Cystitis – A Natural Approach
The Urinary System
Discussion and Causes
Cystitis is a very common problem in women, very much less common (25-50 times) in men. It is defined as inflammation of the bladder wall; it is often combined with urethritis, which is inflammation of the urethra – the tube leading from the bladder to outside the body. It is usually caused by bacterial infection, sometimes by fungal infection and very occasionally for rather rare reasons; an example is that radiation treatment affecting the area often causes cystitis.
The main reason for cystitis being more common in women is the difference in anatomy. Specifically, the urethra is much shorter in women, which makes it easier for pathogens such as bacteria to get into the bladder. The most common organism found in cystitis sufferers, when they have a urine test, is E. Coli which normally lives in the lower intestine.
Contributory causes to cystitis include sexual activity; it used to be the case that a woman’s first bout of cystitis was often on her honeymoon. Another cause is minor anatomical abnormality, the first sign of which is often repeated bouts of cystitis. The changes in a woman’s body at menopause often make cystitis a more frequent problem. Not drinking enough liquid also makes cystitis more likely.
The explanations for all these causes are all basically the same. Fresh urine, especially when freshly secreted by the kidneys, is essentially sterile – unless, that is, you have a kidney infection which is a far more serious problem than cystitis. Unfortunately, the bladder and urethra walls are sometimes a rather good growth medium for bacteria especially in the warmth of the body. This means that when the urine reaches the urethra, it usually becomes somewhat contaminated. This doesn’t usually matter very much, because the bacteria are swept out during urination. However, if there is any pooling of urine or obstructions to its flow, then the bacteria can spread up the urethra into the bladder.
The bladder itself is defended quite well against bacterial or fungal infection for several reasons. Urine is normally somewhat alkaline; this inhibits bacterial growth. Also, the bladder wall incorporates immune system cells. And as already mentioned, the flow of urine gets rid of the bacteria.
Defence against Cystitis
The main defence against cystitis is twofold; personal hygiene (wipe front to back, simply) and ensuring adequate flow of urine; the amount of liquid consumption needed to ensure the latter is about 2 litres per day. It might also be mentioned that over-use of aggressive and irritating hygiene products can cause inflammation of the area, which can lead to cystitis.
The remaining measures to defend against cystitis are mainly nutritional and dietary.
Certain foods can make the urine a growth medium for bacteria. These are mainly foods with large amounts of easily absorbed carbohydrates; these include sugary foods, refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread, and fruit juices (which are very high in free sugars). The reason is simply that such foods can increase the blood sugar level enough that the excess sugar spills out into the urine. This encourages the growth of bacteria and also fungi such as Candida albicans. Other foods, notably citrus fruit and red meat, can make the urine more acid; this not only makes the area a better growth medium for bacteria but also increases the pain and irritation caused by existing inflammation.
The supplements useful for cystitis are the usual suspects that improve immune system function; these include vitamin C, vitamin A and zinc. All these improve the integrity of the cells of the bladder wall and thus help stop the bacteria colonising the wall of the bladder.
These are all herbs that improve the functioning of the immune system, directly kill pathogens associated with cystitis or stop the bacteria sticking to the bladder wall, or various combinations of these effects.
This herb supports the immune system and also has a somewhat weak direct effect on various pathogens.
Garlic is a potent anti-pathogenic herb that works against most types of pathogen including the bacteria most often responsible for cystitis.
This herb directly kills bacteria and also helps prevent bacterial adhesion to the body’s surfaces.
Cranberry Juice or Extract
The action of this herb is mainly to inhibit the adhesion of bacteria to the bladder wall.
This fairly new supplement works in a rather different way from the action of any other anti-bacterial agent. D-mannose works by coating the cell walls of the bacteria themselves, thus making it impossible for them to cling to the walls of the urinary tract. Bacterial cell walls are covered with polymers of exotic sugars, one of whose functions is to stick to similar compounds lining the cells of the body’s surfaces. Enough D-mannose will take up all or most of the adhering ability of the bacteria, thus making it easier for the body to flush them out.
D-mannose is actually a rather common sugar in nature, but not usually found in foods; the most common source is lignin, which is at least partially a polymer of D-mannose, therefore the most common source of D-mannose is by acid treatment of wood chips and sawdust. Unfortunately, D-mannose is difficult to purify to medical grade and is needed in large amounts when treating cystitis; 5-10 grams per day is needed, and this makes it quite expensive to use.
D-mannose, although it is a sugar, doesn’t get converted or used by the body to any extent; so it is quite safe to use and does not cause blood sugar elevation as glucose would. The most common way to use it is as a powder, dissolved in water. It tastes just like sugar.