Urinary tract infections (UTI) were once a sensitive topic. Burning, pain and frequent urination were not symptoms that women liked to openly discuss. But that is now changing.
UTIs are becoming an all too common problem and affecting a new generation of women. Recent articles in popular magazines like Vogue and Shape have helped raise awareness and warn women of a surprising new cause of persistent UTIs—consuming chicken and eggs polluted with antibiotic resistant E. coli bacteria. UTI is the second most common infection that affects women. About 50 percent of all women will experience a UTI in their lifetime and many women suffer recurrent UTIs. In the United States alone, about 8.3 million doctor visits per year are attributed to UTIs and they are the second leading cause of lost workdays for women. UTIs can become dangerous if not addressed; they can lead to kidney infections or even death.
Women are at greater risk of UTIs for several reasons. In women, the urethra is closer to the rectal area making it easier for bacteria to get to the bladder. Pregnancy increases a woman’s risk because the growing baby presses on the bladder, which may prevent it from completely emptying. Menopause also increases UTI risk because lower estrogen levels lead to thinning of the urinary tract, making it easier for bacteria to enter. Sexual intercourse is the most common cause of UTI in women ages 20 to 40. During sex, bacteria can be pushed from the rectal area toward the vagina and can then enter the urethra and ascend into the bladder. Women are not alone with this health problem. According to the American Urological Association, 12 percent of men will experience at least one symptomatic UTI during their lifetime. Those with an enlarged prostate, diabetes, or cancer and those under stress are at increased risk.
Consuming contaminated chicken and eggs represents a new and alarming risk factor for development of resistant UTIs. A study in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases found a genetic match between the E. coli bacteria that causes UTIs in humans and the E. coli in chicken coops1. And about 17 percent of the E. coli found in raw chicken is the type that can cause UTIs according to a study published this year in Consumer Reports2. If you handle contaminated chicken and then go to the bathroom, you could be transmitting the bacteria to your body via your hands. Eating contaminated chicken or even eggs treated with antibiotics can also be a cause.
The typical treatment of a UTI most often involves antibiotic therapy, which is associated with various health and societal risks. Side effects of antibiotics may include nausea, diarrhea, gas, stomach cramps and increased risk of secondary infections such as C. difficile and yeast infections. Plus, the overuse of antibiotics is now recognized as a major factor in the development of antibiotic resistance—the bugs are becoming stronger than the drugs, leaving people vulnerable for attack by dangerous bacteria. Antibiotic therapy is also expensive. Some of the newer broad-spectrum drugs can cost $80 or more for a week supply. As with most health problems, prevention is the key.
While antibiotics may be necessary for acute treatment, when UTIs are recurrent it’s important to address the underlying causes and adopt preventative measures. Here are some strategies to consider:
Go Organic: Until more rigorous laws are enforced on antibiotic use with livestock, choose organic meats and eggs and make sure your meat is thoroughly cooked (chicken should always be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit). Also designate a cutting board solely to be used for raw meat and poultry and wash it immediately after use with hot, soapy water.
Supplement with Cranberry: Cranberry has long been revered for its bladder benefits. Modern research has validated its ability to prevent UTI. Cranberry works by preventing bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall. The active components responsible for this effect are the condensed tannins or proanthocyanidins (a type of flavonoid). These compounds adhere to the tiny hairs of the bacterial surface, change the structure of the bacteria and prevent the bacteria from implanting in the bladder wall. Thus the bacteria are flushed out of the body in the urine.
The majority of the research on cranberry has involved a concentrated cranberry supplement called Cran-Max. This supplement ingredient is unique in that it contains all the vital parts of the cranberry: the fruit, seeds, skin and juice, in a special delivery system called Bio-Shield, that protects the active compounds from destruction by stomach acid. In one notable study, published in the Canadian Journal of Urology, researchers compared the effects of pure cranberry juice (not cocktail juice), Cran-Max and a placebo in the prevention of UTI in a group of 150 women with a history of recurrent UTIs. Both the pure juice and Cran-Max had a significant impact on reducing UTI, but the Cran-Max provided the most effective method3. Other research has found Cran-Max comparable to antibiotic therapy for the prevention of UTIs.4 Look for supplements that contain Cran-Max in your pharmacy or health food store. Look for supplements that contain Cran-Max in your pharmacy or health food store.
FDA Putting the Breaks on Antibiotic Use
Last year the US Food and Drug Administration announced that antibiotics in meat are a threat to public health and its plans to eventually phase it out of livestock, making it illegal. Did you know?
- Each year in the United States, 48 million people become sick and 3,000 die from eating tainted food5.
- Contaminated poultry is the leading cause of tainted food deaths according to the CDC6.
- Americans eat on average 87 pounds of chicken annually, most of which has been treated with antibiotics7.
- A 2013 study found that potentially harmful bacteria was found in 97 percent of chicken breasts sold in stores across America, a significant portion of which were contaminated with E. coli8.
Be Cautious with OTC Drugs: Any time your bladder holds onto urine, rather than completely voiding, you’re putting yourself at risk for a UTI because the longer urine sits in your bladder, the more time bacteria has to grow. Some medications can cause the bladder to retain urine such as antihistamines and cold medications. Whenever you are taking these types of over-the-counter medications, talk to your pharmacist about potential side effects and contraindications.
Drink Plenty of Water: Inadequate intake of water can lead to dehydration and also increased concentration of urine. Follow the Institute if Medicines Guidelines for water consumption: Three liters a day for men and 2.2 liters for women. Void regularly and especially before and after sex.
- Shape magazine "4 Surprising Causes of Urinary Tract Infections" (November 2014)
- Consumer Reports (February 2014)
- Stothers L. A randomized trial to evaluate effectiveness and cost effectiveness of naturopathic cranberry products as prophylaxis against urinary tract infection in women. Can J Uro. 2002 Jun;9(3):1558-62.
- McMurdo, M, Argo I, Phillips, G, et al. Cranberry or trimethoprim for the prevention of recurrent urinary tract infections? A randomized controlled trial in older women. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. 2009 63(2):389-395.
- Consumer Reports, news release (12/19/13)
- Consumer Reports, news release (12/19/13)
- Vouge "Chicken Coup" (May 2014)
- Vouge "Chicken Coup" (May 2014)
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Sherry Torkos, B.Sc.Phm., R.Ph.
Sherry Torkos, B.Sc.Phm., R.Ph., is a registered pharmacist, author and health enthusiast with a passion for prevention. She graduated with honors from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1992. Since then, she has been practicing pharmacy using an integrative approach, combining conventional and complementary therapies to optimize health and prevent disease. Torkos has won several national pharmacy awards for providing excellence in patient care.
As a leading health expert, she has delivered hundreds of lectures and is frequently interviewed by radio and TV talk shows throughout North America and abroad.
Sherry has authored 18 books and booklets, including The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine., Saving Women’s Hearts, and The Glycemic Index Made Simple.