Urinary tract infections are very common, especially in women. In fact women are 50 times more likely than men to be affected. And about half of UK women will have at least one urinary tract infection (UTI) in their lifetime. Symptoms include a burning pain on urination. More urgent and frequent urination is also common.
Whilst antibiotics can help to clear up an infection. The bacteria that cause UTIs are becoming resistant. So more people are turning to alternatives such as herbal remedies.
By far the most common bacteria causing these infections is Escherichia coli (E coli). It causes around 80% of cases in adults.
The bacteria migrate from the gut, colonise the urethra and multiply. They can travel further up the urinary tract and into the bladder. They might even reach the kidneys. A fever or chills may indicate the infection has reached the kidneys.
They adhere to the cells lining the tract. A small number of bacteria may invade the cells. Once inside cells they form bacterial communities. As a result these infected cells often die and are shed. But, when the cells die their contents may be released. This allows the bacteria to invade deeper layers of cells. Damaging the otherwise glassy smooth urinary tract walls. Making recurrent infection more likely as it easier for bacteria to adhere.
To prevent recurring infection, your doctor may suggest long term, low dose antibiotics. But this encourages resistance to develop. Not to mention the havoc this causes in the gut.
So are there any herbal alternatives? In fact there are several for uncomplicated infections of the urinary tract. Though they are not suitable in pregnancy or severe kidney disease. Of these herbs, cranberries are perhaps the most widely known. Cranberries have been used to treat and prevent UTIs for decades. Hence, there is a lot of research on this topic.
Studies show that cranberry may not kill or even prevent the growth of bacteria. Yet it is effective because it prevents the bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract. Alone this can sometimes be enough to help flush out the bacteria from the urinary tract. Thus, preventing or resolving infection.
Using other herbs alongside cranberry can improve the outcome of the treatment. We can use antibacterial herbs to kill or prevent the growth of the bacteria. There are several herbs that are effective against E coli.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is perhaps my first choice. It is a mild but effective urinary antiseptic. It is also a diuretic herb so it helps to flush out the urinary tract. It is also anti-inflammatory. Though it has traditionally been used for UTIs it should not be used during pregnancy. It also should not be taken for longer than 6 weeks at a time. Juniper irritates the kidneys so should not be used if someone has kidney disease. Usually it is the berries that are used medicinally. But other parts of the plant, such as the needles are also antiseptic. The berries can be taken as a tincture or even eaten whole. The herbalist Stephen Buhner recommends between 1 and 5 whole berries per day. And, in my experience as a clinician I have found this to be a fast and effective treatment.
Another urinary antiseptic herb is Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). This herb forms the antibacterial compound hydroquinone within the urinary system. Though this reaction depends on the urine being alkaline. Once again use of bearberry should be limited. Use bearberry for no more than two weeks at a time. An infusion of the leaves is the preferred method as a greater fluid intake helps to flush out bacteria.
The alkaloid berberine is a much researched constituent of several herbs. These include goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and barberry (Berberis vulgaris). Research shows berberine is able to prevent adhesion of bacteria to the urinary tract. Also, berberine containing herbs are traditionally used for gut infections. Since bacteria that cause many UTIs migrate from the gut this can have a direct effect on UTI infections. Berberine is not very water soluble so tincture of the herb is the best form.
The last herb I want to talk about is couch grass (Elymus repens). This is a common, invasive, grassy weed. So its nice to know that it can be used for something useful. The root of this grass is a mild diuretic herb, so it helps to flush the system. It is also anti-inflammatory and so soothes the irritated urinary tract. This herb can be used as a tincture or as a tea.
Though antibiotics might be effective for clearing urinary tract infections. These infections often recur. Long term, low dose antibiotics encourages antibiotic resistance. It also destroys the gut microflora. Herbal remedies offer a valuable alternative. Not only killing and helping the body to remove the the bacteria. But also reducing inflammation, soothing and healing so that a recurrence is less likely.