When we’re healthy, we tend to take our bodies’ natural elimination methods for granted. We don’t think about it beyond the first inkling of “oh, gotta go.” However, when a urinary tract infection (UTI) hits, even sitting down can be a painful reminder that something’s awry. UTIs affect drastically more women than men: Approximately 40 percent of women, compared to 12 percent of men, will contract at least one UTI in their lifetime.
How Our Plumbing Works
The kidneys make urine by filtering waste products in the blood. They send the wastes down the ureter to the bladder, which stores the urine, to be emptied via the urethra. Thanks to female anatomy, bacteria normally present around the anus may come into contact with the urethral opening and then travel upwards to the bladder, causing infection. Another reason more women than men contract UTIs is that the female’s urethra is shorter than the male’s. In addition, diaphragms and spermicidal condoms increase a woman’s risk of UTI. Women who are menopausal also have increased risk of a UTI, without estrogen’s protective effects.
What Causes UTIs?
According to women’s health specialist Laurie Steelsmith, ND, most UTIs are initiated by bacteria to which women are exposed daily. “The most common causes are trauma to the urethra, low estrogen, chronic vaginal infections, diet, stress, dehydration, and frequent antibiotic use,” she says. UTIs are also common in women who are sexually active because any microtrauma to the urethra, which is located very close to the vaginal opening, will exacerbate its vulnerability to invading bacteria.
The Mayo Clinic finds that symptoms of UTIs include:
more frequent urges to urinate
a burning sensation during urination
cloudy, strong-smelling urine or a little blood in the urine
some passage of small amounts of urine.
There are three types of UTIs: pyelonephritis (kidney infection), cystitis (bladder infection or inflammation), and urethritis (inflammation or infection of the urethra).
“Urologists spend little time and effort thinking about UTIs,” write researchers Jane Miller, MD, and John Krieger, MD. “In contrast, UTIs are a major issue for many women.”
Besides antibiotics, which are typically prescribed in such cases, a powerful ally is found in the juice or tablet of a common berry. The tart, red, fingernail-sized cranberry is the premier natural compound researched for its role in urinary tract health. Early studies on the cranberry determined its content of hippuricacid helped maintain the acidity level in urine, while more recent research shows its ability to prevent Escherichia coli from sticking to the bladder walls. Researchers believe that the naturally occurring proanthocyanidins in cranberries are responsible for inhibiting the adherence of E. coli.
One team of researchers looked specifically at the ability of cranberry constituents to thwart E. coli’s ability to adhere to the uroepithelial cells, which line the bladder. They noted that “a low-polarity fraction” of cranberry juice cocktail had a dose-dependent ability to inhibit adherence of E. coli.
A year-long study of 150 sexually active females found that cranberry juice and tablets offered a statistically significant decrease in the number of women who had at least one UTI per year, compared to placebo. The researchers concluded, “Cranberry tablets provided the most cost-effective prevention for UTI.”
Research also points to probiotics. Findings from various in vitro studies, animal studies, microbiological studies in healthy women, and clinical trials in women with UTIs are promising. Probiotic bacteria strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus and L. reuteri have been found most effective in preventing UTIs. Results from a meta-analysis suggest that “supplementation with particular probiotic strains may be effective in helping reduce the likelihood of recurrence of UTIs in women.”
Supplements show promise in treating and preventing UTIs, but it’s important to contact your healthcare practitioner at the first sign of symptoms. “Treating a UTI requires immediate attention. Natural remedies are very effective if used within the first three days of a UTI,” says Dr. Steelsmith.
Naturopathic physician Laurie Steelsmith, ND, recommends the following for urinary tract health:
Vitamin A: 50,000 IU a day for up to a week to maintain mucous membrane health.
D-mannose: For treating a UTI, take 1 gram of D-mannose in a cup of water every three to four hours.
Baking soda: To help decrease the pain associated with a UTI, use 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a cup of water and drink once or twice a day unless you’re sodium sensitive.
Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi): Take 250 to 500 mg three times a day for at least five days.Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) tea: During a UTI, drink four cups daily. To make the tea, boil four cups of water, add two tablespoons of the root, and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. Strain and drink.