Keeping the Burn at Bay

You can make bladder infections go away naturally—for good.

By H. K. Jones

March 2007

If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve been down this road: The burning sensation when you urinate, feeling like you need to use the ladies’ room every few minutes (without much in the way of results), the pressure and aching in the lower abdomen, the sore lower back. You have a urinary tract infection (UTI); the pain is unpleasant, the symptoms downright annoying.

You’re not alone; one in five women will develop at least one UTI during her lifetime, and many will experience a lot more than one. If that sounds like you, here’s the FYI on UTIs.

Getting Off “Tract”

The urinary tract consists of kidneys that filter out waste in the form of urine; a storage sac to hold the urine, a.k.a. the bladder; ureters, tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder; and the urethra, which carries the urine out of the body. The trouble starts when invading bacteria multiply and gather force in the urethra. Then they march up to the bladder, where they cause tissue damage and a painful problem called cystitis. (An unrelated form, interstitial cystitis, occurs when the bladder becomes inflamed with no infection present.) This inflammation and swelling of the bladder initiates those oh-so-familiar UTI symptoms.

Treated promptly, bladder infections are usually no big deal. But complications can occur if the infection spreads to the kidneys, including fever, vomiting, nausea, severe back pain and—if untreated for a long time—lasting kidney damage.

Men can, and do, get UTIs, but a matter of anatomy makes them more common among women: A woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s, giving germs a head start. The urethra in women also happens to be located very close to the rectum—the source of lots of bacteria. What’s more, while just being female increases your UTI risk, being sexually active dramatically increases your risk. UTIs aren’t sexually transmitted but the transfer of infection-causing microbes escalates during sexual activity, and more bacteria means more risk of infection.

Battling the Bugs

While the urinary system is designed to fight off microbes, certain factors increase the chances that bacteria will take hold. A weakened immune system (from diabetes, poor diet or any other problem that debilitates the body), a urethra damaged by childbirth or the placement of a catheter in the urethra all predispose you to getting a UTI. To reduce your risk:

*Eat a well-balanced diet to keep your immune system strong.
*Drink plenty of liquids, especially water.
*Urinate promptly when the urge arises, and wipe from front to back to help prevent the spread of bacteria.
*Avoid potentially irritating feminine hygiene products, including deodorant sprays and douches, and  change pads and tampons frequently.

Once an infection takes hold you need a plan. Antibiotics are the usual course of treatment, but there are some natural therapies to consider.

Cranberry juice, an old folk remedy for the problem, has held up under scientific scrutiny. Recent studies have found that cranberry components keep bacteria from forming hard-to-dislodge colonies called biofilms (FEMS Microbiology Letter 4/06). Other investigations have found that cranberry helps prevent bacteria from attaching to the walls of the urinary tract; by inhibiting this attachment, cranberries can also be very helpful in preventing an infection. Essentially, the berries eliminate, rather than kill, the UTI-causing bacteria, and can be used when you first feel symptoms. However, if the bacteria manage to stick to the bladder and cause a serious infection, cranberries can’t help; you’ll need to consult your healthcare provider.

If you suffer from chronic UTIs, up your intake of cranberries as a preventive measure. Fresh, dried and canned versions all work; you can also drink two glasses of cranberry juice a day—one in the morning and another at night. Cranberry juice cocktail, as well as cranberry juice sweetened with other fruit juices, work as well as the astringent 100% cranberry juice; just don’t forget to count those extra calories. For on-the-go convenience, you can take cranberry extract in supplement form.

Probiotics—the friendly intestinal bacteria—may also help. “Several well-characterized strains of probiotic organisms may reduce the symptoms and possible recurrence of bacteria caused by urinary pathogens,” says Dr. Roger Clemens, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists. “Several studies suggest these probiotics may be administered concurrently with traditional medications (antibiotics) and several studies suggest the probiotics may be as effective as the medication.”

Once the burning begins you should also drink a lot of fluids, such as herbal teas and water, and eliminate refined foods, caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Vitamin C makes the urine acidic, which inhibits bacterial growth. Beta-carotene is necessary for immune function and mucous membrane integrity, and zinc supports immune function.

Just because you’ve suffered from UTIs in the past doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of running for the ladies’ room. Making some common sense lifestyle changes can bring lasting relief.

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