It's one of the most pervasive myths in medicine...
And if you're a woman, you're probably familiar with it.
For decades, people suffering from a urinary tract infection ("UTI") have turned to cranberry juice as a cure. UTIs commonly include itching, burning sensations, and pain when using the bathroom. It can be excruciating. It's a pain 10 in 25 women – and three in 25 men – will experience in their lives.
Your urinary tract actually comprises your kidneys, bladder, and three tubes: two ureters and one urethra. The ureters carry waste from the kidney to the bladder, and the urethra drains urine from the bladder.
An infection in the urinary tract can involve any of these organs.
Both sexes experience similar symptoms:
- Painful urination
- Urgency and increased frequency of urination
- Burning sensation
- Pain in lower abdomen
Typically, women get UTIs when bacteria enter through the urethra. The most common reason is natural bacteria on the skin transferred during sex. That's why the best way to prevent UTIs for women is to urinate no more than 30 minutes after sex.
Men are less likely to get a UTI from sex. Men more often get UTIs from bladder or kidney infections. (Women can as well, but it's not as common.)
What's more, men – especially men over 50 – are likely to get a UTI from a prostate condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia ("BPH"). The prostate gland sits just under the bladder. But sometimes it swells and wraps around the connection between the urethra and the bladder. That means urine can build up, and bacteria can grow.
If you google remedies for UTIs, a top result will be to drink cranberry juice or buy cranberry pills. But there's no clear science that cranberry juice or supplements can cure a UTI. Some research shows cranberries work in women with recurring UTIs. Some point to benefits in younger women, but most randomized trials showed results that were about the same as placebos. Other studies have found cranberry extract is the only form of cranberry that helps.
Letting a UTI go untreated – or hoping for ineffective treatments to work – allows the bacteria to spread, sometimes even into your kidneys. That can cause serious problems. For instance, if left untreated, a kidney infection can cause blood poisoning. That can be deadly. It can also leave permanent scars in your kidneys that diminish their ability to function.
For many of us, our bodies can fight off a UTI in a few days. But if you have a compromised immune system or the symptoms last more than a couple of days, you should visit your doctor.
The key here is prevention...
Five Ways to Prevent UTIs
1. Drink plenty of water. A study out of the University of Miami looked at young women who experienced recurrent UTIs. Those who upped their water intake by about six cups each day had about half the amount of UTIs as the control group over the course of the study.
Remember, you don't need eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated. That advice is based on outdated advice from the National Research Council that doesn't apply to the daily activities of regular folks or take into consideration other sources of liquid.
A good way to check your hydration level is to look at your urine – it should be a pale, nearly clear yellow. The darker it is, the more you need to hydrate.
2. Exercise. A study from Aalborg University in Denmark found that just four hours per week of light to moderate exercise cuts the risk of bacterial infections. This makes sense, given that the more you move around, the better your circulation and immune system are. Those who exercised had, on average, 10% fewer bacterial infections than those who didn't exercise at all. What's more, UTIs dropped 32% for moderate-activity exercisers.
Do what I do and aim to walk every day for at least 30 minutes... I like to walk a few blocks around my office during my lunch break. And enjoy other activities like yoga or gardening to get your full four hours of exercise per week.
3. Control your diabetes. Folks with Type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of UTIs. One cause is high levels of sugar in your urine. Bacteria flourish in high-sugar environments, meaning they can more easily grow. Diabetes also influences vascular changes and kidney problems, which can both contribute to reduced urination and bacteria growth.
Genetics, diet, weight, and activity level are all risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. Aside from genetics, we can control the rest. That's why I strongly encourage my readers to eat whole foods and plenty of vegetables, as well as to get up and get moving on a regular basis.
4. Probiotics. A 2008 review of data on recurrent UTIs pointed to the use of probiotics as an "important medical strategy." Remember, probiotics, are healthy bacteria that keep our gut working properly. Illness can wipe out our natural bacteria, so it's good to replace them from time to time. My favorite way to build healthy bacteria is plain yogurt or kimchi.
5. Bowel habits. Constipation is one of the causes of UTIs. When you have stool backed up, it can press on the bladder, making it harder to empty it. Likewise, diarrhea can also introduce extra bacteria into your system. Staying regular means eating right, drinking plenty of water, and exercising.
So if you want to keep your urinary tract healthy and pain free, don't bother with the cranberry juice and pills. Follow these five tips instead...
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 11, 2023