On Monday my post was on the kidneys and how they function. I also looked at one of the most painful conditions… Kidney stones. Today I want to continue with the urinary tract as problems with kidney function have a direct impact on the health of this essential waste pathway out of the body.
The Urinary Tract
I covered the main function of the kidneys in the previous article. The waste products and other contents of the urine flow through ureters, one in each kidney, and into the bladder, where it is stored until there is an urge to get rid of it.
When you urinate, muscles in the bladder wall help push the urine out of the bladder, through the urethra and out of the body. In between urinating the sphincter, another muscle, keeps the urethra closed to prevent the urine from flowing constantly.
Normally your urine is sterile without any bacterial contamination. However, the mix of minerals, sugars and warmth make it a perfect environment to nourish and grow bacteria which is where the urinary tract infections come in.
Our defence systems are very refined and normally bacteria are prevented from getting into the urine in a number of ways. When the sphincter is in the closed position, bacteria are unable to gain entry to the bladder. The urethra in both men and women is quite long and difficult for bacteria to negotiate, but a woman’s is shorter which is why urinary tract infections are more common in women.
Also, every time you urinate you are flushing out the urethra as well as emptying the bladder completely. There are valves that prevent any urine from back washing into the kidneys so even if the bladder and urethra are infected, the bacteria should not be able to gain access to the kidneys.
With such good defences why do we get urinary tract infections?
The most common way to get a urinary tract infection is by bacterial contamination from our stools. For example, babies who wear nappies are exposed to bacteria that can enter the body and contaminate the urethra. Young babies and children have very immature immune systems and it does not take long for the bacteria to infect the soft tissue. As we potty-train babies, it is the girls that are more likely to become infected unless they are trained at a very early age to wipe front to back, so preventing any bacteria from reaching the vagina.
As we get older and become more sexually active, bacteria can be pushed into the vagina and in unprotected sex this can affect both males and females. Urinating after sex does help but careful hygiene is always critical, although not necessarily adhered to in young adults.
An important thing to remember about the bladder is that it is very elastic. It is not a good idea to go all day without emptying it as it will stretch and sag around the entrance to the urethra. This causes urine to collect and is a breeding ground for bacteria and also an ideal environment for stones to collect. If the problem is not rectified it may result in having to use catheters to empty the bladder, which is both inconvenient and can lead to further infections.
Are there different infections of the urinary tract?
Each separate part of the urinary tract can become infected and if left untreated can eventually affect the kidneys.
Cystitis is the infection that most women are more familiar with. It is an infection of the bladder and the most common form of infection is by bacterial contamination. There are cases where use of perfumed personal deodorants, soaps and creams have caused problems but it is more likely to be an infection that has moved up the urethra, through the sphincter and into the bladder. Because this is such a common condition and one to be avoided as it is both painful and can lead to complications in the kidneys; I will cover in more detail in the next post next Tuesday.
One of the problems that can lead to bacteria gaining a hold in the bladder is the habit of holding onto urine rather than responding to the natural stimulus. Urinating is designed to empty waste products out of the body and despite being sterile; it only takes a very small amount of bacteria to gain access to this perfect environment to cause an infection.
One of the causes of this is the habit of not sitting down but crouching over public toilets because of the possibility of infection. Ironically, this very act causes the bladder to retain urine and increases the risk of infection.
Urethritis is an infection of the urethra and can be the result of poor hygiene allowing bacteria to infiltrate the urethra or can be the result of a sexually transmitted infection.
Ureteritis is an infection of one of the ureters and can be caused by bacteria that enter the kidneys in the blood stream or if the valves preventing back wash from the bladder are not working correctly.
Pyelonephritis is an actual kidney infection and can be caused, again, by infection in the bloodstream, or if an infection in the urine, from the bladder, has remained untreated.
What are the symptoms of a urinary tract infection?
Those of us who have suffered from cystitis will have no difficulty in recognising the initial symptoms. Characteristically there is a burning sensation during urination and this can be accompanied by a fever, low abdominal pain and discolouration of the urine.
Urethritis is usually indicated with burning right at the beginning of urination since the infection is closer to the exit.
If your kidneys have become infected then you are likely to suffer from pain just below your rib cage at the back. These would be accompanied by the above symptoms and additionally there may be blood in the urine.
It is very important that you recognise symptoms at an early stage and do something about them before complications set in. You do not want your kidneys to become infected as this can lead to scarring and damage to the filtering system. This will affect your general health, as waste products will build up and your kidneys can fail. This will lead to the need for dialysis to clean the blood artificially and will eventually require a kidney transplant.
As I mentioned in the article on the kidneys, they play an important role in maintaining correct blood pressure. If kidneys are sufficiently damaged this balance will be affected and could lead to dramatic drops in blood pressure – which could lead to fainting – or rises in pressure leading to strokes and heart attacks.
What is the normal conventional treatment for urinary tract infections?
If you are suffering from symptoms that could be any of the urinary tract infections you need to act as quickly as possible. Go to a doctor and take a sample with you so the bacteria can be identified. As analysis can take two or three days to accomplish, the doctor will usually prescribe a broad spectrum antibiotic immediately and change to a more specific type later if needed.
If there is a concern that the infection has taken a stronger hold and may have infected the other parts of the urinary tract such as the kidneys, other tests will be carried out and treatment prescribed.
In some cases an ultrasound scan will be done to determine if there are structural problems with the urethra or valves that could allow bacteria to gain entry to the bladder and the kidneys. If it is proved that there is a reflux action from the bladder to the kidneys surgery may be carried out to correct the fault.
Can diet help prevent occurrences of urinary tract infections?
As far as diet is concerned there are a couple of foods that have been shown to help prevent urinary tract infections and cranberries in particular are recognised as being effective.
Native American Indians have used herbal remedies for centuries and they used cranberries to treat urinary tract infections amongst other bacterial conditions. Modern research has revealed that cranberries, and their cousins, blueberries, have a component that protects soft tissue from bacterial infections.
Cranberries contain the highest quantity of proanthocyanidins (PACs) which inhibit the adhesion of bacteria to soft tissue. The most likely culprit of urinary tract infections is Escherichia Coli or E. Coli bacteria and the PACs prevent it from sticking to the surface of the urinary tract and reproducing leading to infection.
Research has shown that if you drink a glass of cranberry juice it will begin working effectively in two hours and the effects will last for 10 hours. This means that if you drink two glasses per day, one in the morning and one at about 8.00 at night you will achieve 24-hour protection.
It is important that you maintain the correct fluid levels and therefore drinking plenty of pure water is essential. This will pass through the kidneys and flush out any bacteria through the bladder and the urethra and out of the body.
Immune System function
It is important to boost your immune system with a diet that includes foods that have been shown to be anti-bacterial. – Such as onions, garlic and green tea. If you have a healthy, well-functioning immune system you will be less prone to be infected in the first place and your system will be more efficient is killing infections and getting rid of them through the waste disposal systems.
You will find the “Healthy Eating Plan for the Kidneys and Urinary Tract” helpful as it is designed to help minimise the risk of urinary tract infections and to maximise the health of your kidneys. I will post that on Saturday.
Here is the link to yesterday’s post on the kidneys which you might find useful to read as well.
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