By Kris Vaughan, CH
Supporting a healthy urinary tract allows for prevention of urinary tract irritation. An imbalance in the mucous membrane tissue that lines the urinary tract allows bacteria to adhere, causing infection and discomfort.
Keep in mind that bladder infections can travel to the kidneys; this can be dangerous and requires medical attention.
What Are the Symptoms of Urinary Tract Irritation?
Early symptoms of imbalance in the urinary tract are painful urination, increased need to urinate, and pressure above the pubic bone when urinating, often with a dragging pain at the end of the urine stream.
These symptoms should always be evaluated by a qualified healthcare practitioner.We are also lucky to have many herbs available to us that offer natural support for healthy urinary tract function.
Experiencing more advanced symptoms of a UTI is a cause for concern. They signal that the bacteria have moved into the kidneys and possibly even into the bloodstream—which is life-threatening.
If you experience any of these symptoms, don’t hesitate to see a medical professional:
- Cloudy and/or smelly urine
- Blood or pus in your urine
- Fever and/or chills
- Abdominal pain and/or pain in the back, side, or groin
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Note: Many sexually transmitted infections have symptoms that are similar to those of a UTI. If you think you may have a bacterial STD, talk to your doctor.
What Causes UTI’s
A urinary tract infection is most often (approximately 80% of the time) caused by the presence of E. coli but may also come from klebsiella, enterobacter, staphylococcus, and other bacteria.
The bacteria have mechanisms that allow them to adhere to the lining of the bladder and the mucosal wall of the entire urinary tract, causing inflammation, cloudy urine with an unpleasant odor, and bladder and pelvic pain.
Several factors increase the likelihood of developing a UTI.
Sounds unfair, I know, but it’s a simple matter of anatomy. Women are more prone to UTIs than men because of the proximity of the urethra to the anus. The bacteria of the anus have a shorter distance to travel to colonize the lining of the urethra and the bladder.
Also, hormonal changes during pregnancy place pressure on the bladder from the growing uterus and may cause congestion in the lower urinary tract and the inability to completely empty the bladder.
Finally, estrogen and progesterone shifts during menopause alter the pH of the urine and also cause changes in tissue structure. Women over 65 have the highest rates of UTIs.
But be aware, men also get UTIs (although not as frequently), and the risk increases when they reach age 50 and above. The factors that put men at risk of developing a UTI are an enlarged prostate gland, kidney stones, and unprotected anal intercourse.
Antibacterial soaps, sprays, douches, feminine deodorants, and contraceptive jellies and creams alter the urinary tract’s normal pH, allowing an environment for bacteria to colonize. Barrier contraceptives such as diaphragms may irritate the urethra and allow for bacterial adhesion.
There is increased change in tissue pH and structure with the consumption of foods with pesticides on them. These chemicals also lower our body’s natural ability to recognize the bacteria and mount a proper immune system response.
Antibiotic use depletes the friendly bacteria normally present in the genitourinary tract and allows an overgrowth of Candida albicans. The overgrowth of Candida can alter the pH of the urinary tract and contribute to recurrent UTIs.
When we are under stress, especially chronic stress, we increase production of our adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), glucocorticoids, and aldosterone. All of these reduce the number of circulating white blood cells that normally fight off infectious bacteria. The reduction in white blood cells increases our susceptibility to infection.
How Can a UTI Be Prevented?
According to a medical study published by NCBI, UTIs are “one of the most frequent bacterial infections” in women (at almost 25% of all infections). In fact, 50-60% of women will develop at least one UTI in their lifetime. And unfortunately, once you experience a UTI, you are more likely to get another one.
The best tactics for preventing a UTI are to:
- Wear well-fitting cotton underwear.
- Drink plenty of water every day.
- Limit soft drinks.
- Urinate every 2-3 hours and empty your bladder fully.
- Wipe front to back after using the bathroom.
- Urinate before and after sex.
- Manage your diabetes, if applicable.
I should also mention what you shouldn’t do to prevent UTIs.
- Get dehydrated.
- Hold in your urine for longer than three hours.
- Use vaginal deodorants or douche products (water only!).
- Use a diaphragm, spermicide, or un-lubricated condoms.
- Stay in a wet swimsuit after you’re finished swimming.
These “don’ts” can dry out the urinary tract, change the pH balance in and around the vagina, and introduce nasty bacteria where they don’t belong.
Natural Support for the Urinary Tract
Adequate water intake is essential in supporting the normal structures and functions of the urinary tract and for basic daily hydration of our cells and tissues. On average, I recommend a person consume a minimum of half their body weight in ounces of water daily. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be consuming at least 75 ounces of water each day.
If an imbalance develops in the urinary tract, it is important to increase water intake to 3 or more quarts of water a day for 3-5 days. This will flush the urinary tract continually, aiding in removing bacteria.
The plant world also has much to offer us in supporting a healthy urinary tract. Here are a few herbal actions useful in the urinary tract.
- Antimicrobial – inhibits microbial growth and expression.
- Anti-inflammatory - reduces inflammation and local irritation in tissues.
- Astringent – removes excess secretions from tissues, giving a “tonifying” effect.
- Diuretic - supports the kidneys' ability to excrete more fluid.
- Antispasmodic - relieves uncomfortable spasms in the bladder and ureters.
For a more in-depth discussion on herbal actions, I would suggest the book Herbal ABC's: the Foundation of Herbal Medicine by Dr. Sharol Tilgner.
Herbs for Urinary Tract Support
The following herbs are beneficial for supporting the normal, healthy function of the urinary tract. Many of these herbs have a synergistic effect on each other and do well when used in combination. When choosing herbal remedies to support the normal healthy function of the urinary tract, it is best to use a combination of herbs that have the various properties you are looking for.
Cranberry – Vaccinium spp.: Perhaps the most well-known herb for UTIs, cranberry supports the healthy structure of the tissue of the urinary tract. Many people find unsweetened cranberry juice a bit too astringent and bitter, so a concentrated cranberry syrup is a pleasing option. Syrup preparations allow you to take smaller amounts to achieve the same result and are usually quite flavorful and pleasant. Blueberries work in much the same way as cranberries, so they make a nice alternative.
Uva ursi – Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: Uva ursi leaf has long been used as a urinary antiseptic and diuretic. A tincture is the most common way to take uva ursi, but a tea from the dried leaves will work too. It will be astringent to drink, which is why many prefer a liquid extract instead.
Horsetail – Equisetum spp.: The spring stems of horsetail are cooling and drying and contain large amounts of silica, potassium, manganese, flavonoids, and phenolic acids.
Oregon grape root – Mahonia spp.: Oregon grape root contains large amounts of the alkaloid berberine, which gives the roots of Oregon grape their golden yellow color. You will also find this alkaloid in goldenseal, desert barberry, and Chinese goldthread. Adding some Echinacea to this will add some general immune system support and make a powerful combination of herbs for urinary tract infections.
Corn silk – Zea mays: This is the fresh stringy silk we remove from a corn cob when we take off the outer husk. Fresh corn silk is cooling and moistening to hot, irritated mucous membrane tissue in the urinary tract.
The information provided in this article is for educational purposes and not meant to replace the guidance of your medical physician. Pregnant and nursing women especially should seek guidance before using any herbal supplements.
Kris Vaughan, CH is the Program Director and Clinical Herbalist at Herbal Wisdom Institute in Arizona.