Count yourself lucky if you’ve never had urinary tract infection or UTI in your life. On the pain scale, I’d personally give it a 6 or 7, but on the annoyance scale, I’d definitely give it a 10! Going to the bathroom every 10 minutes to pee only a few drops each time is the most annoying thing ever. Now, antibiotics can get rid of a UTI fairly quickly, but it’s got a number of downsides, too. Today, you’ll learn why probiotics for UTI is a much better, more natural treatment option.
What’s a UTI anyway?
For those that haven’t had UTI before (or weren’t aware you had it), here’s a primer to get you up to speed. Basically, UTI’s are bacterial infections that can occur at any point of the urinary tract – from the urethra, bladder, ureter, and all the way up to the kidneys.
Infections at any of these urinary system components go by different names:
- Urethritis – infection in the urethra
- Cystitis – infection in the bladder
- Pyelonephritis – infection in the kidney, or very rarely, the ureter (the tube which carries urine from the kidney to the bladder)
These different infections become more serious as bacteria goes from the urethra to the kidney. It’s very important to treat it right away to prevent it from progressing. Currently, antibiotics are commonly used to treat these infections. But later on, you’ll learn why probiotics for UTI are a much better alternative.
Now that you know what UTI’s are, here’s a not-so-fun fact (especially if you’re a woman):
With the way the female anatomy is designed, women literally get the short end of the stick. What I mean by that is, the female urethra is shorter than male ones, so women are naturally more prone to UTI’s than guys.
That being said, over 50% of women get a UTI in their lifetime, and for 25% of them, the infection reoccurs and significantly impacts their quality of life (1, 2). Of course, UTI’s can also affect men (even with their longer urethras), but the infection rate is 50 times less common than in women.
Common UTI symptoms
Whether or not you belong to the fairer sex, it’s important to know what to look for to find out if you have an infection. The last thing you want is for a relatively mild urethritis or cystitis to escalate to a potentially life-threatening infection – all because you ignored these common UTI symptoms below!
- Dysuria – pain when urinating
- Frequent or urgent need to urinate (of often tiny amounts)
- Nocturia – frequently needing to go at night
- Abnormal urine color usually with a strong smell
- Hematuria or pyuria– blood or pus in the urine
- Lower back or abdominal pain
These symptoms are unpleasant, but they are not considered serious. However, if the infection does spread to the kidneys (pyelonephritis), it can potentially cause kidney damage or even death. So, get yourself checked out if you do experience these symptoms.
What causes UTI’s?
Have you heard of the phenomenon known as ‘honeymoon cystitis’? This frequently occurs amongst new brides right after they come back from their honeymoons. And you know what’s the most common culprit?
No, it’s not their grooms (not technically anyways) … but the bacteria called Escherichia coli (or E. coli for short). Yes, it’s that bacteria that infamously lives in our colon (that’s our backsides).
Most cases of UTI’s (around 80%) are caused by E. coli (5-7). But sometimes in women, the bacteria can also be transferred from the vagina (1-4).
E. coli lives naturally in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, a.k.a. the gut, although only in small numbers (2). However, when the growth levels of E. coli increase beyond what’s normal, and they get off balance with the good bacteria, it can start to cause problems for us (8).
Here’s a graphic illustrating how E. coli can cause UTI’s:
E. coli have special finger-like projections called fimbriae, which are sticky and made of a glycoprotein called lectin. Lectin allows the fimbriae to stick to the cell walls of our urinary tract (9). The ends of the fimbriae have sticky proteins called adhesins that stick to receptors on the cells lining the urinary tract.
Although the urinary system is designed to keep out such microscopic invaders, these defenses sometimes fail. If enough E. coli gets into the urinary tracts and stick to the cells, they can multiply and colonize there, which causes an infection.
The problem with current UTI treatment options
The standard treatment for a UTI is a course of antibiotics, and it’s been this way for many years. Antibiotics can still effectively treat uncomplicated UTI’s, but here’s the alarming truth:
- The occurrence of bacteria that are causing UTI infection and are also resistant to antibiotics are growing (10).
- And perhaps more worryingly, even when antibiotics do cure the infection, it can negatively impact other aspects of our health.
The main issue here is that antibiotics don’t just kill UTI-causing bacteria like E. coli, it also kills off beneficial bacteria in our gut. Then, as the bacterial populations regrow after a course of antibiotics is over, it can cause ‘dysbiosis’.
Dysbiosis is an overgrowth of potentially pathogenic bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. This can directly lead to fungal infections like thrush (both oral and vaginal), candida overgrowth, and other GI infections, most notably Clostridium difficile (11).
However, dysbiosis has also been linked with many other health conditions. These include skin problems, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, immune conditions, and obesity (12).
With such a long list of possible side effects, would you still be willing to use antibiotics to treat a urinary infection? I wouldn’t blame you if say no. So, let’s find out in the next section if probiotics for UTI is indeed the best natural alternative to antibiotics!
How to treat UTI’s without antibiotics?
So, because of the problems with antibiotic treatment and the increase of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, this form of treatment is becoming less and less effective. Going forward, UTI prevention is a significant treatment goal, especially for people who suffer from recurrent infections (13).
Now, there are 3 major areas we can focus on to help prevent – and treat – UTI’s.
1st Step: Take care of your hygiene to prevent UTI’s
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Follow these basic hygiene rules to stop bacteria from the colon or vagina from reaching the urethra.
- Urinate when you feel the need to go, and don’t resist the urge.
- Wipe from front to back in the bathroom, so you are preventing bacteria from entering your urethra.
- Take showers instead of tub baths, and avoid hot tubs/Jacuzzis.
- If you can, cleanse your genital area before and after having sexual intercourse, and try to urinate as well.
- Avoid using feminine hygiene sprays, which may irritate your urethra.
- Also avoid vaginal douching as this can damage the microbial balance in the vagina. Doing so can lead to an increase in pathogenic bacteria that could be transferred to the urethra. Moreover, it can also increase the chance of vaginal yeast and bacterial infections.
2nd Step: Take probiotics for UTI prevention
Probiotics (a.k.a. good bacteria) help keep the gut healthy. It restores normal gut bacterial balance, and ensures E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria are under control. But where exactly can you find probiotics?
Well, fermented foods naturally contain probiotics. A few examples are yogurt, pickles, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, some kinds of cheese, and sourdough bread. These are all delicious foods, but when it comes to UTI prevention, there’s a better option – probiotic capsules!
Studies show that probiotic capsules taken orally can change not just the bacterial balance in the gut, but also in the vagina. This is obviously great news for all the women out there!
Now, the thing is there is a close correlation between a change in the normal microbiota (i.e. bacterial balance) in the vagina and an increased likelihood of developing a UTI (14). And since the vagina’s microbiome is predominantly made up of Lactobacillus strains, it’s therefore not all that surprising that Lactobacillus probiotic capsules (taken orally) can replenish the vaginal microbiome (15, 16).
Here are some notable findings:
In Finland, a study showed that drinking kefir (fermented milk containing probiotics) 3 times a week reduced UTI’s (17).
Another study tested probiotic supplements against antibiotics for a year in a group of women who suffered from recurrent UTI’s. They found that in women who were given antibiotics for a year, the average number of UTIs went down from 7 to 2.9. For women given probiotics, the average number went down from 6.8 to 3.3 (18).
The difference may not look all that significant, but here’s the thing:
In women with ‘complicated UTI’s’* the probiotic group did better, experiencing only 3.4 recurrences as opposed to 4.4 in women taking antibiotics.
*Complicated UTIs were defined as UTIs in women with functional or structural abnormalities of the urinary tract, metabolic and/or hormonal abnormalities, or impaired host responses.
Also, rather disturbingly, the women taking antibiotics increased the amount of antibiotic-resistant E. coli that they carried to between 80% and 95% of the total amount. In contrast, the probiotic group experienced no increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
3rd Step: Take cranberry juice and D-mannose powder
So we’ve already seen that supplementing with probiotics for UTI is virtually as effective as antibiotics for preventing infections. And probiotics can reduce them by over 50% with none of the dangerous side effects of antibiotics.
With proper hygiene practices, we can reduce this even more, but what if we took it to another level? We can do this by also supplementing with cranberry juice and D-mannose.
Cranberry juice has long been used as a home remedy to treat UTI’s. It was initially believed that cranberries somehow made the urine more acidic, which made it difficult for infectious bacteria to grow there (19).
However, we now understand that cranberry juice works because it contains 2 compounds that stop the E. coli bacteria from being able to stick to the cells lining the urinary tract (known as uroepithelial cells) (20).
These are the 2 compounds found in cranberry juice:
- D-mannose – it’s a naturally occurring sugar known as mannose sensitive
- Proanthocyanidin (or PAC for short) – a condensed tannin that is mannose resistant
Here’s an illustration on the mechanism of D-mannose against UTI-causing bacteria:
As seen in the first image above, there are finger-like projections that come from the E. coli bacteria called fimbriae that the E. coli use to stick onto the cells on the walls of the urinary tract. They use the small sticky adhesi