Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are not just an annoying but relatively minor health problem. Each year, millions of cases of UTIs are diagnosed in the United States alone, costing patients more than $1 billion. Women especially are targets of this bacterial invasion: half of all women will suffer a UTI during her lifetime, with an 80 percent chance of recurrence.
Although antibiotics are the generally accepted method of treatment for UTIs, this approach has led to an unexpected and alarming result: the development of urinary pathogens that are increasingly resistant to prescription drugs. Unfortunately, this scenario is not confined to UTIs. Pharmaceutical companies are in a tight race to keep up with emerging antimicrobial resistance on all fronts ”“ viruses, bacteria, tuberculosis, and malaria ”“ the direct result of the tendency to prescribe drugs frequently, promiscuously and often ill advisedly for short term benefits.
Antibiotics: too much of a good thing?
Until recently, most conventional treatment for UTIs involved administering a prescribed dose of amoxicillin or cephalosporin. Unfortunately, neither drug is effective against more than 20 percent of E. coli-related UTIs, forcing physicians to substitute more expensive and often more dangerous drugs.
But even these heavy-duty alternatives have a 20 to 50 percent failure rate (United States and overseas, respectively), possibly due to inadequate to non-existent control of overall antibiotic usage. To compound the problem, antibiotics fed to livestock add to the pool of resistant organisms. Convincing evidence indicates that these organisms are then transferred to humans via ingestion of meat and poultry products, causing both gastrointestinal disease and urinary infections, which would then categorize the latter as a “food-borne illness.”
The issue of antibiotic overuse doesn”™t end there, however. A growing body of evidence suggests that antibiotic use may also increase the risk of breast cancer in women. The theory is that the healthy level of intestinal flora is decreased by the use of systemic antibiotics. This impairs the body”™s ability to metabolize those phytochemicals in foods that are useful in preventing hormone related malignancies ”“ a hypothesis of interest to those involved with complementary and alternative medicine
Nevertheless, antibiotics and antimicrobials of all kinds have been considered one of the most miraculous discoveries of modern medicine. As a consequence, medical practitioners are loath to forego their use, and pharmaceutical companies have been slow to search for alternatives. Yet alternatives exist, are effective, and are poised to receive far greater recognition than they have heretofore.
Alternatives for UTI Treatment and Prevention
Obviously, a patient can not ignore UTI infections. But specific natural products can effectively treat and, in some cases, reduce the occurrence of urinary tract infections. These alternative treatments succeed either by destroying the bacteria that causes the illness or altering its adhesive properties to reduce its ability to attach to urinary epithelial cells.
”¢ Uva Ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
The leaves of this North American native mountain shrub contain the glycoside arbutoside (arbutin) and other agents with proven antibacterial action. Arbutoside is hydrolyzed in the gut to produce hydroquinone, which acts directly as an antimicrobial when it arrives in the bladder.
A 1993 study showed that when women with recurrent cystitis were given a 30-day treatment of uva ursi, their recurrence rate dropped to zero, compared to 23 percent with a placebo, with no adverse effects noted.
Ninety percent of all UTIs are caused by E. coli bacterial strains that have migrated into the urinary tract. Once there, they literally stick to the walls of the bladder, not even dislodged by the steady outflow of urine.
However, d-mannose (an isomer of glucose which nevertheless does not affect blood sugar levels when taken orally) has been shown to reduce UTIs safely in humans. Through a complex biochemical process, d-mannose adheres to the E. coli bacteria and pulls it right out of the urinary tract
This selective approach to battling E. coli-caused UTIs is preferred to the no-holds-barred tactic of conventional antibiotics, which not only destroy the E. coli organism but also the good bacteria that is essential for a healthy urinary tract.
”¢ Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
Cranberry juice has a long folk history of efficacy in urinary infections. Cranberry and other berries contain proanthocyanidins that inhibit bacterial adherence to urinary epithelium. Research has shown that cranberry juice (not the cranberry juice cocktail beverage) reduces the rate of recurrence of urinary infections when taken on a daily basis.
The natural approach
While conventional antibiotics have in the past been successful in combating many bacteria-caused illnesses, the frequency by which they are prescribed has resulted in a new generation of “super bugs.” Some of these new strains are resistant to all known antimicrobial agents, demonstrating no end to their ability to escape from pharmaceutical controls.
With microbial resistance testing the limits of medical science, it”™s all the more imperative that identification of effective alternatives must be vigorously encouraged. The result of research studies undertaken on three natural biologicals ”“ uva ursi, cranberry and d-mannose ”“ have demonstrated efficacy for the prevention and treatment of UTIs. These three represent just a sampling of the myriad nutraceuticals that hold promise as safe and effective alternatives to traditional drugs.