Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are very common, especially in women. In fact, 50 times more women than men have UTIs. And about half of UK women will have at least one urinary tract infection in their lifetime. Here I discuss five traditional herbal remedies for urethritis and UTIs.
Symptoms of a urinary tract infection
The most common symptom of a urinary tract infection is a burning sensation during urination. It is also common to have more urgent and frequent urination. In some cases, the frequent need to urinate can result in urinary incontinence. These acute UTI symptoms occur because harmful bacteria infect and irritate the urethra causing inflammation. An infection of the urethra is called urethritis.
A course of prescription antibiotics can help to clear up a bacterial infection. But, the harmful bacteria that cause a UTI are becoming resistant to antibiotics. So, a UTI may not clear up completely and can result in a recurrent urinary tract infection.
So, more people are turning to alternatives such as herbal remedies for UTIs. In my practice, I have seen many a case of uncomplicated UTI clear up with herbal medicine treatment. Especially when a herbal remedy is taken at the first sign of an infection.
How do bacteria cause UTI?
By far the most common bacteria causing a UTI is Escherichia coli (E coli). It causes around 80% of cases in adults.
Bacteria migrate from the gut, colonise the urethra and multiply. They can travel further up the urinary tract and into the bladder causing a bladder infection. Bladder infections are known as cystitis. Fever or chills may indicate the infection has reached the kidneys. A kidney infection is a serious complication and needs medical attention.
The bacteria adhere to the cells lining the urinary tract. A small number of bacteria may also invade the urinary tract lining. There they can form bacterial communities or biofilms. As a result the urinary tract lining cells often die and are shed. In other words, the bacteria damage the otherwise glassy smooth urinary tract walls. This allows more bacteria to stick to, and invade deeper layers of the lining. Making recurrent infection more likely.
To prevent recurring infection, your doctor may suggest long term, low dose antibiotics. But this encourages resistance to develop. Not to mention the havoc that taking permanent antibiotics causes in the gut.
Bacteria buried deep in the urinary tract lining can form a biofilm. A biofilm protects colonies of bacteria from substances that might otherwise kill them, such as antibiotics.
So, if antibiotics are not the answer, you might be wondering how a natural remedy can help. In fact, there are several medicinal herbs with a tradition of use for uncomplicated infections of the urinary tract.
Just be aware that these remedies are not suitable during pregnancy or severe kidney disease. I do not recommend using herbs for kidney infection.
Herbal remedies for urethritis and uti
Cranberries and cranberry juice
Of these herbs for UTI, cranberries are perhaps the most widely known. The cranberry has been used for treatment and for UTI prevention for decades. Hence, there is a lot of research on this topic.
Perhaps surprisingly, the studies show that cranberry may not kill or even prevent the growth of bacteria. Yet, it is an effective UTI treatment because it prevents the bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract walls. This alone can sometimes be enough to help flush out the bacteria from the urinary system. Thus, resolving infection. What’s more, drinking cranberry juice daily is a proven way to prevent a recurrent UTI.
Furthermore, using other herbs alongside cranberry or unsweetened cranberry juice can improve the effectiveness of the UTI treatment. For instance, we can use antibacterial herbs to kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. And, there are several urinary antiseptic herbs that are effective against E coli. bacteria.
This study of cranberry products for preventing UTI suggested a 30-40% decrease in recurring urinary tract infection. The study was unable to provide a conclusive dosage but a small glass of unsweetened cranberry juice per day could be tried.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is perhaps my first choice for a urinary infection. It is a mild but effective urinary antiseptic. Juniper is also a diuretic herb so it helps to flush out the urinary tract. It is also anti-inflammatory. But, even though Juniper is a traditional herb for a UTI 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. This also includes a history of kidney disease.
Usually, we use juniper berries for medicine. 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 herbalist, I have found this to be a fast and effective treatment method.
Another urinary herb with antiseptic properties 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 it is best to limit the use of bearberry. Use bearberry for no more than two weeks at a time. I prefer an infusion of the leaves. Drinking more fluid means there is a greater volume of urine. So a greater fluid intake helps to flush out bacteria from the urethra.
A study found that a combination product including bearberry was a useful therapy for reducing UTI during menopause.
There has been a lot of research on the alkaloid berberine, a constituent of several herbs. These include goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and barberry (Berberis vulgaris). Research shows berberine is able to prevent the adhesion of bacteria to the urinary tract.
Perhaps more importantly, berberine containing herbs have a tradition of use for gut infections. Since bacteria that cause many UTIs migrate from the gut, activity against certain gut bacteria can have a direct effect on UTI infections.
Berberine is not very water-soluble so a 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 it’s nice to know that it can also be helpful. The root of this grass is a mild diuretic herb, so it helps to flush the urinary system. It is also anti-inflammatory and so soothes the irritated and inflamed urinary tract. This herbal remedy can be used as a tincture or as a tea.
Combine your herbal remedies
Though antibiotics might be effective for clearing acute urinary tract infections. For the reasons I explained earlier, these infections often recur. Over the longer term, low dose antibiotic use encourages antibiotic resistance. It also destroys the gut microflora.
On the other hand, herbal remedies offer a valuable alternative. This is supported by a long tradition of use and now by a small number of clinical trials. Herbs can help, not only by killing bacteria but also by helping the body to remove the bacteria. Herbal remedies also reduce inflammation and soothe and heal the urinary tract so that a recurrence of the infection is less likely.
Combining two or more remedies helps because the infection is dealt with in several ways, rather than just one. You don’t need to mix the remedies together, If you take two or more remedies on the same day then you will get the benefit of both. For example, you could have cranberry juice at breakfast and drink up to three cups of couch grass tea throughout the day. Followed by a few drops of juniper tincture in water at bedtime.
Painful urination should begin to resolve within a few hours with herbal remedies. Of course, if symptoms fail to improve, or become worse, you should see your primary care provider for advice.