CAN THIS HERB CURE KIDNEY STONES?
Brazilian plant quebra pedra is reputed to stop stones forming and reduce the need for surgery to remove them. But does it really work? ROZ LEWIS investigates
WHEN Martha Koukidou’s consultant broke the news that the agonising kidney pains she had suffered for years was something she would have to live with, it was the last thing she wanted to hear.
“It was really depressing,” says the 36-year-old geneticist from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. “By then, I was having trouble functioning at work or having much of a life at all because the pain was so severe.”
Martha’s battle with kidney stones began more than 12 years ago when she was rushed to hospital in Chichester, West Sussex, with vomiting and excruciating pains in her lower abdomen. She was told that she had kidney stones, which were causing the pain and X-rays confirmed several stones in her right kidney.
It is a fairly common problem. About three in 20 men and one in 20 women in the UK develop a stone. It can occur at any age, but happens most commonly between the ages of 20 and 40.
The cause is unknown but it is known that when the kidneys remove excess water and waste chemicals to produce urine, the chemicals sometimes form tiny crystals, which can clump together to form small stones.
Most kidney stones are small enough to pass out of the body in the urine but severe pain can occur when larger stones pass into the ureter (the tube that leads from the kidney to the bladder) and become stuck. This is known as renal colic.
When this happens, the most common treatment is extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL). This uses high-energy “shock waves” to break up stones. The tiny broken fragments then pass out of the body through the urine.
“I had the procedure done to break up the large stone and it seemed to work initially,” says Martha. “But in the summer of 2000, when I was working in Greece, the stone in my right kidney started to give me agonising pain. I had to have a lithotripsy each year to keep the stone manageable. It couldn’t be operated on because it was in the wrong part of the kidney.”
In desperation, Martha began researching alternative therapies on the internet and eventually stumbled upon a herbal remedy called Quebra pedra (phyllanthus niruri).
“I ordered some over the internet and started drinking the herbal tea three times a day and taking the three pills a day,” she says. “I didn’t feel enormously different at first, but a few months later I noticed I hadn’t developed the usual pains from a stone. Two and a half years later, I’m still symptomfree. It’s quite amazing.”
MARTHA is one of a growing number of sufferers turning to the Brazilian herb, known as the “stone breaker”. The medicinal plant, traditionally used to treat both kidney stones and gallstones, is indigenous to rainforests in the Amazon and in tropical areas in the Bahamas, southern India and China.
A study published in the Journal of Urology by Italian researchers showed that Quebra pedra extract reduced the rate of kidney stone formation in patients with renal stones who had undergone one to three ESWL procedures. Other studies have suggested the herb has some benefits in boosting the immune system and it is said to be good for digestive disorders.
Little is understood about how it works and many doctors are sceptical. Ken Anson, consultant urological surgeon at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, south London, says: “Early evidence from animal studies and in vitro experiments suggests that phyllanthus niruri does reduce the formation of kidney stones after a patient has had a lithotripsy.
“I am not against anyone taking the herbal remedy, provided they keep their fluid intake high. So far, research has shown it isn’t harmful.”
But Dr Malcolm Bateson, consultant gastroenterologist specialising in gallstones, from Bishop Auckland County Hospital, says: “This is junk. It [the herb] can’t work on two entirely separate processes in the body, it’s not possible.”
Trudy Norris, spokesperson for the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, says: “There are a number of remedies for gall bladder or kidney problems but I wouldn’t recommend selfprescribing for these conditions.”
But for patients who believe the herb has helped them, how it works isn’t an issue. Stephen Collins, a 54-year-old retired paramedic from Gloucester, has had kidney stones since the Eighties and was also diagnosed with a gallstone before he started taking Quebra pedra in 2004. “Since then, I have had no bouts of renal colic and a scan of my gall bladder and kidneys in 2005 showed that all was clear, which is fairly amazing. I’m convinced it works and have recommended it to other people I know who have similar problems.”
Rio Amazon Quebra Pedra teabags (90) cost £12.99; Rio Amazon Quebra pedra 2500mg vegicaps (90) £15.99 are available from www.riohealth.co.uk; 01273 570987. Consult your GP before taking any herbal remedy.