Beat the Bladder Blues

Beat the Bladder Blues

Urinary tract infections (UTI), also referred to as cystitis or bladder infections, affect millions of people each year and account for about 9.6 million doctor visits. Learning the early signs and symptoms as well as techniques for prevention will help protect the health of your urinary tract.

The urinary tract stores and eliminates urine. The kidneys produce urine, which is carried by the two ureters to the bladder. The bladder stores urine, which is eliminated via the urethra out of the body.

Normal urine is sterile and does not contain any bacteria, viruses or fungi though an infection can occur when microorganisms cling to the opening of the urethra and begin to multiply.

Offending Organisms

Over 90 per cent of infections of the urinary tract are caused by the microorganism Escherichia coli (E coli), present in the colon and rectal area. When these bacteria make their way to the urethra they can travel up into the bladder. Infections also develop from inadequate emptying of the bladder. Complete voiding eliminates bacteria and some specialists believe that inadequate emptying is a far greater cause of UTIs than bacteria entering into the urethra.

Other organisms which may cause UTIs are chlamydia and mycoplasma. These organisms can be transmitted by sexual contact, and infections require treatment of both partners.

When an infection is limited to the urethra it is called urethritis. But if the infection moves up to the bladder it is referred to as cystitis. At this point, if the infection is not treated promptly, bacteria may go up the ureters to infect the kidneys, causing a more serious problem known as pyelonephritis. This can result in scarring and damage to the kidneys, emphasizing the need for proper diagnosis and treatment.

The symptom list includes: frequent need to urinate, painful urination, feeling of urgency, cloudy urine, blood in the urine, foul or strong urine odor, pressure in the lower pelvis, fever, chills, nausea and vomiting.

Different Bodies -- Different Risks

Women are 25 times more likely to get urinary infections than men. In women the urethra is only two and one half to five cm (one to two inches) long, while a man's is approximately 25 cm (10 inches) long. The shorter urethra makes it easier for bacteria to enter. Also, the distance between the urethral opening and the anus is closer in women, making it easier for E coli bacteria to enter the urethra.

Hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause may also predispose a woman to developing infections. As women age, the bladder loses elasticity and may not empty completely. Residual urine within the bladder can serve as an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria. In menopause, women are at further risk because of lower estrogen levels. Research suggests that low estrogen levels are associated with a decrease in lactobacilli bacteria, referred to as "friendly bacteria" because they help to maintain the acidity in the vagina and control the growth of E coli.

Barrier contraceptives, such as diaphragms and sponges, can be problematic if they are not fitted properly and are too large. This can cause obstruction of the bladder neck and prevent complete emptying of the bladder after intercourse.

Sexual intercourse is the most common cause of UTIs in women age 20-40. During sex, bacteria can be pushed toward the vagina and can enter the urethra and ascend into the bladder.

In men, enlargement of the prostate gland can put pressure on the urethra and the bladder opening. This prevents complete emptying of the bladder and may result in greater risk of developing infection of the urinary tract. Cancer and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) are conditions which can cause enlargement of the prostate gland.

A suppressed immune system can also make a person more susceptible to developing UTIs. Stress and some drug therapies can weaken the immune system, resulting in diabetes, AIDS and cancer. Stress causes the release of certain chemicals by the adrenal glands that slow down the function of white blood cells that play an important role in fighting infection.

A Trouble-Free Tract

There has been a great deal of interest in cranberry as a treatment for UTIs. A 1994 Harvard Medical School study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that regular consumption of cranberry juice significantly reduced the bacteria associated with UTI for the women in the study. Previous reports suggested that cranberry juice may work by making the urine more acidic, but the Harvard study concluded that there was something specific to cranberry that prevented bacteria from adhering to the lining of the bladder.

The anti-adherence properties of cranberry have been attributed to a group of chemicals called tannins or proanthocyanidins. While very effective as a preventative measure, it is not known whether cranberry is efficacious in treating an actual infection. Most cranberry juices on the market contain mostly sugar and water with very little actual cranberry. Fresh cranberries or a supplement containing a standardized extract of cranberry is a preferred method.

Also referred to as "friendly bacteria," probiotic supplements help to promote the health of the intestinal and urinary tract and the immune system. These supplements can help prevent and treat UTIs by restoring the normal balance of bacteria in the body. Acidophilus supplements are particularly important for those taking antibiotics. These drugs disrupt the flora in the intestinal and vaginal area and can lead to recurrent UTIs and yeast overgrowth.

Echinacea may be beneficial in the prevention of urinary tract infections because of its support of the immune system and goldenseal is useful because its antimicrobial effects contol E coli. These herbs are available in combination formulas of standardized extracts which guarantee potency.

Garlic is helpful: it acts to improve T-lymphocyte function and destroy harmful bacteria (phagocytosis), boosting the immune system. There are many different types of garlic on the market, and choosing a product can be a difficult task. Aged garlic extract is often preferable because of its wide range of therapeutic effects in the body and backing by clinical studies.

Be aware of the early warning signs or symptoms of urinary infections: it can quickly progress to more serious health problems. Seek proper diagnosis by your health care provider.

Tips for Prevention

- Drink eight-10 glasses of purified water daily. This will increase urine and flow and flush out the bladder.

- Women should remember to wipe from front to back after urinating. This will prevent spreading of bacteria from the rectum to the vagina or urethra.

- Avoid foods high in the amino acids phenylalanine, tryptophan, tyrosine and tyramine since they can irritate the bladder (like bananas, pineapple, avocados, aspartame, figs, citrus fruits, chocolate)

- Reduce intake of caffeinated beverages (coffee, cola, tea) since these foods can be irritating to the bladder.

- Eat more vegetable protein (organic soy) and less animal protein (red meat). Soy contains isoflavones which have weak estrogenic activity and may protect the health of both the prostate in men and the urinary tract in women. Vegetable-based protein is also more efficiently handled by the kidneys.

- Wear cotton underwear which allows the skin to breathe. Avoid nylon-crotch underwear and tight jeans because this creates a more favorable environment for bacterial growth.

- Avoid using perfumed toilet paper, bubble baths, oils and scented soaps.

- Urinate after intercourse to flush away bacteria which might have entered the vagina and urethra.

- Kegel exercises which act to tone the inner pelvic muscles may help to strengthen and support the urinary tract.

1. Kunin, Calvin M. Urinary tract infections. Williams and Wilkins, 1997.

2. Lau, B. Garlic and You: The Modern Medicine. Vancouver, BC. Apple Publishing Co. Ltd., 1997.

3. Brown, DJ. Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health Rocklin. Prima Publishing, 1996.

Canadian Health Reform Products Ltd.


By Sherry Torkos

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