‘Fair, fat, fertile and forty’ is the ditty medical students still learn to describe women most at risk of gallstones. Unflattering, perhaps, but accurate. Up to 30 per cent of people have gallstones, many of whom are unaware of the fact until it is revealed by a routine scan of the upper abdomen. That is, until a gallstone becomes stuck in the duct leading from the gall bladder. Owee.


Behind the scenes

The gall bladder, a pear-shaped sac, stores and concentrates bile produced by the liver. Bile is part waste product (residue of red blood cells) and part digestive juice. After a meal, the gall bladder contracts, forcing bile to be excreted into the small intestine via a narrow tube called the bile duct. Gallstones as small as grains of sand can pass through the bile duct into the intestines without touching the sides, and larger stones won’t fit into the bile duct – it’s the in-between-sized stones that are the troublemakers.



  • The majority of people experience no symptoms until a stone gets caught in the bile duct.
  • A stone stuck in the bile duct causes agonising pain and complications including pancreatitis. Infection of the liver can be life-threatening.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Clay-coloured stool.
  • Sharp cramping or dull pain.
  • Pain in the right or the middle of the abdomen.
  • Pain can be referred to the right shoulder blade.
  • Jaundice; skin and whites of eyes turn yellow.

What causes it?

  • Being overweight increases your risk of gallstones by 600 per cent.
  • A low fibre and high-fat diet places you at risk. Gallstones are unheard of in countries with high-fibre and low-fat diets.
  • Certain foods can trigger an attack, especially eggs and fatty food.
  • There is an increased risk for pregnant women and those taking the oral contraceptive pill.
  • Gall-bladder attacks can occur after sudden weight loss.
  • Gallstones are in your genes.

What to do

The surgical removal of the gall bladder (cholecystectomy) is a routine procedure via keyhole surgery. The gall bladder is not an essential organ, however, it’s nice to retain all your original bits and pieces if possible. If they do not pose an immediate threat, you can live quietly at peace with your gallstones, especially by following the recommendations below.

Although many cholecystectomies are very successful and patients are trouble-free thereafter, there are a certain percentage of people who have difficulty digesting fats after the operation. Many of the suggestions below can help.


  • Drink plenty of water. At least 2 litres a day. This is most important to keep the bile from becoming too concentrated.
  • First thing each morning, drink a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it. Good for liver, good for gall bladder, good for you.
  • Eat plenty of high-fibre foods including vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
  • Restrict high-fat foods including yellow cheese, butter and margarine, fatty cuts of meat, chicken skin, deli meats (such as salami and devon), highly spiced foods and pastries, biscuits and cakes. The gall bladder constricts more with high-fat food. Interestingly, the good fats found in nuts, seeds, fish and avocadoes don’t pose a threat.
  • Eat steamed or raw vegetables, fruit, brown rice, oats, wholemeal breads, fruit, chicken without skin and fish.
  • Increase bitter vegetables in the diet such as rocket, kale and artichokes. Bitters stimulate the liver to create more bile, and improve bile flow.
  • Foods that are particularly good for the gall bladder include turmeric, artichoke, dandelion root, grapefruit, pears and lemons.
  • Your daily vegetable juice should combine carrot, beetroot (including the leaves) and cucumber.
  • Develop a hankering for dandelion tea; it is good for both liver and gall bladder health.

The old chestnut that keeps being rolled out for gallstones is the ‘olive oil and lemon juice flush’ that claims to dissolve gallstones. Literally. Not only will this not dissolve gallstones, it may likely cause a gall bladder attack. Not to be done at home. Or anywhere.


  • The old liver and digestive remedy works well for gall bladders too – take a teaspoon of herbal bitters in water before dinner.
  • Choleretics are herbs that help the liver produce bile and optimise the proper functioning of the gall bladder. Choleretic herbs include St. Mary’s thistle, globe artichoke, turmeric, chelidonium, calendula, ginger and peppermint. Take a tincture or tablet of one or more of these herbs once or twice a day.
  • Peppermint is not only choleretic, but also prevents cramping. Take 1 or 2 capsules of peppermint oil daily and drink peppermint tea.
  • Lecithin can aid fat digestion. Add 2 tablespoons to your cereal or take 4 capsules daily.
  • If your diet is not fibre rich, take a soluble fibre supplement daily. Choose psyllium, pectin, oat bran, chia seeds or ground linseeds or a combination.
  • If you experience cramping, crush a magnesium phosphate tablet in water and sip every 10 minutes.


  • Lose weight if necessary. Being overweight increases your risk of gallstones.
  • To treat the painful abdominal symptoms, apply a heat pack to the area. A ginger or castor-oil compress will add to the soothing effect.
  • Acupuncture is an effective treatment for gall-bladder disease.
  • The liver is the organ of anger, the gall bladder is the organ of resentment and bile represents bitterness. Is it possible you may have a build-up of these emotions?
  • The Bach flowers Willow and Chicory are good for resentment issues

At a glance


  • To prevent bile from becoming too concentrated, thereby increasing the risk for stones to form, make sure you drink at least 2 litres of water a day.
  • A fibre-rich diet is key to preventing gallstones. Wholegrains, vegetables and legumes all fit the high-fibre bill.
  • A high-fat diet increases your risk, so decrease dairy foods, deli meats, pastries and fatty cuts of meat.
  • Rocket, kale, artichokes, turmeric, grapefruit, pears and lemons are all good for the liver and gall bladder.


  • Take a tincture or tablet of 1 or more of the herbs that support the functioning of the liver and hence the gall bladder once or twice a day.
  • Add a fibre supplement.


  • Being overweight increases your risk of gallstones. Lose weight now.
  • Acupuncture is an effective treatment for gall-bladder disease.
  • Deal with negative emotions such as anger, resentment and bitterness.