Gallstone formation (cholelithiasis) is another disease with a very low incidence in primitive societies, yet in modern society it affects more than 20% of women and 8% of men over the age of 40 (Gracie 1982). Each year hundreds of thousands of gallbladders are surgically removed, at great cost.  75% of all gallstones consist primarily of cholesterol, while the rest are formed from pigments (calcium bilirubinate), bile salts, bile pigments, inorganic calcium salts, and other minerals.  It is important to know the composition of the stone because pure cholesterol stones are far easier to dissolve with prescription medicines (Roda et al, 1982).  Therefore, it is necessary to see your doctor for the appropriate tests to determine the size and type of stone before trying herbal therapy. Herbal and chemical medicines do not always work, or may only work temporarily, so as with most diseases, prevention is the best strategy.  In traditional terms, gallstones are a result of heat and dampness leading to blockage.

The symptoms of gall bladder are often silent. The most common warning signs of symptomatic gallbladder disease are dyspepsia, nausea, belching and vomiting. Patients may also experience episodic pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, jaundice or infection.  Some cases also present with cystic or common bile duct obstruction. Cases of blockage or severe pain require emergency medical attention.

Guidelines for Prevention and Treatment of Gallstones

• Obesity causes more cholesterol to be secreted in the bile, so preventive measures include exercise and weight control. Obese individuals are far more likely to develop gallstones than individuals at a healthy weight.  

• Dietary fiber inhibits cholesterol stone formation by reducing the biliary cholesterol saturation (Schwesinger et. al 1999).

• My recommended diet for heat and damp, as well as moderate use of healthy fats and oils can help improve liver and bile function, clear blood fats, and aid in keeping the intestinal flora healthy (Scobey et al 1991).

• Diets that promote quick weight loss with drastic caloric restrictions can promote gallstone formation.

• Exercise can prevent gallstone formation (Utter and Goss 1997). The Harvard School of Public Health reported in 1999 that women who exercise regularly (2-3 hours per week) cut their risk of gallstones by as much as one third.

• Drinking several cups of dandelion tea each day can prevent gallbladder attacks (reported in Weiss, 1988).

• Volatile oils, such as the limolene found in lemons, can help dissolve gallstones. The European prescription herbal medicine Rowachol, made primarily from mint oils, has also demonstrated effectiveness. This sort of therapy takes many months to work and exhibits better results when combined with pharmaceutical bile acid therapy.

Milk thistle seed and turmeric root (or curcumin) both affect liver and bile function, which helps prevent stone formation, backing up traditional beliefs about liver detoxification.  I recommend about two grams of turmeric and 600 mg of milk thistle extract per day.

• The standard TCM prescription called Jin shi san (JSS) or San jin tang has been shown in clinical trials to dissolve gallstones in a large percentage of patients. Analysis of bile showed that JSS increased the amount of bile acid and decreased the bilirubin and mucus (Pei et al., 1996).  A form of this formula, Lysmachia 3, is available from ITM.

The Chinese name jin qian cao applies to several different herbs capable of dissolving gallstones.  The most popular of these herbs are jin qian cao herb (Lysimachia christinae), and guang jin qian herb (Desmodium styracifolium).   According to TCM theory, if stones are small enough you can treat them by removing heat and dampness from the gallbladder. One basic Chinese formula contains jin qian cao herb, capillaris (Artemisia capillaris), bupleurum root, scute root, dandelion root, and the inner lining of chicken gizzard  (Gallus domesticus or ji nei jin). TCM doctors also use rhubarb root that has been soaked in wine and fried (to reduce the laxative effect).  With signs of more severe heat and inflammation you might include turmeric root and extra dandelion.  In cases with more pain accompanied by spasms, cordyalis tuber (yan hu suo or Corydalis yanhusuo) and white peony root would be helpful.