'Gallstones cleanse' is not scientifically proven treatment: experts

Medical experts say they do not recommend natural remedies touted online to "flush out" gallstones, as they are not scientifically proven to treat them. One such remedy was shared thousands of times by users in the Philippines where many people with chronic conditions face barriers to accessing healthcare. Gallstones -- hardened deposits in the gallbladder -- can be removed through surgery or dissolved using oral medication.

"Gosh it really worked. It only took Mott’s, Epsom salts, olive oil and lemon juice to flush out everything," read part of a Visayan-language Facebook post about a purported gallstones cleanse from June 7, 2024.

Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that are thought to develop because of an imbalance in the chemical makeup of bile inside the gallbladder (archived link).

In most cases, they do not cause any symptoms and do not need to be treated, however, surgery becomes necessary if the stones cause complications such as jaundice or acute pancreatitis. Doctors may prescribe medication to dissolve smaller gallstones.

A comment on the false Facebook post -- shared more than 23,000 times -- outlined a "natural way of cleansing" that supposedly rids the body of gallstones within a week.

It suggested drinking five glasses of Mott’s apple juice for five consecutive days, before drinking Epsom salts dissolved in lukewarm water; half a glass of olive oil; and half a glass of lemon juice.

<span>Screenshot of the false Facebook post, captured on June 21, 2024</span>
Screenshot of the false Facebook post, captured on June 21, 2024

The supposed natural remedy was also posted elsewhere on Facebook in the Philippines here, here and here, where it was shared more than 25,000 times.

AFP has reported how a shortage of doctors, the difficulty of reaching a hospital in the archipelago, poor health literacy, and fear of incurring huge medical bills have led many people suffering from chronic conditions to seek alternative treatments online.

But medical experts told AFP that purported gallstone cleansing remedies were not proven to work.

Baseless remedy

"The idea of gallstone flushing or cleansing lacks scientific merit," said Dr Therese Macatula, a gastroenterologist at The Medical City, a major hospital in Manila.

She said apple juice cannot dissolve gallstones because it is broken down during digestion, and while olive oil may prevent them from forming, it cannot dissolve existing stones.

"Medical experts, therefore, do not recommend such practice of gallstone flushing," she said on June 16.

According to the United States' Mayo Clinic, "people who try gallbladder cleansing might see what looks like gallstones in their stool the next day" (archived link).

"But they're really seeing globs of oil, juice and other materials."

It also noted that some people who try these purported remedies may experience  "nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain during the flushing or cleansing period".

Dr Paolo Demapelis, a Manila-based gastroenterologist, told AFP that the purported gallstone remedy shared online may have originated from an anecdote documented in a letter to The Lancet medical journal in December 1999 (archived link).

Commenting on the "cleanse" steps outlined in the letter, he said, "There were no studies, not even another anecdote that have successfully replicated these results.”

Demapelis added that not all patients with gallstones need treatment and asymptomatic cases should be left alone if a doctor believes they are not at risk of developing complications.

"Any other 'cleansing remedies' that are not prescribed by doctors are also not effective in dissolving gallbladder stones," he said on June 17.

AFP has previously debunked other baseless claims about homemade or natural remedies here, here, here and here.