Bladder Infections (a.k.a. Cystitis, or Urinary Tract Infection, or UTI,)
are common, affecting about 5% of women each year. They rarely lead to Kidney infections, or other problems, and in many cases will go away on their own.
However, drug or herb treatment will hasten cure and minimize symptoms. M.D.s are often quick to prescribe antibiotics for bladder infections, for two reasons. One-- their patients expect it, and it is cheap and easy. Two--they need to protect themselves from suit, as there is always a slim chance of an infection spreading to the kidneys, in which case the doctor may be blamed.
But are antibiotics the wisest choice? The answer is clearly, "No."
Let me say here, flatly, and with all humility: Herbal Medicine works better than antibiotics for the vast majority of Urinary Tract Infections, especially for those women with recurrent (more than 1x a year) UTI.
Here are 7 reasons--
1. Antibiotics are not always effective. I routinely encounter patients who have been on two or three rounds of antibiotics, yet whose infections persist.
One reason may be the development of resistant bacteria. Bacteria are smart. They evolve in response to their environment. Resistance to antibiotics is a big problem with infections of all types.
On the other hand, perhaps because use of herbs is not so widespread, or because whole herbs have much more complex chemical structures than antibiotics, the bacteria have not developed resistance to herbs. I have yet to encounter a bladder infection I have not been able to cure with herbal medicine.
2. Antibiotics cause nasty side-effects. Vaginal yeast infections are one. Bloating and diarrhea are another. Antibiotics kill the healthy bacteria that live in the vagina and digestive tract, leading to overgrowth of yeast. Herbs do not have that effect. In fact, many of the herbs used for bacterial infections are also anti-fungal, are used for yeast infections, too, and aid vaginal and digestive health.
3. Repeated use of antibiotics for common infections (bladder, ear, sinus, throat, lung) can lead to systemic yeast infection, or Candida.
This can have widespread implications for general health. Symptoms range from chronic fatigue and difficulty concentrating, to sugar craving, bloating, and chronic digestive disorders.
4. Herbal medicines for bladder infections are good for you! Not only are they without side effects, but they strengthen the immune system. Herbs like Astragalus and Reishi Mushroom have been scientifically demonstrated to boost the immune system. Other herbs like Phellodendren and Goldenseal clear heat toxins from the blood. Other herbs, like Trifala improve the quality of the tissues lining the bladder.
5. Women with recurrent bladder infections often have weakened immune system function. Western Medicine fails to address this fact. See the case of Mary, below.
6. Herbal medicine treats the whole person. Is this just some kind of "new age" rhetoric? No. Why not? Lets look at the below cases of two different women, both with recurrent UTI.
Sally: Strong, Hot, Excess or "Replete" Type
19 years old
Frequent bladder and yeast infections
very strong appetite
high energy level
red tongue with a greasy yellow coating
Mary: Weak, Cold, Deficient or "Vacuity" Type
Mary, a thin 40 year old
Frequent bladder infections, no yeast infections
chronic allergies with watery nose
intermittent to weak appetite, underweight
chronic loose stools
chronic insomnia and anxiety
pale tongue with very thin white coat
Both Sally and Mary have frequent bladder infections. But it is clear from their associated symptoms that Sally, on the one had, has an over-accumulation of dampness and heat (greasy tongue coat, yeast infections, red tongue, ruddy complexion, acne), is strong (loud voice, strong appetite, sleeps and eats well) and suffers from impaired elimination(chronic constipation).
Sally has "too much of the wrong thing in the wrong place," i.e., damp heat and stagnation of qi. To treat Sally successfully we must "unclog" her system of these "toxins" that make her susceptible to bacterial and yeast overgrowth.
It is unlikely Sally's immune system is weak, per se; more likely her body with its heat and damp accumulation is a wonderful field for very strong strains of bacteria to grow in, like a petrie dish full of sugar under a heat lamp. But if nothing is done, she will, in fact, end up being weak later in life as an effect of recurrent infection.
In Sally's case the treatment principle will be to start by strongly clearing damp heat. Because she is young and strong we can give her forceful herb prescriptions that treat bladder infections, like Long Dan Xie Gan Tang Gentiana Decoction to Clear Toxins, or Ba Zheng San Eight Miracles Powder.
Because of the chronic yeast infections we might need to follow that with Phellostatin, or Neem, to kill off the yeast hibernating in her gut.
We don’t have to worry about strengthening Sally; once we clear away the toxins from her body, her body will strengthen itself. But we will have to make sure her body, which is plump, is processing fluids well enough, and that her diet is appropriate to her constitution. Sally needs to eat lots of cleansing vegetables, and less dairy, wheat, meat, sugar, alcoholic drinks, and shellfish, ergo, foods and drinks that produce excessive moisture and heat.
If Sally takes Antibiotic drugs alone, she may temporarily get rid of the infection, but she will make her yeast issues worse. And the bladder infections will keep coming back, as the systemic damp heat that is the ground the bacteria grows in will not be addressed.
In addition to putting Sally on a cleansing diet, I would recommend a Pro biotic formula to restore the healthy bacteria in her gut that have been killed off by antibiotics, coffee, stress, etc. It will help with the constipation and the yeast infections and is a foundation point for anyone's overall health.
See http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/benefits-yogurt for more info on Pro biotics. As to a Yogurt with a broad spectrum of pro biotic bacteria, I recommend Lifeway Brand Unsweetened Kefir. If you need to sweeten it, add some fruit or honey, which will be much less sugar than the pre-sweetened types. There are also excellent vegan soy "yogurt" products, and one can also get good bacteria from fermented vegetables like Kim Chi or raw sauerkraut.
Mary, on the other hand, is clearly in a weakened state: she has a weak voice, pale complexion and tongue, is underweight and anxious. She does not even have the digestive fortitude to produce a well formed stool. We can tell from the white tongue coat, and watery allergies that she is a cold type, and the frequent bladder infections in this context suggest a weakness of the immune system.
While we must kill the bacteria causing Mary's bladder infections with anti-biotic herbs, we must also address her immune weakness and overall deficient state. We must get her to the point where she is eating, digesting, and sleeping well, so that her body can restore itself to a healthy state in which her immune system is able to fight off infection better.
For her, too, a Probiotic formula is integral, as it is these healthy bacteria that crowd out the unhealthy ones. But her herbal remedy will be different; her system is weak; so she needs a gentle prescription, called Si Miao Wan Damp Heat Cleanser. This is will kill bacteria overgrowth, while at the same time strengthening the immune and digestive system.
I would also give Mary some medicinal mushrooms like Ling Zhi Reishi, and Astragalus Root, to boost her immune system and calm her anxious mind. I might have her start this as soon as her infection improves, and even possibly with the damp heat clearing herbals.
Sleep has enormous restorative value. In Mary's case I would use acupuncture to calm the mind and restore sleep. After her infection is gone, I would give her herbs to help with that and with her weak appetite. Diet would also be key.
Mary would benefit by warm, cooked food, with gentle spices like ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, black and white pepper, cinnamon, clove, fennel, and fenugreek, to stimulate her appetite and promote good digestion. There are many digestive herbal formulas to choose from that I might give her, including Trifal or Trikatu from Ayurveda.
7. Additional Natural Medicine for Bladder Infections
First and foremost, when you have cystitis, push fluids. Drink water until you are sick of it. That acts to mechanicallyflush the bacteria out of the urinary tract, and dilute its concentration in the urine.
Second, I like to use Cranactin brand extra stregnth Cranberry extract with Uva Ursi.
Cranberriess contain a chemical that makes it hard for bacteria to adhere to the lining of the bladder. But sugar feeds bacteria, so don't waste your time drinking sugary cranberry juice, and unsweetened cranberry juice is really unpalatable. If you can take it, Mazel Tov!
And Uva ursi is a second herbal that is useful for bladder infection. Cranactin Extra Strength has these two, and also Goldenseal, a potent antibacterial.
Third, avoid all spicy food during an infection. Spicy food seems to aggravate the delicate mucosa that are already irritated by the bacterial overgrowth.
8. If you do decide to take antibiotics…
If you are in Antartica, and there are no Chinese herbs around, please be aware, that according to the standards of Western medicine
"prolonged courses of antibiotics (more than 5 days) are usually unnecessary,
and associated with increased side effects and higher cost."
Canadian Urological Association Website
9. Is it a bladder infection or a vaginal infection?
The typical experience of a bladder infection is the SUDDEN onset of frequent, painful and urgent urination. The urine is often cloudy and foul smelling. Low back or abdominal pain may be present. Symptoms may range from very mild to severe.
Vaginal infections, on the other hand, whether bacterial or yeast, involve vaginal redness, itching, discharge, or discomfort with sex.
Anyone with frequent symptoms of bladder infection should also consider the possibility of interstitial cystitis,
a chronic inflammation of the bladder's interstices. Interstitial cystitis from the western standpoint is not yet well understood, and there seems even to be several different types involving different tissue. The commonality seems to be inflammation.
Its my opinion that like most chronic inflammatory diseases, I.C. involves the accumulation of depressed Liver Qi that causes stagnation, heat and dampness in the deep tissues of the body. For various reasons some people are more susceptible to this accumulation in the bladder, others, like folk with fibromyalgia, in the muscles. But the underlying mechanism is the same. Treatment is of course adjusted to whichever tissues or areas in the body are affected.
Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diego