The bile ducts carry digestive fluid manufactured in the liver to the gallbladder for storage until needed to break down fats in the small intestine. If the ducts become blocked, bile builds up in the liver and causes jaundice. Various things can cause a bile duct blockage, such as gallstones, infection or pancreatic tumors. Certain herbs stimulate bile flow to help prevent and remove duct blockage. However, herbal remedies do not take the place of conventional treatments to remedy structural impairment of the gallbladder or tumors. Also, increasing bile flow can sometimes make the condition worse. If you suspect you have a blocked bile duct, consult your physician before attempting self-treatment.
Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, has been used for centuries to address gallbladder issues. The primary active compounds in the plant are silibinin, silidianin and silicristin, flavonoids collectively referred to as silymarin. According to James Balch and Mark Stengler, authors of "Prescription for Natural Cures," standardized milk thistle extract increases bile flow while lowering the concentration of cholesterol. Check with your doctor before using milk thistle because it may interact with other medicines, including blood-thinning and cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Globe artichoke, or Cynara scolymus, is used in folk medicine to improve bile flow and prevent the formation of gallstones, a common cause of bile duct blockage. In Europe, this herb has received approval from the German E Commission for the treatment of gallbladder disease. A study published in “Phytomedicine” in 2002 reports that oral administration of artichoke leaf extract significantly increased bile flow in rats. However, the ““Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines” warns that the stimulation of the biliary tract with this herb may cause more problems if there is a total blockage in a bile duct.
Portulaca oleracea is an edible weed with a long history of use for treating digestive problems. A study published in "Annals of Hepatology" in June 2011 investigated the antioxidant effects of the omega-3 fatty acid and bioflavonoid content in the herb on the progression of liver disease produced in rats by performing total bile duct ligation. The scientists found that purslane extract reversed the adverse effects of bile duct ligation that led to oxidative stress and liver damage. However, the study authors note that the effects were more preventative than curative.
The primary goal of treatment of biliary obstruction is to remove the blockage, followed by improving bile flow to prevent further blockages. Herbal therapies may help, but surgical intervention may also be necessary to completely eliminate or bypass the blockage. It is critical that you see your doctor right away because a bile duct blockage can result in serious complications if left untreated.
- “Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines”; Thomas Brendler, et al.; 2007
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Milk Thistle
- "Prescription for Natural Cures"; James Balch, Mark Stengler; 2004
- “Phytomedicine”; Choleretic Activity and Biliary Elimination of Lipids and Bile Acids Induced by an Artichoke Leaf Extract in Rats; T. Saénz Rodriguez, et al.; 2002
- "Annals of Hepatology"; Prophylactic and Curative Effects of Purslane on Bile Duct Ligation-induced Hepatic Fibrosis in Albino Rats; S.I. Ali, et al.; 2011