The urinary tract has a vitally important function, but it usually does its job every day without us even thinking about it. We tend to take this essential system for granted – until something goes wrong, that is.
You may be surprised at how often problems, particularly infections, affect the urinary tract. It’s estimated that up to 80% of women have had or will suffer from a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their lives, many of them repeatedly. And it’s not just women who suffer – men and children can also get UTIs.
At the root of the problem is bacterial infection of the bladder, mainly by Escherichia coli and sometimes by Staphylococcus saprophyticus. These bacteria live in the colon, where they are usually kept under control by the good bacteria that also live there, and by the immune system. However, it’s more complicated than just a bug. Under normal circumstances, our bodies should be able to prevent infection in the urinary tract from occurring. So why should things go awry – especially so often?
THE ROOT OF THE MATTER
The kidneys, ureters (the tubules connecting the kidneys to the bladder), bladder and urethra (the tubule taking urine from the bladder, out of the body) make up what we call the urinary tract. Our two kidneys, situated just below the rib cage alongside the spine, filter blood, removing waste products and water, and maintain pH and electrolyte balance. The resulting liquid, urine, is sent to the bladder via the two ureters, and then excreted via the urethra.
If bacteria (usually from the bowel) get into the urethra they can travel up into the bladder, where, if conditions are right, they multiply, causing infection (cystitis). If these bacteria travel further up the ureters, they can cause a kidney infection (pyelonephritis). This is potentially serious if left untreated, and can damage the kidneys irreparably.
Women are more prone to UTI than men because their urethras are shorter, so it’s eas- ier for bacteria to travel to the bladder. The opening is also close to the anus and vagina, increasing the likelihood of cross-contamination. Hormone fluctuations affect the immune system, thickness of the urinary walls and pH balance. During pregnancy the bladder may not empty fully because of the enlarged uterus, plus hormonal changes cause bladder muscle relaxation – so you are more likely to have a UTI when you’re pregnant.
Certain factors predispose you to or trigger UTIs, particularly if you’re already prone to them. These include:
- Having a urinary catheter, e.g. during/after surgery
- Not changing sanitary towels or tampons frequently enough during menstruation
- Frequent sexual activity (hence the term ‘honeymoon cystitis’)
- Wearing a diaphragm (contraceptive device)
- Menopause (lowered oestrogen leads to thinning of the urinary tract walls, making it easier for bacteria to take hold)
- Using soaps, bubble bath and perfumes in the genital area
- In men, generally over 50 years old, prostate enlargement causes inefficient emptying of the bladder, leading to infection
- Immobility, e.g. being wheelchair-bound
- Immuno suppression, e.g. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis
- Kidney stones.
SYMPTOMS OF UTI
- Needing to urinate more often
- Feeling that the bladder is full
- Urination produces little urine or doesn’t empty the bladder
- Burning sensation when you urinate
- Back and abdominal pain
- Fever and nausea, if infection is severe
- Cloudy and/or bad-smelling urine
- Nausea and vomiting in extreme cases
- Incontinence or bedwetting, if severe, especially in children
UTIs IN CHILDREN
Although exact statistics are unknown, UTIs are fairly common in children, especially girls. Children may show additional signs and symptoms, including diarrhoea, poor appe- tite, ‘tummy aches’ and constant crying.
A common cause of UTIs in children is wiping from back to front. Uncircumcised boys may be at greater risk of UTIs (often due to not cleaning well or problems with foreskin retraction), although this resolves itself when they’re older. Another com on cause is children not emptying the bladder fully, especially if they’re at school. A child who experiences frequent UTIs needs to be investigated further, as there may be a physical abnormality or malfunction.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Wearing wet clothes or bathing suits can cause cystitis
True. Warm, moist environments create by wearing wet clothes (as well as tight-fitting or synthetic fabrics) make great breeding grounds for fungi and bacteria that can cause thrush and cystitis in susceptible people.
As discussed, many women have recurring UTIs, and may not always see a doctor each time, preferring to treat it themselves. But there are times when it’s imperative that you see your doctor immediately.
Book that appointment if:
- Your UTI is accompanied by fever, chills, back pain or blood or pus in the urine, keeps getting worse, or doesn’t go away after five days.
- You have severe, stabbing or shooting pain (which could indicate kidney stones).
- The patient is a child, or is over 65. You’re pregnant or diabetic.
In some cases, antibiotics may be necessary, but there are many things you can do at home to prevent infections, or stop them in their tracks, and to ease the symptoms.
- If you get recurrent infections, begin home treatment the instant you feel one starting.
- Drink at least eight glasses of water a day to flush out bacteria. The longer bacteria remain, the more they multiply
- Vitamin C supports immune function and inhibits E. coli.
- A hot-water bottle on the back and abdomen eases pain.
- Cranberries make it more difficult for the bacteria to adhere to the bladder walls. Supplements are best, as juices frequently contain masses of sugar which tend to make infections worse. So try a cranberry supplement (if you aren’t pregnant).
- If you do need a course of antibiotics, always use probiotics afterwards to re-estab- lish good bacteria.
- A warm bath relieves discomfort. Add four or five drops of bergamot or tea tree essential oil to ease pain and combat bacteria.
- Eat diuretic foods like celery, parsley and asparagus.
- If sexual intercourse tends to trigger your cystitis, always use lubricant to prevent irri- tation, and empty your bladder immediately afterwards.
- Only wear cotton underwear and avoid tight-fitting and synthetic clothes (including g-strings).
- Urinate as soon as you need to.
- Take tissue salts – Ferrum phos for burning pain, and Nat phos to balance pH.
A NATURAL APPROACH
In summary then, a natural approach to keeping the bladder healthy begins with proper hydration followed by proper hygiene. Hygiene refers to keeping our body clean inside and out, and this even relates to proper nutrition, obtaining all the nutrients – vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and phytonutrients – needed to maintain healthy tissues and immune function. It’s also helpful to avoid toxins, many of which can irritate the bladder or weaken immune function, and this includes no or limited use of chemical products as well as an excess of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. A clean and healthy body does not get sick, at least not very easily.
For early infections or irritation in the bladder, the most common remedy is cranberry juice or extract. Buying non-sugary juice or extract and making a drink several times a day can help to purify and disinfect the bladder. Cranberry capsules are also available, and one to two several times a day can help reverse the early symptoms. Cranberry extract can be useful in the prevention of UTI associated with sexual activity. D-mannose is another option – it’s a natural sugar that reduces E. coli, the most common bladder bacterial infection. Herbal combination formulas are also popular for prevention and early treatment of UTIs. These may include such herbs as uva-ursi as a disinfectant and diuretic, marshmallow root as a tissue soother, and others such as cornsilk, plantain leaf and St John’s wort. The homeopathic remedy cantharis, any potency 30 C or below, can be used to relieve burning. Other homeopathic remedies for bladder and kidney problems are available from health shops or through your homeopath.