Whether it’s “honeymoon cystitis”
or recurrent bladder infections, any type of urinary tract infection is something
we’d all love to avoid. Women of every age come to see me for help with urinary
tract infections (UTIs) — some have minor problems, some more severe. Some
women suffer only on rare occasions, while others have UTIs multiple times a year.
Many don’t know that menopausal
women suffer in unique ways from urinary tract infections due to hormonal changes.
In my experience, the best “cure” for UTIs — regardless of a woman’s
age — comes from prevention. Unfortunately, the conventional medical approach
to UTIs generally treats the infection once it has already developed. Doctors rarely
spend much time discussing possible causes and methods to consider for avoiding
reoccurrence. They simply hand out a prescription antibiotic and hope it works.
Antibiotics are certainly needed to cure urinary tract infections, but when women
come to rely on repeat courses of antibiotics with recurrent infections, they increase
their odds of additional infections, antibiotic resistance, and yeast infections,
all of which erode the immune system.
The bottom line is, you don’t have to suffer or remain on endless doses of
antibiotics! There are numerous physical and emotional factors that play a role
in frequent urinary tract infections, and many natural ways to prevent them. Let’s
learn more about UTIs and how to take better care of ourselves to avoid this painful
What is the difference between bladder and kidney infections?
Your urinary tract is made up of an upper and lower section. Basically, the upper
urinary tract includes your kidneys and the tubes that deliver urine from
there to the bladder, the ureters; while the lower urinary tract
includes your bladder and the urethra, the opening where urine is released
from the body.
Urinary tract infections typically occur when bacteria invade the lower urinary
tract at the urethra and travel up into the bladder, causing cystitis (the
medical term for bladder infection). For the most part, these bacterial
organisms (frequently E. coli, staph, Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Enterococcus,
or Pseudomonas) are normal inhabitants in the GI system, rectum, colon
or exterior of the body, but not normal inside the more delicate urinary tract.
Chlamydia, which is a bacterium transmitted through sex, can be an unsuspected
culprit for UTIs. As a sexually transmitted disease (STD), it is frequently “silent”
— ing the majority of women who have it experience no symptoms, though some
do experience a burning sensation when urinating. Since the standard urine culture
cannot detect it, your healthcare provider must make a special request to check
for Chlamydia DNA in the urine sample.
Any of the above bacteria can cause irritation and infection to the tissue lining
the urinary tract and bladder. The more serious the bacterial infection, the deeper
the invasion into the tissue and the more advanced it may become, ultimately requiring
more potent antibiotics. If your system cannot rally its defenses and flush the
organism out, or if the infection is left untreated, the bacteria can eventually
travel into the upper urinary tract, causing a kidney infection (pyelonephritis).
This becomes a much more serious situation because it can lead to scarring and septicemia,
a full-body struggle and poisoning from infection.
So how do you know you have a UTI?
Symptoms of a urinary tract infection
The exact symptoms you experience from a UTI will most likely be somewhat different
from what other women experience. However, there are a few common symptoms. Here
are some to watch for:
- frequent urination
- pain or burning with urination
- lower back pain
- tenderness above the pubic bone
- malodorous urine
- blood in the urine
Some women don’t feel any of the usual symptoms of a bladder infection, which
can allow it to become severe before identified. Even severe cases can sometimes
fail to have a fever as an indicator. This is especially common in women as they
get older, but I’ve had several patients, old and young, who had no idea they
had a urinary tract infection until it became advanced. While it’s entirely
possible to have a “silent” infection, when you pay attention, you’ll
find your body will typically provide some signals that it is fighting infection.
So if you feel a fever, chills, unusual
fatigue or backache — or any of the more common symptoms of UTIs listed
above — make sure you see your healthcare practitioner to investigate.
Physical causes of UTIs
Many women don’t realize the multiple ways bacteria can enter the urinary
tract. Though not all of the following can be avoided, it helps to understand more
about the specific situations that can make us more prone to bacterial infection
in the urinary tract.
Improper wiping after a bowel movement is one common way
bacteria can enter the urinary tract, which is why girls are always taught to “wipe
front to back.”
Having a urinary catheter inserted during a hospital stay
or while having a procedure can also provide a portal of entry for bacteria.
Friction to the area can push bacteria up into the urethra,
including frequent cycling or spinning classes. Think of the ever-popular thong
underwear, rubbing bacteria from back to front all day long! Then there’s
the well known problem of UTIs brought on by the friction of sex. The classic “honeymoon
cystitis” refers to a newlywed women having a lot of sex on her honeymoon
and developing an infection. But this can occur in any woman with an active sex
life. I’ve met some women who have this experience and decide to avoid sex
instead of seeking help in preventing urinary tract infections.
One of my favorite 80-year-old patients had been widowed for over 20 years, then
began having a passionate affair that resulted in several bladder infections within
just a few months. She laughed when I told her it was caused by a combination of
low estrogen to the urethra and honeymoon cystitis. She recalled that her first
real honeymoon resulted in the same thing 60 years prior!
Difficulty fully emptying the bladder is another physical
cause of UTIs. The bladder requires coordination of the muscles in the upper and
lower parts of the urinary tract. The lower half has to relax while the upper half
contracts in order to empty. Structural issues from loss of muscle tone in the pelvic
floor or vaginal walls from childbirth, trauma or obesity can greatly impact the
positioning of the bladder and its ability to empty fully on demand. The diagnostic
term for this is urinary retention, and it can be described like overflow
from a full cup — the bladder remains full despite some urine trickling out.
What stays in the bladder, known as post-void residual urine, can cause
discomfort and/or increased frequency to pass the overflow. When the bladder isn’t
fully emptying, the small amount of bacteria that can make its way into the bladder
accumulates over time and leads to infection instead of being flushed out. This
problem often comes without warning symptoms and can be missed as a contributing
factor in recurrent urinary tract infections.
Holding your urine can allow bacteria to linger and accumulate
rather than getting flushed out. The more we hold our bladders when they’re
full, the less sensitive we become to the need to empty them.
UTIs and holding it — why do we do this to ourselves?
As women, we have a tendency to put others’ needs before our own. Many of
us hold our bladders far too long because we’re simply too busy — either
with a large troop of kids or in a high-paced work environment. Classic UTI patients,
for example, include hospital nurses and school teachers. I’ve heard stories about
a surge of school teachers calling in with urinary tract infections after returning
to the classroom following summer break!
I remember when I worked in a hospital on a hectic unit — I would sometimes
end a 12-hour shift and realize I hadn’t gone to the bathroom all day! Little
time for proper nutrition or hydration in that frantic working environment also
meant less urine production overall. Eventually, while orienting to a new position,
having driven long distances to relocate with little sleep, too much coffee and
not enough water, I was surprised to have my first urinary tract infection.
Often I found myself urgently running to bathroom far more frequently than normal.
I looked in the toilet, found blood and thought to myself, it’s not time for
my period. Then it hit me: I’m not feeling well, I’m having
urinary frequency, tingling, and now blood not from the vagina — I have a
bladder infection! Soon I was on appropriate antibiotics and learned my
lesson. I’ve never had another UTI since.
Women need to take time for themselves — even for such basic needs as getting
to the bathroom. No matter how busy our lives are, we can make the time to drink
enough water and empty our bladders frequently through the day, and especially after
sex! If you have structural or retention issues, don’t be afraid to ask for
help from your gynecologist, or request a referral to a urogynecologist. You might
also try pelvic physical therapy (PPT) or a bladder retraining program — depending
on your circumstances, these options can be extremely successful if you do the work!
If you’re having a baby later in life, the post partum
Kegel exercises are especially important, as you can never get back the
first few critical weeks after childbirth to impact the strength and flexibility
of your pelvic floor muscles.
The emotional side of urinary tract infections
Taking more time for ourselves also means addressing our emotions. In mind-body
medicine, one school of thought proposes that bladder pain and infection can represent
the trapped expression of anger or frustration in one’s life. I shared this
theory with one sweet-natured woman who suffered from recurrent UTIs, and her response
was, “Oh, that is me to a T — no wonder!” Along with drinking
lots of water and getting to the bathroom frequently, it certainly can’t hurt
to work on a full range of emotional expression instead of bottling things up inside.
Some women may be frightened or embarrassed to discuss urinary tract infections
with their doctors. As I mentioned earlier, women in perimenopause and menopause,
as well as those who are breastfeeding, may have low estrogen levels, which can
leave vaginal tissues vulnerable and more fragile. Yet many avoid asking for help
due to fears about hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or surgery. Fortunately, there
are several low-risk natural estrogen options that can be used locally to significantly
lower the risk and complications of UTIs (as well as
Urinary dysfunction can also be an issue women hesitate to talk about with their
doctors out of embarrassment, or because they think there are no real options to
help. Instead, they drink less water to prevent “accidents” and wind
up with urinary tract infections. For many women, hormonal imbalance, structural
issues, and muscle control are playing a role. There are lots of options available
to alleviate or correct these problems, but healing starts with valuing your needs,
getting comfortable with your emotions, and mustering the courage to ask for help.
UTIs and a weakened immune system
Unfortunately, avoiding a urinary tract infection is not just about drinking more
water or releasing your emotions. Having a run-down immune system can make us especially
vulnerable to health problems of all types, including UTIs. In looking at the big
picture, our immune systems’ ability to repel infection is impacted by many
things, including how well we eat, sleep, digest foods, and manage stress from day
to day. We can interpret a UTI as a wake-up call to start taking care of ourselves
in more ways than just emptying the bladder regularly.
With a strong immune system, our bodies can establish an environment that discourages
infectious organisms. I talked above of the broader physical
causes of UTIs, but when we look more closely, we see that immunity really
is how our bodies gain the advantage against disease — through factors like
hormonal balance, pH, and
beneficial flora in the gut and vagina. Immune strength also involves a
ready supply of immune factors that counter any opposing pathogens’
invasive factors. When it comes to the urinary tract, here are a few examples
of what a compromised immune system can mean.
One mechanism by which E. coli gains a “toehold” in your urinary
tract literally involves appendages protruding from the surfaces of invading bacterial
cells. Certain strains of bacteria appear to have more heavily branched, finger-like
projections (fimbriae) than less virulent strains. These fibers have adhesive
factors that readily attach to receptors in the cell walls lining your
urinary tract, providing the “glue” necessary for the bacteria to adhere
and establish a colony. (See below to learn about the immune-boosting
compounds in cranberries that stop this from happening.)
When we have decreased estrogen, which is a plumping hormone, our genital tissues
can become drier, thinner, and more flattened. As a result of this thinning, both
the mucosal layer and the cells it is designed to protect become less resistant
to bacterial invasion. In the story above of my elderly patient, I mentioned how
low estrogen leaves the urethra more prone to bacterial infection (known
as atrophic urethritis). This is one reason why UTIs can become a problem
for women in menopause and perimenopause. But low estrogen sometimes occurs in breastfeeding
women, as well, so this is another time in a woman’s life when taking extra
care of herself will help her avoid a UTI.
Estrogen can also affect immune factors in the vagina. As estrogen declines, immune
factors decline. This allows infectious bacteria to grow, which then can lead to
a decrease in the protective bacteria (lactobacilli) and an increase in
pH, all of which facilitates E. coli colonization and its consequent spread
into the urinary tract.
It’s not just estrogen levels that change the immunity in our vaginas. Other
factors that can cause decreased immunity include illness, antibiotic use, douching,
too much sugar in the diet, insulin resistance, and yeast overgrowth, to name a
In addition, there’s a theory linking systemic yeast (Candida), in
both the intestinal tract and the vagina, with UTIs. Yeast overgrowth is believed
to derail the immune system and impact the bladder as well to facilitate recurrent
urinary tract infections in some women. Some women may have yeast in the bladder,
or even higher up in the urinary tract, termed urinary candidiasis. Although
it is not often suspected, yeast can be readily cultured out with a clean-catch
urine sample and thereby identified. Treatment with an antifungal drug is generally
required. (To learn more, read our article about
It is also worth mentioning that rates of urinary tract infections — both
symptomatic and asymptomatic, and including yeast — are high among women with
diabetes. This is thought to involve high urine glucose content and insufficient
immune factors, but we do not have a full understanding of the reasons why women
with diabetes are more prone, nor surefire ways to manage the problem. Suffice it
to say that if you have diabetes, particularly if you take insulin, implementing
our recommendations for boosting your immune system
can aid in protection from infection and the more serious complications of UTIs.
The best advice I can offer regarding urinary tract infections is to find ways to
Natural prevention of UTIs
I know that each woman is different and that an approach to prevention has to be
tailored to the individual. One of my 40-year-old patients had a bladder infection
practically every other month for a while. We remedied the situation by getting
her back into wearing normal bikini underwear instead of the thongs, spending a
little less time in the hot tub with irritating chemicals, using cranberry and uva
ursi (bearberry) herbal support daily and especially after sex, allowing
herself to more fully express her needs, and setting limits at home with her family.
She felt great after that!
We don’t all wear thongs, though, or have the opportunity to sit in hot tubs
on a regular basis! Sometimes the best approach to preventing urinary tract infections
requires us to pay a little more attention to our own lives, to look at personal
habits and ways to make small changes. Contrary to common belief, you don’t
have to suffer repeated UTIs or remain on antibiotics for months. I've had success
with not only the gentle treatment of urinary tract infections, but also in preventing
them. Here are some options you may want to consider for prevention.
- Flushing it out. Many women
will try to flush out their systems at the earliest signs of a UTI by drinking lots
of water and emptying their bladders more frequently. Don’t hold it in! Emptying
the bladder before and after sex or any type of increased friction to the area is
imperative in prevention. Pushing fluids is also important for prevention, and for
many it works great with early signs of infection. But be mindful of your body,
as a dear friend of mine was insisting on trying this with some homeopathic support
and it failed, leading to a severe kidney infection. So there’s a balancing
act between utilizing a natural approach to prevent and sidestep an infection, while
being honest and attentive to signs and seeking appropriate medical care when needed.
- The cranberry method — myth or magic? Long ago I
heard a professor dismissing the cranberry UTI prevention strategy. A study at that
time had indicated that no matter how much cranberry juice you consumed, you could
hardly impact the pH of the urine, concluding that cranberries could not help UTIs
in any way. However, that study was evaluating the wrong mechanism; urine pH has
little to do with how cranberries work to prevent infection.
Currently at Rutgers University there is an entire cooperative extension service
dedicated to blueberry and
cranberry research. Fruits in the blueberry family — including blueberries,
cranberries, the circumpolar species known as bearberries (Arctostaphylos uva ursi),
and the lingonberries so popular in Scandinavia — have long been recognized
for their natural ability to prevent bacteria from growth and reproduction. Modern
research is now isolating and precisely quantifying the medicinal effects of the
phytochemicals in these berries.
For now, the research shows that compounds in cranberries known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins
(OPC’s or PAC’s) appear to function as anti-adhesive agents, inhibiting
the attachment of bacteria. Consumption of cranberries and other berries in this
family promote enzymes in the urine that bind with bacteria and prevent them from
adhering to the bladder and urinary tract lining — warding off or reducing
mild infection quite effectively! Studies also show that any type of cranberry juice
has the potential to help you sidestep an infection if initiated early enough. And
for those prone to infection, cranberry prophylaxis can be an effective preventative
measure when used daily or after sex.
We recommend using natural cranberry juice, without added sugar. It’s extremely
tart, so some women prefer to dilute it with water or herbal tea. But when traveling,
or if you can’t tolerate the taste, don’t hesitate to use a less pure
form — sometimes you have to take what you can get! It appears that eight
ounces, three times a day can be very helpful. I followed this schedule after having
a catheter in and it worked well.
Cranberry extract pills are also available, but quality and formulations vary, so
you may want to start with TheraCran, the patented formula tested at Rutgers and
found to be effective.
- Take vitamin C. Many of my patients have success in warding
off urinary tract infections by taking fairly high doses of vitamin C (pure ascorbic
acid). For example, initiate 1000 mg three times daily at the very first sign of
infection. Ascorbic acid is a water-soluble vitamin, so it’s important to
drink plenty of water along with it. This is a great fall-back option when you can’t
get to the store to purchase cranberry juice or extract.
- Ditch the sugar and reduce systemic yeast. If you suspect
yeast is playing a role in your UTIs, then you may want to avoid or eliminate yeast-rich
foods, sugars and foods that are aged or fermented, all of which encourage systemic
Candida overgrowth. There are also other aggressive anti-yeast measures.
To learn more about this, read our article on
- Rejuvenate tissues with topical bioidentical estrogen if needed.
Women in perimenopause and menopause might consider localized application of natural
estrogens to plump up the vaginal, vulvar and urethral tissues. This can prevent
or alleviate an atrophic urethra and the resulting weakened defense against bacteria.
Data from the Heart and Estrogen-Progestin Replacement Study (HERS) showed higher
rates of UTIs among women taking conventional, oral HRT. But these were conjugated
equine estrogens and medroxyprogesterone acetate, none of which represent bioidentical
hormones. Though a causal relationship was not specifically identified by the authors,
this form of nonbioidentical HRT clearly did not protect women from UTIs.
On the other hand, I’ve seen in my clinical experience that localized bioidentical
estrogen products help immensely with vaginal comfort and atrophic urethritis. If
women are experiencing more UTIs on this, it is probably only because they are able
to have more sex again!
- Tap into
the power of probiotics. Research supports that taking a well-balanced
probiotic offers UTI-prone women two big health advantages: for starters, probiotics
have a system-wide immune-boosting effect, which means your body stands better prepared
to respond to any potential infection. Next, when you take an oral probiotic,
the friendly organisms it contains make their away around the body, displacing pathogenic
strains not just in the gut, but in the colon, vagina and urethra as well, forming
both a physical and biochemical barrier against them.
In addition to looking at their system-wide benefits, researchers are carefully
studying which specific probiotic organisms are most effective at protecting the
health of the urogenital tract. Women prone to urinary candidiasis or vaginal candidiasis,
for example, may benefit most from choosing one with a robust yeast component, like
our Super Biotic. When looking for a probiotic to treat bacterial UTIs, some research
has pinpointed Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus fermentum
RC as helpful, so you may want to try a product listing these strains on the label.
You may also want to consider jumpstarting healthy lactobacilli colonies in this
region of your anatomy. Some studies indicate that inserting a probiotic gelcap
containing lactobacilli directly into the vagina each night for a few nights in
a row can help reestablish or maintain normal flora. Alternatively, some women insert
a tampon dipped in fresh, plain live-culture yogurt into the vagina for an hour
or so, twice daily for several days in a row. Consult with a qualified naturopath
or functional medicine practitioner for more specifics.
- Consider herbal support. Consult with an herbalist for
options used in prevention and early intervention of UTIs. For example, the berry
mentioned above commonly referred to as uva ursi (bearberry) was used prior to the
invention of penicillin and other antibiotics and remains an option. Virographis
is another proprietary product used to boost the body’s immune system; however,
it’s only available through healthcare practitioners’ offices. Virographis
contains extracts of the herbs Andrographis, licorice root, and Isatis
tinctoria. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal formulations
are also worth considering with the help of a certified practitioner.
- Last but not least, ask for help if you have prolapse or
incontinence issues. Don’t just cut back on fluids to address
bladder dysfunction and difficulties with control of your urine. This can lead to
infection. Ask around for a referral to the best urogynecologist in your area. An
experienced urogynecologist can help identify the causes of your urinary symptoms,
and will let you know if you are a candidate for bladder support repair (using a
TVT, or transvaginal tape sling), pelvic physical therapy (PPT), or bladder retraining
You don’t have to suffer with UTIs!
Urinary tract infections can severely impact our lives, and there is no reason for
us to go on suffering. We at Women's Health Network feel that educating ourselves
about our bodies and taking the steps to care for them physically and emotionally
will always lead to greater health and happiness.
Take time to understand the causes of your urinary tract infections and ways to
prevent them. Consider boosting your immune system’s defenses — this
way you’re likely to experience greater immunity from infections of all kinds,
not just UTIs. You will be surprised at the difference you can make!
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