless, apple cider vinegar is safe for most people to try if they're aware of certain precautions. UCM notes that a person with chronic kidney disease might not be able to handle the acid content, and Mayo Clinic states that, when consumed often or in large amounts, the vinegar can irritate the throat. It can also interact with some supplements and drugs, so check with your doctor before adding it to your daily regimen.
Northwestern Medicine advises diluting the vinegar with water before ingestion to prevent damage to tooth enamel by the acid. You may also mix a small amount with olive oil and pour it over salads.
What Are Symptoms of Gallstones?
The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) defines gallstones as pieces of solid matter that develop in the gallbladder, which stores the digestive juice called bile. Gallstones are created when components of bile form crystals. The stones can vary in both number and size.
Read more: Side Effects of Gallstones
Gallstone pain manifests in the upper abdomen, normally in the central part or on the right side, notes the AGA. The pain may be severe, and its duration can vary from 15 minutes to several hours. Pain from a gallbladder attack may also occur in the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades. Although the pain frequently begins after a meal, it may happen at night, interrupting sleep.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) lists other symptoms aside from pain. These include fever, nausea, vomiting, light-colored stools, tea-colored urine and jaundice, which is a yellow tinge of the skin and whites of the eyes. If the pain lingers for several hours, or if you experience any of the other signs, see a doctor immediately.
How Is Gallstone Pain Treated?
Doctors prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or narcotic agents for acute pain. Since NSAIDs have fewer adverse effects, practitioners prefer them to narcotics. Another pain-relieving option is an antispasmodic like scopolamine, a medication that relaxes gallbladder spasms.
The surgical removal of the gallbladder, called cholecystectomy, is one of the most common operations performed in America, says the NIDDK. Because the gallbladder isn't absolutely essential, people can live without it. Most doctors perform the surgery laparoscopically, but they opt for open surgery when patients have severely inflamed gallbladders. In special cases, or for patients who are unable to undergo surgery, doctors may prescribe medications to break up the gallstones.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the treatment choice depends on the severity of symptoms. After the initial gallbladder attack, your doctor may decide to wait and see if the problem resolves itself before initiating treatment. When no pain is present and the gallstones are floating free, no treatment is necessary.
How to Prevent Gallstones
Harvard Health Publishing explains that gallstones aren't preventable, but studies indicate that some lifestyle practices may help. One measure is to get at least 30 minutes of regular exercise on most days of the week. The NIDDK also suggests eating a diet rich in fiber and healthy fat, but low in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Obesity and being overweight are risk factors for gallstones that can be reduced by eating a healthy diet that isn't high in fat and calories, reports Harvard Health Publishing. Because rapid weight loss can cause gallstones to develop, set a goal of losing only 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Moreover, Harvard Health Publishing says that eating at least 5 ounces of nuts per week may reduce the risk of gallstones. Nuts contain healthy fat that lowers the "bad" variety of cholesterol known as LDL. The food is also plentiful in magnesium and fiber, the latter of which may guard against gallstones by reducing the recirculation of bile acids in the intestines.
- Mayo Clinic: "Gallbladder Cleanse: A 'Natural' Remedy for Gallstones?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Epsom Salt"
- British Medical Journal: "Severe Liver Injury Due to Epsom Salts Naturopathy"
- University of Chicago Medicine: "Debunking the Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar"
- Mayo Clinic: "Drinking Apple Cider Vinegar for Weight Loss Seems Far-Fetched. Does It Work?"
- Northwestern Medicine: "Quick Dose: What Are the Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar?"
- American Gastroenterological Association: "Gallstones"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms and Causes of Gallstones"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Surgical and Nonsurgical Management of Gallstones"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "What to Do About Gallstones"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Attack of the Gallstones"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "In Brief: Say Nuts to Gallstones"
- Quackwatch; The Truth about Gallbladder "Flushes" Peter Moran, MB, BS, BSc(Med), FRACS, FRCS(Eng)