Bladder Infections

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Bladder infections are a very common problem, and they are getting increasingly difficult to treat. They can become a chronic recurring illness for many folks.  Fortunately, with a little bit of knowledge and a bit of common sense, they are for the most part preventable. Let’s empower ourselves with what we need to know and apply in order to battle this enemy to vigorous health.

What are Bladder Infections?

Bladder infections are one of the most common forms of urinary tract infections (UTI’s). They are almost entirely caused by bacterial contamination of the bladder. Children are often afflicted, with up to 8% of girls and 2% of boys having at least one incidence by the age of five. Youngsters under six are particularly susceptible to kidney damage if bladder or other urinary tract infections are left untreated. Infections are found much more frequently in women than men. It is estimated that 50% of all women will have a urinary tract infection within their lifetime, and that the chance of it recurring is about 80%. Repeated infections, especially in women, can cause progressive scarring and bladder damage, even rarely leading to kidney failure. The medical costs for treatment are staggering, topping $1 billion in the United States alone. The irony of it all is that mainstream medicine’s silver bullet for all these infections — antibiotics — is becoming increasingly ineffective, and in fact may be making the problem worse.

Our urinary tract is responsible for managing liquid waste in our bodies. The kidneys filter the blood and manufacture urine; the ureters are the pipelines to transport urine from the kidneys into the bladder; the bladder is the reservoir to collect the urine until it is eliminated from the body through the urethra. The lower urinary tract (bladder and urethra) is the most common location for infections to occur. Infections are not considered contagious.

What Causes Bladder Infections?

The main culprit in bladder infections and UTI’s is E. coli bacteria, which is responsible for the vast majority of cases.  Bacteria is not normally found in the urine, but may find its way into the urinary tract from E. coli in the intestines, the most common source for UTI’s. The pathway is often through the skin around the anus. Poor hygiene and toileting habits can be a factor, especially for children and the elderly.  Other types of bacteria and some viruses can occasionally generate infections. In rare cases, the onset of infection can come through blood-borne bacteria.

There are many risk factors associated with UTI’s and bladder infections:

  • Trauma or structural abnormalities (perhaps due to an accident or birth defect) can obstruct normal flow of the urine and increase risk of infection. Vesicoureteral Reflux (VUR) is a common birth defect that causes reverse flow of urine from the bladder towards the kidneys.
  • Females by nature have a greater incidence of infections than males. One reason is that women have a shorter urethra, making the journey into the bladder easier for bacteria.
  • Use of certain bubble baths/soaps that cause irritation of the urethra.
  • Sexual relations increases risk. (Nuns have a rate of incidence that is only one-tenth that of the general population).
  • Pregnancy increases risk by a factor of 2.
  • Menopause puts one at greater risk.
  • Poor personal hygiene.
  • Insufficient intake of fluids.
  • “Holding” urine in. This gives bacteria a greater chance to gain a foothold in the bladder.
  • Use of caffeine (in soft drinks, coffee, and alcoholic beverages, etc.) which is a bladder irritant.

How Do I Know if I Have a Bladder Infection?

Symptoms vary, especially in young children. Sometimes a fever may be the only clue in little ones. Older children and adults have symptoms that are easier to identify:

  • Pain or a burning sensation during urination.
  • Increased frequency of urination (particularly at night).
  • Greater urges to urinate, often with little urine produced.
  • Fever (possible, but not always found)
  • Bed wetting, even in adults or toilet-trained children.
  • Dark, butty, or foul-smelling urine, possibly containing blood.
  • Low abdominal or lower back pain (in the region below the navel)
  • Urine analysis showing abnormally high bacteria and white blood cell counts.

What Can Be Done to Treat an Infection?

By far the most common method of treatment prescribed is intervention with antibiotic drugs. There are very effective alternatives to antibiotics, and we will discuss them further below. However, we must address this issue of antibiotics because it is a huge problem.

Because of irresponsible overuse of antibiotics to treat UTI’s and other infections, their effectiveness has diminished greatly as the various strains of bacteria have become immune to the medications. The pharmaceutical companies are constantly seeking to develop new drugs that the pathogens are not resistant to. More infections lead to more antibiotic use, which lead to more infections, and on and on. The most commonly used drugs used like amoxicillin and cephalosporins are now impotent against at least 20% of E. coli strains, and that number is growing. There are newer and more powerful drugs available, but they are also more dangerous and expensive. These new medications are quickly becoming ineffective too, as the bacterias become immune to their prowess. For example, a three-day therapy with trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole is now found to be 20% ineffective here in the United States, and that figure rises to about 50% overseas, where irresponsible use of antibiotics is  tolerated to even a greater degree than here.

But, it gets worse. All of this antibiotic binging has not only affected the targeted pathogens, but has also diminished the “good” bacteria and intestinal flora that our bodies need to function properly. There is normally a layer of bacteria that lines the urethra to protect the bladder from infection. Many antibiotics attack and destroy this friendly bacteria. The destruction of some bacterias has also been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer in women. Research points to a disturbing conclusion that abuse of antibiotics impedes the body’s ability to use phytochemicals found in certain foods that are designed to combat hormonal-related cancers. In addition, loss of flora leads to a greater incidence of yeast infections and candida. And guess what is usually prescribed for yeast infections and candida? ANTIBIOTICS!  Does the term “vicious cycle” mean anything here??

Other evidence shows that antibiotics given to livestock are being transferred to humans through our consumption of their meat and milk. This in turn leads to more UTI’s and stronger, more resistant strains of bacteria. Up until recently, mainstream medicine and the pharmaceutical companies have not been very motivated to come up with alternatives to antibiotics. They have been a huge money-maker for them, and frankly, antibiotics have had a great reputation from their dramatic life-saving exploits of the past. Penicillin, for example, has been responsible for saving countless thousands of lives. But the silver lining in this dark butt is that because antibiotics have quit working, perhaps other alternatives to fight infections will finally be taken more seriously.

What Alternatives are Available to Treat and Prevent Infections?

Cranberry juice is probably the most well known remedy for both the treatment and prevention of UTI’s and bladder infections. Many studies have been undertaken regarding the effectiveness of cranberries on these types of infections, and there is a great deal of evidence that it works very well for many subjects. What is it about the cranberry that makes it so useful in this arena? Scientists have isolated certain substances (proanthocyanidins) found in cranberries (and some other berries as well) that actually impede the growth of harmful bacteria such as E. coli. The mechanics of it are such that these proanthocyanidins work to make it difficult for bacteria to adhere to the cavity walls of the urinary tract. Therefore, they are more easily flushed out of the body by the normal action of urination. As a side note, these same substances have been found to help dental health by discouraging the adherence of plaque to the teeth. So drink your cranberry juice! Both your bladder and your teeth will thank you.

There is a long history of folklore use of cranberries. While Native Americans may not have understood all the science behind it, they used the ripe fruit to treat bladder and urinary tract problems, and the Pilgrims learned of it’s usefulness from them. Early settlers named it the “craneberry” because the design of the plant reminded them of a crane. Modern clinical studies have found that regular consumption of cranberry juice has proved effective in improving active bladder infections or UTI’s in up to 70% of the subjects tested. Other berries such as blueberries, bilberries (both in the cranberry family), and raspberries, have shown to be effective as well. One Finnish study of over 300 women revealed some interesting findings. Those who drank one glass per day of any fresh-squeezed or unsweetened fruit juice reduced their risk of infection by 33%. If the juice was made of cranberries or raspberries, their risk factor decreased by 66%. In addition, those subjects who consumed three servings a day of yogurt or other dairy products with live active bacteria cultures had an 80% reduction in the occurrence of infections. This is attributed to the “friendly” bacteria in these dairy products that helps to bolster healthy flora in the body.

There are other natural remedies that have shown some promise too:

  • Uva ursi (Arctosyaphylos uva ursi), also known as bearberry or upland cranberry. While this herb is useful to treat infections, it is most effective as a preventative measure. Some researchers believe it works even better than cranberry juice. The leaves of this plant, that is native to North America, are harvested for the extract. A substance called arbutin is believed to be responsible for the antibacterial properties of uva ursi. Use a quality product with a standardized 10% arbutin content. Recommended dosage is 250-500 mg. three times daily. Take with water for best results.
  • Juniper (juniperus) has shown some hope as a treatment, but research is scant. Some varieties of juniper contain substances called cedrenes, a form of terpenoids, which are known to have antimicrobial properties.
  • Goldenrod (solidago virgaurea) has been used by health practitioners in Germany for hundreds of years. It is treasured for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial characteristics.
  • A mustard poultice applied to the chest is helpful too. The poultice can be made by mixing one part dry mustard with three parts flour, then add water to make a paste. Spread the paste onto a piece of thin cotton and apply to the chest for about 20 minutes. (A hot water bottle or heating pad may be substituted). One old-time remedy suggests that after the poultice, one should lie face down on a bed with the top half of the body hanging off, supported by the arms. Stay in this position for 10 or 15 minutes, and cough up as much phlegm as possible into a bowl. One word of caution: be careful with the poultice. Check it often, as the mustard can cause skin blisters.
  • One final suggestion:  Good ole’ H20. Drink plenty of fresh, clean water. This is good for all the body systems, but particularly the urinary tract. Lots of water will help to flush out bacteria through the urine, and in general keep the body’s “plumbing” operating smoothly.

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