By Kris Vaughan, CH
Most women have had at least one urinary tract infection (UTI) in their lifetime. They all agree it is one of the most uncomfortable conditions they have experienced; it hurts to urinate and there is an increased need to urinate with intense pressure above the pubic bone, often with a dragging pain at the end of the urine stream. Usually these symptoms mean an immediate trip to the doctor for antibiotics but we are lucky to have many herbal remedies available to us for natural treatment of bladder or urinary tract infections.
What Causes UTI’s
A urinary tract infection is most often caused by the presence of E. coli (approximately 80%) 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 UTI’s than men because of the close proximity of the urethra’s to the anus. The bacteria have a shorter distance to travel in order to colonize in the lining of the urethra and the bladder.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy change the tone of the kidneys. Pressure is placed on the bladder from the growing uterus and may cause congestion in the bladder and the inability to completely empty the bladder.
Estrogen and progesterone shifts during menopause alter the pH of the urine and cause changes in tissue structure. Women over 65 have the highest rates of UTI’s.
Antibacterial soaps, sprays, douches, feminine deodorants and contraceptive jellies and creams all alter the normal pH of the urinary tract 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 UTI’s.
When we are under stress, especially chronic stress, we have increased 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.
Treating a UTI Naturally
Adequate water intake is essential in preventing the occurrence of UTI’s 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 a minimum of 75 ounces of water each day. When a UTI develops, it is critically important that we increase our water intake to 3 or more quarts of water a day for 3-5 days in order to flush the urinary tract continually to aid in removing the bacteria.
The plant world has much to offer us in treating and preventing UTI’s. Herbs give a variety of actions useful in the urinary tract beyond the simple antibiotic action.
· Antimicrobial herbs to clear bacterial infection
· Anti-inflammatory herbs to soothe pain and discomfort
· Astringent herbs to relieve any bleeding that may be present in the urine
· Diuretic herbs help to flush the urinary tract by causing the kidneys to excrete more fluid
· Antispasmodic herbs if necessary for the intense pain
Cranberry – Vaccinium macrocarpon
Cranberry’s astringent properties prevent bacteria from adhering to the mucus membranes of the urinary tract. This is why drinking large amounts of cranberry juice at the first sign of infection is more beneficial than in the later stages of infection. Drinking 16oz of unsweetened cranberry juice a day for 5 days will likely acidify the urine for a short time preventing the bacterial adhesion. For those who may not be able to consume unsweetened cranberry juice in this large of a quantity because of its bitter and astringent flavor, you can purchase a concentrated cranberry syrup from your local herbalist. A concentrated syrup allows you to take smaller amounts to achieve the same result and they are usually quite flavorful and pleasant. Blueberries work in much the same way as cranberry so this makes a nice alternative.
Uva ursi – Arctostaphylos uva ursi
Uva ursi leaf has long been used as a urinary antiseptic and diuretic. The dried leaves of uva ursi contain a phenolic glycoside called arbutin; this converts to hydroquinone, a urinary antiseptic. 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 so that is why many prefer a tincture instead. I live in Arizona where we have the Manzanita plant in abundance. Manzanita is another Arctostaphylos species and a relative of uva ursi able to be used in the same way. I am in favor of using local plants whenever I can so Manzanita is a favorite of mine.
Horsetail – Equisetum arvense
The spring stems of horsetail are cooling and drying and they contain large amounts of silica, potassium, manganese, flavonoids, and phenolic acids. Horsetail is used when there is suppressed urination that is accompanied by blood and severe pain with urination. This diuretic and astringent plant is also pain relieving when the bladder feels full yet unable to be relieved by urination.
Oregon grape root – Mahonia aquifolium
Oregon grape root contains large amounts of the alkaloid berberine. Berberine is what gives the roots of Oregon grape their golden yellow color. You will also find this alkaloid in goldenseal, desert barberry, and Chinese goldthread. Berberine reduces the expression of E. coli preventing its attachment to the bladder. Adding some Echinacea to this will add some general immune system support and makes a good and powerful combination.
Corn silk – Zea mays
This is the fresh stringy silk that we remove from a corn cob when we take off the outer husk. This fresh corn silk is cooling and moistening to hot, irritated mucus membrane tissue in the urinary tract. It is used as a soothing anti-inflammatory for the kidneys and bladder and is diuretic, antimicrobial and antiseptic.
When choosing herbal remedies for a urinary tract infection it is best to use a combination of herbs that have the various healing properties we are looking for. General relief and resolution of infection can be achieved in 3-5 days of treatment with a properly formulated herbal remedy. Working with a local herbalist will ensure that you are provided with information on the safe usage of herbs and to ensure that there will not be any negative interactions with medications you may be taking. Pregnant and nursing women should seek this guidance before choosing any herbs to use at home.
Keep in mind that bladder infections can travel to the kidneys; this can be dangerous and requires medical attention. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes and is not meant to replace the guidance of your medical physician. Therefore, if your symptoms worsen during treatment with herbal remedies it is wise to contact your health care practitioner.
Kris Vaughan, CH is the Program Director and Clinical Herbalist at Herbal Wisdom Institute. Learn more about Kris HERE. To schedule a consultation with Kris call (928)227-2760.