Urinary Tract Health

The urinary system consists of the kidneys, bladder, ureters and urethra. The urinary system plays an important role in well-being by removing wastes from the body and keeping electrolytes, salts and water in healthy balance.1

The urinary system removes urea; a toxic waste formed as a byproduct of the metabolism of proteins, from the body.1 Urea, other wastes and water make up the urine which is removed by the kidneys. On average, adults eliminate approximately 1 quart of urine per day.1

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located below the ribs in the middle of the back.2 They filter wastes and toxins from the blood through tiny filtering units called nephrons, which consist of a ball of capillaries called glomerulus, and a small tube called a renal tubule.1 Urine then travels from the kidneys down two tubes called ureters into the bladder, a hollow organ located in the pelvic region.1 A small amount of urine is emptied into the bladder about every 15 seconds.2 If urine backs up or remains stationary for long, a kidney infection can develop. Nerves in the bladder signal when it is time to urinate.2 Urine is emptied from the bladder and out of the body through the urethra.2

Importantly, the kidneys also function to regulate blood pressure levels and the production of erythropoietin, which controls red blood cell production.2 The kidneys are also involved in the body's production of the active form of vitamin D.3

Problems in the urinary system can be due to illness, injury or aging.1 As we age, the kidneys' ability to remove wastes from the blood decreases, and the other organs of the urinary system lose some of their strength. This can cause disorders such as incontinence (loss of bladder control) and incomplete emptying of the bladder, which can lead to infection.1 Reduced kidney function can lead to chronic kidney disease and kidney failure.

Kidney stones are a relatively common problem that has been increasing in the U.S. over the past 30 years.4 Kidney stones are small, hard deposits that form in the kidneys out of mineral and acid salts in the urine.5 Different types of kidney stones exist, depending on their composition. Stones may form when the urine becomes concentrated and the normal balance of water, salts, minerals and other substances in urine changes.6 Kidney stones can travel out of the kidneys and into other parts of the urinary tract. Small stones may be eliminated through the urethra without causing much pain. Larger stones however, may get stuck anywhere in the urinary tract and cause great pain.

It is important to drink plenty of water (6–8 full glasses per day) to help flush bacteria and toxins from the urinary tract and prevent the urine from becoming overly concentrated. Medical treatment should be sought if kidney stones or infection are suspected.

Cranberry fruit is commonly used to promote urinary tract health. Cranberries contain proanthocyanidins and an unidentified high-molecular-weight compound that seem to interfere with the adhesion of bacteria to the bladder wall.7 Research shows that cranberry consumption significantly reduces the risk of urinary tract infections.7

Buchu leaf is used to soothe and fight infection in the urinary tract, for bladder irritation and as a natural diuretic.8

Juniper berries and parsley leaf have traditionally been used to support the urinary system and help the body maintain healthy fluid balance.7 Juniper berries and parsley both have aquaretic properties. Aquaretics increase urine excretion but not electrolyte excretion. Aquaretic agents can be beneficial in the case of water retention.7 Phytochemicals in juniper berries and in parsley also increase kidney filtration rate.7 Parsley is used to flush the urinary tract and for the prevention of kidney stones.8,9

Asparagus and corn silk contain constituents that have diuretic properties7,10 and have been used to support the urinary system in expelling excess water from the body.7

Marshmallow root contains mucilage polysaccharides that soothe and protect mucous membranes.7 It is often used for urinary tract inflammation and as a natural diuretic.7

Hydrangea root has traditionally been used to support bladder and kidney health.9 Some researchers indicate that hydrangea acts as a mild diuretic and that it may prevent the formation of kidney stones.7

Uva Ursi leaf is used to soothe the urinary tract and to fight bacteria in the urinary tract.7 A phenol constituent in uva ursi leaf known as arbutin has demonstrated antimicrobial activity.7

1. NIH National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Your Urinary System and How it Works. 2010. Available at: http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/Yoururinary/ Accessed February 17, 2010.
2. The Ohio State University Medical Center. Anatomy of the Urinary System. 2010. Available at: http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/PATIENTCARE/HEALTHCARE_SERVICES/URINARY_BLADDER_KID NEY/ANATOMY_URINARY_SYSTEM/Pages/index.aspx Accessed February 17, 2010.
3. WebMD. Chronic Kidney Disease. 2010. Available at: http://www.emedicinehealth.com/chronic_kidney_disease/article_em.htm Accessed February 19, 2010.
4. NIH National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Kidney Stones in Adults. 2007. Available at: http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/Kudiseases/pubs/stonesadults/ Accessed February 19, 2010.