From time to time, certain diseases become “popular” among my patients. A few months ago, several patients came to my clinic about sore knees. Soon after, several came in with toenail fungus, then athlete’s foot. Last week, the “star” condition was bladder infection.
Elizabeth, a woman in her late twenties, was one of the afflicted. She walked gingerly into the treatment room and began to describe her symptoms: painful and frequent urination, pressure in the lower pelvic region, and the feeling that she needed to urinate even when her bladder was nearly empty. She was particularly upset because she was training for a running event scheduled the following week.
“You can’t believe what it’s like running on pavement with a bladder infection until you’ve tried it,” Elizabeth said.
She considered taking antibiotics until she saw several newspaper articles about “superbugs,” bacteria that even modern antibiotics can’t touch, possibly because of the overuse of antibiotics during the last twenty-five years. She also read about research showing that some symptoms last longer when treated with antibiotics. But her friend Helen had just gotten over a bladder infection with the help of herbs, so Elizabeth decided to try them herself. I assured her that herbs, along with dietary and lifestyle adjustments, could quickly bring her infection under control.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), two types of body conditions, or conformations, commonly cause bladder infections—the “weak” conformation and the “excess” conformation. In other words, bladder infections occur in two types of people: those who are weak and run down and those who, in spite of being robust, have accumulated excessive toxic wastes and dampness and whose systems are overstimulated. The two types are treated in different ways, but a few herbs, including marshmallow root, a urinary tract soother, and usnea, an antibiotic herb, can be used for both types of people.
When I examined Elizabeth, her pulse was fast and weak and her tongue had no coating on it, indicating a weak adrenal system because of stress, overwork, and overstimulation of her nervous system with coffee and sugar.
I made her an herbal tea formula consisting of marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) to soothe the bladder; licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) to bring down the inflammation; and Oregon graperoot (Mahonia aquifolium) and pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) to disinfect the urinary tract. I told her to simmer one teaspoon each of marshmallow root, licorice root, and Oregon graperoot in six cups of water for fifteen minutes, then turn off the heat; next, add three teaspoons dried pipsissewa leaf, allow the mixture to steep for fifteen more minutes, and drink three or four cups of the warm tea daily.
I also gave her tinctures of two strong infection-fighters—echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and usnea (Usnea spp.)—and told her to add two droppersful of each tincture to her tea three times daily. In addition, I encouraged her to drink unsweetened cranberry juice or take cranberry capsules for at least one month to help prevent a recurrence. Cranberry increases acidity and discourages bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall and proliferating as they pass through the urinary tract.
Finally, I gave her a Chinese patent medicine called Chih Pai Di Huang Wan (also Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan) often available in natural food and herb stores. This formula strengthens kidney/adrenal function and improves immunity; it contains rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa), Japanese dogwood berry (Cornus officinalis), Chinese yam (Dioscorea opposita), alisma or water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), white peony (Paeonia lactiflora), hoelen (Poria cocos), phellodendron bark (Phellodendron amurense), and anemarrhena bark (Anemarrhena asphodeloides).
I explained to Elizabeth the importance of taking these remedies regularly. Prolonged or recurrent bladder infections can lead to serious kidney problems that often occur without any noticeable warning signs. Make sure to see your doctor if you do have persistent or recurring bladder infections. I recommend considering antibiotics only when the infection persists after a ten- to fourteen-day natural program, or if you suspect a kidney infection.
Note: If you do take antibiotics, follow up with two weeks on a natural program to increase your resistance and improve your bladder health. The program I recommended to Elizabeth is below.
Because Elizabeth’s bladder infection came from a fundamental deficiency or weakness of several important systems in her body, I encouraged her to get plenty of high-quality protein such as rice and beans, fish, and chicken. I also suggested soothing foods such as barley, flaxseed, and okra, and that she avoid spicy foods, cold foods, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, all of which may exacerbate symptoms and lengthen the duration of infection.
I told her to avoid hot tubs, chlorinated swimming pools, scented toilet tissue, and bubble baths. And I explained to her the importance of vigorous exercise and saunas to help her body eliminate toxic wastes. Bladder infections are often caused by improper genital hygiene; using tea tree oil soap when showering helps disrupt bacterial growth.
Excessive stress is another factor that commonly leads to urinary tract infections, so I encouraged her to take breaks from work whenever possible and regular walks on the beach, in the woods, or anywhere she found relaxing.
When I saw Elizabeth a week after our consultation, she told me that her symptoms had disappeared within two days, which was a big relief. She could also run without pain.
“This is good!” she said. “Having a healthy bladder again has definitely put a spring back into my step.”
I encouraged her to continue taking the cranberry supplement and have a nice cup of a bladder tonic tea, such as nettle (Urtica diocia), goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea), or horsetail (Equisetum arvense) three or four times a week for a few weeks.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of St. John’s wort: The Mood Enhancing Herb, (Botanica, 1997), Stress and Natural Healing, (Botanica, 1997), and many other books.
“Case studies from an herbalist’s notebook” are not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.