Urinary problems can affect anyone, at any age. From painful urination and cystitis, to conditions affecting the prostate, the consequences of poor urinary health can be serious, and may even extend to kidney failure.
Plants with scientifically-recognised effects can help prevent and reduce complications associated with the various disorders in question.
Cranberry is particularly good for those who suffer from repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs occur when external bacteria succeed in colonising the urinary tract. They can affect different parts of the system: the kidneys, bladder, and tubes (the ureters – between the kidneys and bladder, and the urethra, which conveys urine from the bladder to the outside). Women are more susceptible to UTIs, primarily because the female urethra is shorter and bacteria don’t have so far to travel in order to colonise the tract.
Cranberry juice has been studied for many years for its effects in fighting UTIs (1). Cranberry’s beneficial molecules include proanthocyanidins, antioxidant polyphenols which prevent bacteria from clinging to urinary tube walls. They are supported by specific polysaccharides called arabinoxyloglucans (2). Cranberry’s active compounds are also recognised for their ability to reduce the risk of recurrence when you’ve already suffered one or more episodes of cystitis.
In practice: drink 250-500ml of cranberry juice a day, or alternatively, an equivalent dose in capsule form (the gold-standard is Cran-Max®) should be enough to prevent recurrent UTIs. Cranberry also offers the advantage of not being contraindicated for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Willowherb, also known as fireweed or epilobium angustifolium, is an herbaceous plant with small pink flowers, recommended more for men, especially those suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia (an enlarged prostate). Very common among men over 60, this condition is characterised by an increase in volume of the prostate gland, due to abnormal, non-cancerous cell proliferation. When the prostate becomes too large, it makes passing urine difficult and results in the frequent urge to urinate, as well as problems with urine flow and painful micturition.
How does willowherb work? It contains oenothein, a polyphenol which inhibits two of the enzymes responsible for prostate cell proliferation (3). Willowherb thus helps ‘deflate’ the prostate. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, and thus alleviates prostatitis, a disorder that can aggravate benign prostate hyperplasia (4).
In practice: willowherb can be consumed once or twice a day in the form of a tea made from the aerial parts of the plant, infused in water for 10 minutes.
Orthosiphon, also known as Java tea, is a plant that features in traditional Indian and Indonesian medicine. It is known for its diuretic properties: it boosts kidney function and urine volume, helping to accelerate elimination of the bacteria which cause urinary infections. Orthosiphon’s diuretic effect also helps to restrict the formation of kidney stones in those susceptible to them (5).
In practice: Java tea can be drunk as an infusion made from the dried leaves or taken in capsule form. Note, however, that orthosiphon is not recommended for people with diagnosed kidney disease, those who suffer from water retention or anyone under 18 years of age. Seek advice from your pharmacist before taking orthosiphon for therapeutic purposes.
This small red-berried shrub contains a sugar called arbutin which is converted by gut bacteria into hydroquinone. This compound has powerful anti-bacterial properties at a urinary level, directly combatting four pathogens involved in cystitis, and is an interesting alternative to antibiotics when medically supervised (6).
In practice: you can either drink three to four cups of bearberry leaf tea a day or take it as a supplement in the form of capsules. Note, however, that hydroquinone is toxic in the long term and should not be used for more than a few weeks. It should not be taken by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or those under 12 years of age, even for short periods.
Everyone can benefit from greater urinary comfort by consuming this vegetable oil. In men, it helps combat benign prostatic hyperplasia and its characteristic cell proliferation and inflammation, as well as improving micturition-related symptoms (7). For both men and women, it offers anti-bacterial effects against strains active in the urinary tract. It also helps to control a hyperactive bladder which manifests in the frequent and urgent need to urinate, including during the night (8). Lastly, pumpkin seed oil has diuretic effects which increase urine volume and reduce the chances of bacteria stagnating in this area (9).
In practice: pumpkin seed oil should be consumed in its raw form and is well tolerated by the body. It is available bottled, for including in your daily diet, but can also be found in the form of dietary supplements: Pumpkin Seed Oil 500 mg, enriched with vitamin E.
Good hygiene, adequate hydration and phytotherapy can all help prevent the discomfort of urinary disorders. However, if problems persist, or you are in any way worried that your symptoms are serious, or are unsure of which treatment to use, be sure to consult your GP.