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If you’ve ever experienced a urinary tract infection (UTI) you know immediately the burning pain, the constant and intense urge (but inability) to urinate, and the uncomfortable ache in your lower abdomen. These infections are uncomfortable at best, and at worst can lead to severe pain and kidney infections.
UTIs (also known as cystitis) are bacterial infections that affect the lower urinary tract (urethra and bladder) and are caused when bacteria, usually E. coli, enters the urethra and attach to the walls of the urethra and bladder. This bacteria is especially nasty because once it attaches, it forms a protective coating around itself that resists the body’s normal immune response. Women are more prone to these infections than men because of our shorter urethras, although they do occasionally affect men. According to the National Institutes of Health, UTIs are the second most common type of infection in the body, and account for more than 8 million doctor visits each year. And 60 percent of women will have one at least once in their lives, with 20 percent suffering from recurrent infections.
Usually the first course of action for treating a UTI is antibiotics; however, there are natural compounds that protect the urinary tract and prevent bacteria from attaching in the first place, promoting urinary tract health. Two of these compounds are cranberry and D-mannose.
The main bacterium that is implicated in causing urinary tract infections is E. coli (this is not the same E. coli mutation found in unsanitary food that has made people sick; rather, it’s the E. coli that is part of the natural microflora in our intestinal tracts). These E. coli microbes have tiny, fingerlike projections that allow the bacteria to stick to the inside walls of the urinary tract and bladder so they can’t easily be washed away by urine. This is where cranberry and D-mannose come in – both of these have the ability to coat the E. coli bacteria, preventing them from sticking.
D-mannose is a naturally occurring simple sugar, closely related to glucose, but unlike glucose, it is absorbed at a much slower rate. Also, unlike glucose, D-mannose passes directly into the bloodstream largely unchanged. From the bloodstream, it then passes through the kidneys where a large portion is added to urine, where it flows through the bladder and urinary tract, coating and flushing out any E. coli bacteria that may be hanging out there. Because it is a simple sugar, D-mannose is safe to take and has shown no clinical side effects.
Cranberries contain proanthocyanidins, which like the D-mannose, prevents the E. coli bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder and urinary tract. Additionally, cranberries are a natural source of D-mannose.
A UTI is nothing to ignore. If left untreated, it can progress into a kidney infection. If you think you have an infection, see a doctor. But to help maintain urinary tract health and to prevent an infection from occurring in the first place, consider taking a cranberry and D-mannose supplement to keep E. coli in its place.
Note: The research on using cranberry supplements while pregnant and lactating is limited. While most experts recommend using food forms (juice, dried cranberries, tea, etc.), cranberry and d-mannose supplements may also be considered in acute conditions, such as with urinary tract infections, but this should be discussed with a qualified health practitioner.