This is the beginning of my FAQ post series! The series will be interspersed with other topics and will probably pop up whenever I’m asked a question often enough it inspires me to write about it!
This first post tackles the question: “Can you treat urinary tract infections?” Emphatically, yes! Naturopathic medicine and acupuncture have a lot to offer when it comes to urinary tract infection (UTI) treatments. They are gentler on the body than conventional treatments and it is possible to avoid the use of antibiotics altogether.
Let me first start by saying that it is important to see a medical professional as soon as you can if you suspect a UTI. UTIs typically do not resolve on their own without treatment, and allowing them to progress puts other organs in danger of infection. Let’s take a look at the anatomy:
You can see there are four parts to the urinary system. Urine is formed in the kidneys and travels down the ureters, which are located between the kidneys and bladder. Urine collects in the bladder and is evacuated through the urethra. This anatomical diagram depicts the female urinary system. Of the two sexes, women get UTIs more commonly than men, partially because of the shorter length of the urethra. Bacteria have less distance to travel before they make it to the bladder and start irritating it.
We all have tons of beneficial bacteria that live on our skin and keep us healthy. It’s when those good bacterial cultures get out of balance, or when new cultures are introduced to an area that we have difficulty adapting and infections can result. UTI prevention starts with good hygiene; for women this means always wiping from front to back after going to the bathroom, and peeing after sex. The clitoris, urethra, and vaginal opening are all very close to each other, and it is easy to irritate the urethra with friction or different bacterial cultures that may implant on the irritated membranes. Urinating after sex flushes out damaged cells, inflammatory materials, and excess bacteria, allowing the urethra to rebuild and recover.
If UTI symptoms start to pop up, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible, so the bacteria do not continue ascending up the urinary system. The bacteria have a direct route to the kidneys, and if the infection is left untreated, it can spread all the way up.
How do you tell if you have a UTI? Common symptoms of a mild UTI include:
* Burning in the urethra before, after, or during urination
* Pain in the urethra before, after, or during urination
* Increased urgency of urination (you feel like you need the bathroom immediately)
* Increased frequency of urination
More severe UTIs that have not been treated in the early stages can cause blood in the urine, back pain, and fever, all of which are signs of kidney involvement. If you develop these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
So, where to start? There are a few things you can do at home in the very early stages to help stop the infection, or even do as a preventative measure.
#1 Make an appointment with a medical professional, preferably one you have seen before.
If a new patient comes in with a UTI, there is a tendency for practitioners to have the knee jerk reaction of prescribing antibiotics, even among naturopaths. If we’re not familiar with how you respond to treatments as well as your medical history (there’s only so much one can garner in the first visit), we tend to prescribe conservatively. My style is to treat with naturopathic medicine, herbs, and acupuncture, and I usually supply my patients with a prescription for antibiotics as a “just in case” measure.
If you start feeling better, awesome! Then you can cancel your appointment. However, if you don’t (more often times than not), you’ll be on the books for an appointment with someone who can help you, rather than stressing about needing an immediate appointment and your favorite person is not available. I always encourage my patients to come in, even if symptoms are mild or they seem to be resolving. Acupuncture and naturopathic medicine stimulate the immune system to rebuild and repair more quickly, which is always a good thing!
#2 Cranberry or blueberry juice, unsweetened.
Most people have heard of using cranberry juice to fight off a UTI. Not many people know that cranberry and blueberry are in the same family of berries and contain the same molecules that help decrease bacterial adhesion to the walls of the urinary tract. So if you really dislike cranberry, you are in luck! Try some blueberry juice! I prefer the unsweetened variety of both, as regular juice has tons of sugar which is inflammatory and an immune system depressant – that’s the opposite of what we want to happen!
As I mentioned above, cranberry and blueberry juice prevent adhesion of bacteria to the walls of the urethra. However, if a good number of bacteria are already adhered, these juices will not stop the infection from progressing. Cranberry and blueberry juice can only be used in the very early stages of an infection or for prevention. This is why I recommend making an appointment with a medical professional you have a relationship with ASAP. Most of the time people don’t catch the infections early enough for cranberry or blueberry juice to be an effective treatment.
Probiotics are one of the best preventative measures you can take. Probiotics are all about real estate – the more of the good guys you introduce, the more they crowd out the bad guys, decreasing the chance of infection. Even taken orally, probiotics migrate to all the mucous membranes of your body – gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, vaginal tract, and urinary tract. Yogurt is not enough of a probiotic supplement! It can build good cultures over time, but is nowhere near concentrated enough to be therapeutic. Get yourself a high quality probiotic (in this case, you get what you pay for) from your naturopath.
I’ve already described a little bit about how I personally treat UTIs, but here is a more in-depth look at what I do. First, I’ll have you do a test to confirm there are actually bacteria present in the urine. There are other illnesses, like interstitial cystitis, that have similar symptoms to a UTI, but are not an infection. We’ll do an acupuncture treatment to boost the immune system and drain out damp heat (damp heat = infection in Chinese medicine). I’ll usually do craniosacral over the bladder or abdomen to release restrictions and increase circulation to the tissues so waste products move out and nutrients move in. Next, I’ll usually whip up an herbal preparation that’s antimicrobial, immune boosting, and soothing to the urinary tract. I’ll throw in a few other suggestions, sometimes a homeopathic remedy, and usually a prescription for antibiotics in case symptoms worsen despite treatment. I usually check in with my patients a two to three days after I’ve seen them to make sure they are feeling better. And most are.
When I have to use antibiotics, I try to use those that are specific to the urinary tract and do the least harm to the rest of the system. This is possible if the infection has not progressed to the kidneys, and why it is important not to neglect getting treatment. The most common antibiotic used in UTIs, ciprofloxacin, is a very broad spectrum antibiotic that has serious side effects. One of the most severe is tendon rupture — yes, this antibiotic literally weakens your tendons, so if you have to take it, don’t do any strenuous exercise. You can read more about the side effects of cipro and the fluoroquinolone class of antibiotics have here and here. Here’s a great article on another side effect just coming to light regarding any antibiotic.
Acute illnesses like this are a great reason to have an established relationship with a healthcare provider. Someone who knows you and your body is an invaluable asset in these situations. Treatments and follow up can be tailored to you, increasingly the likelihood of success with natural therapies and avoiding the harsh antibiotics used to treat UTIs.