by Susan Risoli
November 1, 1997
The alarm sounds, you stumble out
of bed and head to the bathroom. Suddenly, a burning sting
wakes you with a jolt as you begin to urinate. One doctor
visit later, you're on a strict antibiotic regimen to treat
your urinary problem.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) affect 8 million to 10
million Americans, mostly women, each year. The culprit: the
bacteria E. coli. Neglect may allow a UTI to spread to the
bladder (where it causes cystitis), or kidneys: possibly
The good news: medical experts recognize that a diet
change and avoiding certain risk factors may help fight off
According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education
and Research, about 20% of women experience UTI at least
once, and many suffer recurrences. Sexually active women
tend to incur more UTIs because of anatomical vagaries: the
bladder sits just above the vagina, while the urethra, a
structure from the bladder to the outside, protrudes in a
tubelike ridge down the top part of the vagina to just above
the vaginal opening. This structure allows sexual
intercourse to push infecting bacteria into the urethra.
Women's vulnerability to UTI also derives from their short
urethras which are located near the rectum, a main source of
UTI germs. These tubes provide an easy path to a bacterial
home in the bladder.
Another risk booster: pelvic exams which may increase
chances of UTI. A 1996 study conducted at the University of
Illinois at Chicago and reported in the Archives of Family
Medicine (1996;5:357-360) found that 43% of women with UTIs
had received a pelvic examination within the two months
preceding infection. Only 16% of the uninfected had been
Bladder infections can occur frequently in postmenopausal
women due to thinning and drying of the vaginal lining. And
mid-life women are not immune. "With the loss of estrogen
support, the urethra becomes less flexible and elastic and,
like the vagina, it can become easily irritated after sexual
intercourse and, thus, much more prone to infection,"
reports Susan Lark, MD, in her book, Women's Health
Companion: Self Help Nutrition Guide and Cookbook (Celestial
Arts). "As women age, the lower urinary tract also stops
manufacturing anti-adherence factors, which help to prevent
bacteria from attaching to the bladder wall."
Every woman should keep her own "female" botanicals on
hand to help boost her immune system when she is at high
risk of developing a bladder infection. These include:
Cranberry: This immune-boosting, vitamin C-rich berry
prevents germs from invading the lining of the urinary
tract. A 1994 study of 153 elderly women conducted by
researchers at the Harvard Medical School and published in
the Journal of the American Medical Association (1994:271:
751-4) showed that cranberry juice may keep harmful bacteria
at reduced levels. More recently, a study by Amy B. Howell,
PhD, and a team at Rutgers University found that cranberries
contain a type of condensed tannin, a chemical compound
called proanthocyanidins, that seemed to stunt the growth of
E. coli, preventing it from adhering to the walls of the
bladder and kidneys.
"However, once you have an infection, cranberry juice
cannot eradicate the bacteria. So drinking cranberry juice
may be helpful in preventing an infection, but not in
treating an existing one," according to Larrian Gillespie,
MD, in her book You Don't have to Live with Cystitis (Avon
Drinking two glasses of juice a day can help if you're
UTI-prone. To avoid the sugar added to cranberry juice,
concentrated cranberries are available in a gel-cap form.
Echinacea: This North American herb bolsters immune
function and is believed to possess antiseptic and antiviral
properties which may rev up the white blood cells that fight
infection, reports John Cammarta, MD, in his book A
Physician's Guide To Herbal Wellness (Chicago Review Press).
While cranberry is most commonly recommended for
prevention, other herbs can also kill bacteria and are
diuretic. These include:
Barberry: "The chemical berberine found in this herb is
an impressive infection fighter. Studies show it kills the
bacteria responsible for urinary tract infections," says
author Jim O'Brien in his book Herbal Cures for Common
O'Brien recommends making a tea with one half teaspoon of
powdered root bark, then put it on low boil for 30 minutes.
"The taste is unpleasant, so you may wish to add natural
sweeteners and flavorings."
Uva-ursi: contains the ingredient arbutin, which fights
germs in the urinary tract. "In addition," adds O'Brien,
"the herb contains several diuretics that help flush the
urinary tract, leading to faster healing. It also has
several tannins, which act as powerful astringents drying
out swollen, infected tissue. A third property of uva-ursi
is allantoin, which promotes the growth of new cells."
"For this herb to be effective you must not eat or drink
anything of acidic nature, such as citrus fruits or juices.
Don't even take vitamin C supplements while using it,"
Coping With Pain
In her book Herbal Remedies for Women (Prima), medical
herbalist Amanda McQuade Crawford offers an herbal recipe to
help restore the urinary tract's normal pH. Herbal Formula I
calls for 4 ounces of uva-ursi leaf, three ounces of
marshmallow leaf, two ounces of yarrow flower (omit during
pregnancy) and one ounce (or to taste) cinnamon bark. Steep
the herbs for 10 to 20 minutes, then strain through bamboo
or wire mesh. Drink 2 to 5 cups daily for 10 days. Crawford
advocates drinking one to two cups per day for a week to 10
days after all symptoms have disappeared.
Urologist Gillespie has found that women with cystitis may
notice certain foods and beverages (such as alcohol and
acidic foods) exacerbate problems of pain and burning.
Gillespie recommends cystitis sufferers avoid foods like
apple juice, apples, apricots, melon, carbonated drinks,
spicy foods, citrus fruits, coffee, ginger, grapes, guava,
lemon juice, peaches, pineapple, plums, rhubarb,
strawberries, tea, tomatoes and vinegar.
Limit refined sugar: this nutrient may stunt immune
reactions. Most importantly, you can lower the risk of UTIs
by drinking liquids. Water helps flush bacteria from the
body so drink at least 6 to 8 eight-ounce glasses of
filtered water daily.