Do Natural Treatments Really Work for UTIs? The Experts Weigh In
Want a fast fact to bust out at your next party? Forty percent of women will get a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their lives. Fun, right? OK, nothing involving urine and tracts will ever be a particularly fun point of conversation, but it’s worth knowing the ins and outs of this incredibly common ailment. Especially since 20 percent of women who get a UTI will get another one.
Most of the time, UTIs require a treatment of antibiotics to get the bugs out of your system. This is a perfectly effective treatment, and it usually takes care of the infection in a few days. But, if you’d rather not use antibiotics, since there’s some concern about creating antibiotic-resistant strains of the infection, what options do you have? I spoke to some experts to find out if there are any natural cures for a UTI and if all that talk about cranberry juice really lives up to the hype.
What exactly is a UTI?
Unsurprisingly, a UTI is an infection of the urinary tract. Bacteria has gotten into the urinary tract system, which is normally sterile. To put it in less pleasant terms, when material from the lower intestine gets into your urethra, it causes a bladder infection.
Though that sounds horrid, it’s not uncommon. Sometimes, it can be caused by a lack of proper hygiene, but most of the time it occurs from sex, using a diaphragm, or just being a woman. The Mayo Clinic lists “female anatomy” as a risk factor for the illness. So, if you’re simply walking around town with a vagina, you very well might get a UTI.
The infection itself might be caused by the E. coli bacteria, which goes up the urethra. Sometimes, it hangs out in this urinary hallway without infecting anywhere else. More often, the bacteria gets into the bladder, causing frequent painful peeing, discharges, blood in your urine, and pelvic discomfort. It’s not a good time, but a bladder infection is rarely serious, especially if you get treatment right away.
How can you cure a UTI?
For all the anti-antibiotic people out there, I have bad news. You can’t cure the infection with natural remedies. Sorry. Though there are natural solutions that might help prevent UTI (which I’ll explain in just a bit), all the unsweetened cranberry juice in the world won’t actually help you. In fact, in the study “Cranberry juice fails to prevent recurrent urinary tract infection,” the tart fruit had the exact same effect as a placebo in recurrent UTIs. Though you probably guessed that from the study title.
The only way to totally get rid of a UTI is with antibiotics. If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s best to get to the doctor quickly. They’ll test your urine, and if it’s indeed a UTI, you’ll get a weeklong course of antibiotics. Usually, your symptoms go away in a few days and you can enjoy pain-free peeing again. But you must continue your antibiotics until you’ve completed the prescription.
Do I really have to see a doctor for a UTI?
It may seem unnecessary to see a doctor for such a common illness. Why not just let it go and treat it on your own? Dr. Elizabeth Rice, a licensed naturopathic doctor and primary care physician at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, has tips for natural treatments, but says you always have to be careful. “A partially treated or mistreated UTI can quickly become a serious condition known as pyelonephritis (infection of the kidney), so care must always be taken when treating UTIs naturally.”
If you’re just starting to feel or see potential UTI symptoms, you can try a few natural remedies to try to flush out the bacteria and reduce inflammation before the infection really takes hold, Rice says. Increase your intake of fluids to help flush the bladder. But if the symptoms persist more than a day, or get worse, you have to go to the doctor.
Going to the doctor may be a bit annoying, but a UTI that morphs into a kidney infection is way worse than an afternoon in the waiting room. Kidney infections can lead to potentially life-threatening sepsis or permanent kidney damage. Seeing a doctor to prescribe antibiotics may ultimately help you avoid a lifetime of medical complications.
You know your body best, so listen to it. You may not run to the doctor after one weird-feeling pee. If you start to have mild symptoms, here are a few natural choices that may help you out.
The lowdown on natural treatments
D-mannose is a supplement made from a glucose-like sugar that you can find online or in health food stores. “D-mannose is most helpful at preventing E. coli from sticking to the walls of the urinary tract,” says Rice. “If taken with a lot of water, this can effectively flush out the bacteria that is causing the infection.”
Rice often tells patients to take 500 milligrams every two to three hours when experiencing symptoms; however, the best dose is individual. You can find more guidelines here, and when in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Be sure to drink lots of water throughout the day to help the D-mannose remove the bacteria. Again, if the symptoms persist more than 24 hours or get worse, get yourself to the doctor.
D-mannose isn’t recommended for those with diabetes, and if you’re taking other medications, you need to talk to a doctor before starting this treatment. Diarrhea is a common side effect.
Althaea officinalis, otherwise known as Marshmallow, is an anti-inflammatory herb widely available in powdered, supplement, and tea form. “Althaea officinalis is a demulcent herb that can soothe and coat the lining of the urinary tract to help decrease inflammation,” says Rice. “Make a strong tea and sip throughout the day.”
Unfortunately, this herb won’t cure a UTI, but it can ease some of the symptoms. Even more unfortunately, a bag of fluffy marshmallows won’t do anything to help a UTI, but they will taste delicious.
Uva-ursi (or bear berries)
“Some research indicates that uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi) — also known as “bear berries” because bears like to eat them — is an effective herb for treating UTIs,” says Erin Stair, MD, MPH, and founder of Blooming Wellness. The plant (also found in supplement form) has diuretic properties, which could help you pee out the bacteria before it does any harm. But uva-ursi is more than a natural water pill.
“The whole plant has many active substances, such as arbutin (which gets converted to hydroquinone and acts as an antimicrobial agent), flavonoids, tannins, phenolic acids, resin, gallic and egallic acid,” says Stair. Because uva-ursi has such potent ingredients, you need to take it carefully.
Stair cautions that the supplement hasn’t been well studied in humans yet and shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, long-term use of hydroquinone may affect the liver and kidneys.
So, while uva-ursi has potential to be fairly powerful, it also carries risks. It may or may not treat a UTI, and it may or may not hurt your liver. In this case, if you’re able to take antibiotics, the traditional medical route seems to be a safer option.
Just add water
With any of these supplements, experts recommend that you should greatly increase your water intake. Basically, you’re trying to flush out those gross little E. coli jerks, and the best way to do that is through peeing. And there’s no easier way to pee than by drinking plenty of water.
Also, upping your water intake can be a good barometer of infection. If you pee with little discomfort, keep drinking water and taking supplements, and you might be able to flush it out on your own. If your pee starts to hurt, burn, or show signs of blood, you know it’s time to see a doctor.
How to prevent bladder infections
Though natural remedies aren’t guaranteed to get rid of early UTI symptoms, there are some natural ways to discourage UTIs from forming in the first place.
Now, before we get into prevention, please remember: If you’re a woman, you’ve got a high chance of a UTI. That doesn’t mean you’re gross or doing anything wrong. You happen to have a vagina and that’s just the way it goes.
Still, you can reduce your chances of infection, and most of the methods are free and easy.
Pee after sex
There’s a bit of a myth that an increased number of sexual partners leads to an increased risk of UTI. But a study from the University of Michigan found no connection between number of partners and UTIs. Instead, they found that peeing after sex was way more helpful in preventing UTIs than limiting your sexual partners.
When you urinate, the pee itself flushes out your urethra. So, that E. coli gets washed away before it gets a chance to make your life miserable. Though it seems a like a tiny, insignificant thing, a quick pee after sex can keep you from days of painful urinations.
Wipe from the front to the back
Don’t draw germs from your rectal area toward your vagina and urethra. Every time you wipe, it should be from the urinary area toward the rectum.
Don’t use a diaphragm
That same study from the University of Michigan also found that people who used diaphragms were twice as likely to get UTIs. This doesn’t mean diaphragms are off the table, but be very careful with keeping them clean. Any tiny bit of bacteria can cause a vaginal or urinary infection. Alternately, you can consider switching your method of birth control to decrease the risk of UTIs.
Don’t have sex
The University of Michigan study found that UTIs significantly increased with sexual intercourse. So if you’ve had trouble with recurring UTIs or think you might have an infection, it may be best to be less sexually active for a bit. This doesn’t mean abstaining long term to avoid a UTI, but reducing intercourse right after a UTI may decrease your odds of recurrence.
Make your pee acidic
The pH balance of your pee might have a significant effect on UTI recurrence. Dr. Eugene Charles, director of The Applied Kinesiology Center of New York, says that maintaining an acidic pH of the urinary tract may prevent bacteria from growing.
A study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that acidic pee restricted bacterial growth. Unfortunately, trying to make your pee acidic after you already have a UTI won’t help. It’s too little, too late. But, if your urine stays acidic, it could stop E. coli from growing in the first place, thereby stopping recurring infections.
And no, it’s not like you’ll have to start peeing straight-up acid. In fact, the study found that urine that was just slightly more acidic than water, which is neutral on the pH scale, was most effective in inhibiting the growth of bacteria.
How do you make your urine more acidic? “This is best accomplished through a daily tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and a tincture of cranberry, which should be incredibly sour,” says Charles. “Otherwise, you are drinking predominately sugar, which propagates UTIs.”
Thankfully, while nothing can ensure that a UTI won’t strike, there are some natural ways to help keep them at bay. But once they hit, it’s best to go with antibiotics, so you can feel better right away and avoid more damaging infections. In the meantime, drink water, take a little apple cider vinegar, and remember to pee after sex.