Herbs for the Urinary Tract
By Kris Vaughan, CH
Supporting a healthy urinary tract allows for prevention of urinary tract irritation. An imbalance in the mucus membrane tissue that lines the urinary tract allows for bacteria to adhere, causing infection and discomfort. Symptoms of imbalance in the urinary tract are painful urination, increased need to urinate, and pressure above the pubic bone when urinating, often with a dragging pain at the end of the urine stream. These symptoms should always be evaluated by a qualified healthcare practitioner, but we are also lucky to have many herbs available to us that offer natural support for normal healthy urinary tract function.
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.
Natural Support for the Urinary Tract
Adequate water intake is essential in supporting the normal structures and function of the urinary tract 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 an imbalance develops in the urinary tract, it is 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, aiding in removing bacteria.
Herbs for Urinary Tract Support
The plant world has much to offer us in supporting a healthy urinary tract. Here are a few herbal actions useful in the urinary tract. For more in-depth discussion on herbal actions, I would suggest the book Herbal ABC's: the Foundation of Herbal Medicine by Dr. Sharol Tilgner.
- Antimicrobial – inhibits microbial growth and expression
- Anti-inflammatory - reduces inflammation and local irritation in tissues
- Astringent – removes excess secretions from tissues giving a “tonifying” effect
- Diuretic - supports the kidneys ability to excrete more fluid
- Antispasmodic - relieves uncomfortable spasms in the bladder and ureters
The following herbs are beneficial for supporting the normal healthy function of the urinary tract. Many of these herbs have a synergistic effect on each other and do well when used in combination.
Cranberry – Vaccinium spp.: Cranberry supports the healthy structure of the tissue of the urinary tract. Many people find unsweetened cranberry juice a bit too astringent and bitter so a concentrated cranberry syrup is a pleasing option. This type of preparation 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. 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 liquid extract instead.
Horsetail – Equisetum spp.: The spring stems of horsetail are cooling and drying and they contain large amounts of silica, potassium, manganese, flavonoids, and phenolic acids.
Oregon grape root – Mahonia spp.: Oregon grape root contains large amounts of the alkaloid berberine which 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. Adding some Echinacea to this will add some general immune system support and makes a 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.
When choosing herbal remedies to support the normal healthy function of the urinary tract it is best to use a combination of herbs that have the various properties you are looking for. Pregnant and nursing women should seek 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.
Kris Vaughan, CH is the Program Director and Clinical Herbalist at Herbal Wisdom Institute in Arizona.