Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are a very common type of bacterial infection of the bladder, urethra, ureters (tubes that propel urine from your kidneys to your bladder), and kidneys. They occur more often in females (though boys and men get them too), affecting 1 in 3 girls/women by age 24 and about 50% of all women at some point in life.1 Plus, some of us experience recurring infections that can pop up as frequently as once a month (ouch!), annually, or sporadically.
Kidney infections are less common, but more serious, and can result from untreated or improperly treated bladder infections.
In either case antibiotic treatment may be necessary. However, we know that antibiotics can have adverse side effects including negatively altering gut microbiota for up to 2 years2. Fortunately, antibiotics can sometimes be avoided for mild bladder infections if you take action quickly.
Natural remedies, and prevented by adopting some specific lifestyle changes. And if you have chronic bladder infections that’s a surefire sign that you need to dig deeper to uncover the root cause.
Today, we’ll focus primarily on bladder infections including the causes, prevention, best practices, natural remedies, and when to see your doctor for testing and care.
Symptoms of UTIs: Bladder Infections and Kidney Infections
Before we dive into the causes and natural remedies for UTIs/bladder infections, it’s important to know the symptoms.
Symptoms of bladder infections are caused by irritation in the bladder. They come on suddenly but usually start out mild and can include:3
- Increased frequency of urination
- Painful or burning urination
- Cloudy or bloody urine
- Foul-smelling urine
- Pain or pressure near the pubic bone
- Feeling like you have to pee all the time, then not being able to go or only having a trickle
Keep in mind that STDs, such as chlamydia, and even a vaginal yeast infection can cause some of the same symptoms. Likewise, other conditions such as endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, and chronic vulvovaginitis can cause similar symptoms. Thus, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for testing even if you plan on trying out natural remedies. Test, don’t guess!
If a bladder infection spreads to the kidneys or you get a full-on kidney infection, you can expect symptoms to progress and be more severe. Symptoms of a kidney infection include:4
- Persistent mid-back pain
- Malaise (aka: you really feel like crap!)
If you experience any of these symptoms, they warrant an immediate trip to your doctor, urgent care center, etc. Kidney infections are serious because bacteria can get into the bloodstream, and they almost always require antibiotic treatment. Without proper care, they can even lead to sepsis…which can freakin’ kill you! So please, do not mess around with natural remedies if you have a kidney infection or suspect a kidney infection.
If you’re unsure, always, always, ALWAYS check with your doctor. In this case, you are much better safe than sorry…even if it means taking antibiotics.
Knowing the difference between a bladder infection/UTI and interstitial cystitis
UTIs, which are caused by bacteria, and interstitial cystitis (IC), whose cause is technically unknown (although I can say from experience that autoimmunity, microbiome imbalance, mold and trichithecen mycotoxin, pelvic floor issues, and/or injury often play a role), share many of the same symptoms.5
However, in addition to UTI symptoms, IC also includes pelvic pain that comes and goes, and pain during sex. IC also persists for at least 6 weeks, and is often chronic.
How can you know for sure? Talk to your doctor about your concerns and they can advise on next-steps which typically include a urine test, examination, and seeing a specialist. After you’ve done that, you can decide if you want to go the conventional medical route to manage symptoms, or seek integrative care for more options.
What Causes UTIs/Bladder Infections (and why do some people get them often?)
UTIs are most commonly caused by a bacterial infection, which is usually E. Coli. However, they can also be caused by fungi in immune-compromised individuals.6
Women are more susceptible than men for three reasons:
#1: Our urethras are shorter, making the path to the bladder more of a cake walk for bacteria.
#2: Our urethras are closer to the rectum where E. Coli and other bacteria hang out.
#3: Our female anatomy is more of an open-system than a man’s. Which means, stuff can get up there easier. Not fair, but so true.
Other risk factors include:7
- High-level of sexual activity. Especially with a new partner or during a honeymoon, etc.
- Age. Menopausal women can be more prone to UTIs due to a change in hormones and the vaginal lining, which thins due to loss of estrogen.
- Genetics, there is evidence that some women are more genetically susceptible to harmful bacteria clinging to their endothelial lining.
- Contraceptives including diaphragms and condoms with spermicide have been linked to a higher risk of UTIs.
- Compromised immunity from chronic disease can also make you more susceptible.
- Diabetes and high blood sugar.
- Dehydration/not drinking enough water.
- Anatomical abnormalities such as an enlarged bladder.
- Long-term or overuse of antibiotics could potentially increase your chances of a UTI by killing off beneficial bacteria in the vaginal and urinary microbiome. 8 That’s right, new evidence shows we were wrong about urine and the urinary tract being sterile.9 Your urinary tract is actually teeming with microbes, which means urinary microbiota balance can be disrupted.
- I’ve also observed that a diet high in excess sugar, white flour, and other unhealthy foods, can contribute to UTI susceptibility.
- Any other disruptions to the vaginal, gut, or urinary microbiome including new medications, changes in diet, etc. The good bacteria in our microbiomes, such as lactobacillus, naturally prevent E. Coli from causing problems. Thus, if there’s a biome imbalance, bad bacteria are more likely to create problems.10, 11
- Stress, coupled with any of these causes, can also increase your risk as it lowers your immune system.
Postmenopausal Bladder Infections
Bladder infections in postmenopausal women are more common because of genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM). This is a cause of urogenital atrophy and subsequent UTIs, vaginal dryness12 and/or painful intercourse.
Unpleasant genital and urinary symptoms from menopause tend to increase over time due to the body no longer making hormones like testosterone and estrogen, so symptoms occur and may get worse over time without treatment…leading to recurring and potentially dangerous UTIs, and subsequent overuse of antibiotics. Unlike some symptoms of menopause (like hot flashes) which tend to go away, GSM does not.
If you are postmenopausal and experiencing UTIs, then it’s really important to consider estrogen. In my practice I often prescribe topical and/or vaginal estrogen because it is safe and effective and can help prevent urogenital atrophy. Data proves that by using vaginal hormones, we can prevent UTIs by more than 50%13!
How to Prevent Bladder Infections Naturally
The best way to prevent any type of infection is to practice good hygiene and support your body’s immune system, microbiome, and overall health. Here are some tips to help prevent UTIs:
- Support your microbiome by eating a whole foods diet that’s low in sugar and processed foods and high in fiber, vegetables, and healthy fats.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol, which is loaded with sugar!
- Drink plenty of water, at least 8 glasses per day, to help flush out your urinary tract and urinate as soon as you feel the urge.
- Avoid antibiotic use whenever possible (but please take them if you have a kidney infection or if they’re truly medically necessary).
- Eat cultured foods and/or take a multi-strain Lactobacillus-containing probiotic supplement to support healthy gut, vaginal, and urinary tract flora.
- Women and girls should wipe after urinating from front to back to avoid transferring bacteria from the rectum to the vagina.
- Urinate after having sex.
- If you practice anal sex, do not let your partner go “back and forth” between the anus and the vagina as this can spread bacteria rapidly.
- Take steps to avoid chronic stress, which dampens immunity.
- Avoid douching or vaginal sprays, which can disrupt healthy vaginal flora that keeps unhealthy bacteria out.
Preventative tips for recurring or chronic UTIs:
- Avoid wearing thongs, as it makes it easier for bacteria to travel from the rectum to the vulva/vagina. Think of thongs as a road for bacteria to travel back and forth…yeah, not so sexy now, huh?
- Reconsider your contraceptives if you’re using a diaphragm, cervical cap, or condoms with spermicide, all of which increase your chances of UTIs.
- Be mindful about feminine protection. Wearing pads has been shown to increase your risk of UTI. However, if you use tampons I recommend organic, 100% cotton tampons ONLY as pesticide residues can also kill off healthy vaginal flora. If you prefer pads, change them often and go for plastic-free varieties or reusables made from natural, preferably organic cotton or linen.
- Take showers instead of baths.
- Drinking cranberry juice daily (unsweetened and diluted please) has been shown to decrease UTIs in women with a recent history of infection.14
- Consider an anti-inflammatory diet which discourages foods that can trigger inflammation or irritation in the bladder, such as gluten, sugar, vinegar, nightshade vegetables, dairy, soy, corn, coffee, refined oils, and chocolate.15, 16
- Eat probiotic-rich foods and/or take a Lactobacillus-containing probiotic.17
- Talk to your integrative functional medicine doctor or practitioner about using certain antimicrobial herbs prophylactically. Some of my top recommendations are available on FullScript and include: Herb Pharm Cranberry Tincture, DFH UT Synergy, and Metagenics Women’s Probiotic.
Natural Remedies for Bladder Infections/UTIs
Herbs and nutritional therapies can be very effective for killing off the bacteria that causes bladder infections/UTIs and restoring healthy flora in the gut, vagina, and urinary tract. Please note, these recommendations are for women over the age 13 who are not pregnant. Otherwise, you need to see your doctor for appropriate treatment options.
Again, I’d recommend getting tested before you start any type of treatment just to confirm it’s actually a bladder infection you’re dealing with. Otherise, your efforts could all be for not, or worse, you could get very sick.
Herb and Supplement Recommendations for Treating Bladder Infections/UTIs Naturally
- Take a multi-strain Lactobacillus-containing probiotic. The exact amount will vary based on which product you’re using, but as a general rule of thumb you can at least double the daily recommended amount.
- At the acute onset of symptoms, you can take 2500-5000 mg of vitamin C every 6 hours. Studies have shown vitamin C reduces three of the most common urinary bacteria. Just be aware, this may cause diarrhea! However, a good food-based vitamin C product can help prevent that.
- Take d-Mannose which helps stop E. Coli from sticking to the bladder and urethra.
- Drink unsweetened cranberry juice diluted with water. Cranberry reduces bacteria in the urine by creating an acidic environment. I often recommend patients fill up a big mason jar of this at a 1:4 ratio and sip on it all day. Aim for at least 6-8 glasses until you begin to see improvement.
- OR you can take a cranberry d-mannose combination supplement. This is often the more convenient option vs. taking d-mannose and drinking cranberry juice separately.
- Uva Ursi can be very effective for bladder infections, especially when started early, because it helps regulate pH to halt infection and is antimicrobial.18 You’ll often find urinary health combination tinctures that include Uva Ursi with other urinary-supportive herbs such as marshmallow, yarrow, cranberry, cornsilk, parsley, and/or cleavers. These are all excellent herbs, just make sure uva ursi and marshmallow19 are close to the top of the ingredient list.
- If you can, take your herbs as a tea to help flush them through your urinary tract. You’ll find a good variety of bagged and loose-leaf teas at your local natural foods or health food store, or you can order bulk herbs online.
- Cramp Bark is a good herb for soothing pain, as are boswellia and curcumin.
- You can also take Ibuprofen.
- Garlic supplements, or raw garlic, is naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral and can be taken at large doses to fend off unfriendly bacteria.20
- Finally, berberine-containing herbs like goldenseal and barberry, have also shown effective at blocking adhesion of E.Coli.21
Dietary recommendations for symptoms of bladder infection
- Cut out all types of sugar, gluten, and dairy from your diet. That includes fruit juices and healthier sweeteners like raw honey, coconut sugar, etc. Stevia is fine. Keep these out of your diet for at least a week after symptoms have resolved.
- Consume probiotic-rich foods 3 times per day. Cultured vegetables, kim chi, unsweetened plant-based yogurt and kefir, miso, and sauerkraut are all good options. Use them like a condiment with your meals.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and limit yourself to low-sugar berries for fruit.
- Eat lots of garlic and onions which are naturally antibacterial.
How Long Will Healing Take and When To See Your Doctor
The key to treating bladder infections naturally is to start fast and hit it hard! Following these recommendations, you should start to see improvement within about 2-3 days with resolution in about a week. If you haven’t seen improvement and especially if your symptoms worsen and include fever, chills, severe back pain, etc. see your doctor.
And remember, if you suspect a bladder infection/UTI make an appointment with your doctor right away for testing so you can be sure you’re treating the right thing. If you’re worried they’ll recommend antibiotics right away, simply tell them you’d like to try a natural approach first and will check back in a few days and/or if your symptoms worsen. If they push the issue, ask them why they feel you need antibiotics right away and hear them out. Maybe the infection is more severe and this is the right course…or maybe they’ve not heard of treating a bladder infection naturally. Regardless, having an open-dialogue with a provider you trust is key to getting the right care.
Again, if you’re pregnant or under the age of 10, see your doctor right away as medication is typically appropriate in these situations.
Where To Find Good Herbs/Supplements
Head on over to my Trusted Products page for direct links to the pharmaceutical-grade supplements I trust. Microbiome Labs has an excellent probiotic called Mega Spore, which works really well, and you can find other supplements at FullScript.
For bulk herbs, I like Mountain Rose Herbs because they’re a small company with excellent quality botanicals. Sure, Amazon sells bulk herbs but the quality is often dicey depending on the brand, who’s selling it/storing it, etc. With Mountain Rose, and other established bulk herb companies, you know you’re ordering direct from a real company with a real quality assurance/quality control department that ensures you’re getting unadulterated, toxin-free, species-verified, organic herbs…and that counts for a lot.
- Mild bladder infections can often be successfully treated at home using natural remedies and dietary modifications.
- Since bladder infections/UTIs can mimic other conditions, always get tested to make sure you’re treating the right thing.
- Sometimes antibiotics are appropriate. Especially for more severe bladder infections, for children under 10, usually during pregnancy (unless you’re working with a really, really knowledgeable herbalist, and for kidney infections.
- If you suspect a kidney infection (fever, nausea, severe mid-back pain, chills) see your doctor immediately!! These should not be treated at home and usually require antibiotics.
- With natural treatment started fast and furious, you can expect to see improvements within 2-3 days, with resolution within a week. If not, check in with your doctor.
- Chronic UTIs/bladder infections are typically a sign of a deeper problem like microbiome imbalance, occult infection, bacterial/fungal overgrowth, autoimmunity, etc. In this case, I’d recommend finding a skilled integrative functional medicine physician (like me!) to uncover and treat the root cause.
- Finally, although I can help with chronic infections once you become a patient, I am not your primary care provider. So please, contact them for advice if you suspect a UTI/bladder infection.