Like most people, you probably don’t give much thought to your bladder until it’s full and you need to urinate. While you can’t control everything that affects bladder health, there are some steps you can take to improve bladder health.
Your bladder is a muscle that stores urine. Depending on which resource you read, it’s about the size of a pear or grapefruit. When it’s full it can hold about 16 ounces of liquid and most people urinate about six to eight times every 24 hours.
Common Medical Problems Affecting the Bladder
The most common medical problems affecting the bladder are infections and urinary incontinence.
- A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a general term for an infection that occurs anywhere in the urinary system including the kidneys, bladder, or urethra.
- A bladder infection ( also referred to as cystitis) is a specific type of UTI that affects the bladder.
- UTIs and bladder infections are common in women than men and tend to become more frequent with aging as weakened bladder muscles make it hard to fully empty the bladder. Women also have a loss of estrogen that contributes to an increased risk of bladder infections with menopause.
Symptoms of an infection can include a burning feeling when you urinate; frequent or intense urge to urinate even though little comes out when you do; cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling urine; feeling tired or shaky; fever or chills (a sign the infection may have reached your kidneys); or pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen. If you have these symptoms you should contact your doctor. Most infections can be treated with antibiotics.
- Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control. Though a common and often embarrassing problem, it isn’t an inevitable part of getting older. There are different types of incontinence:
- Stress—when you cough, sneeze, laugh, etc. it puts pressure on your bladder and urine leaks.
- Urge—you have a sudden, intense urge to urinate and you may need to urinate often.
- Overflow—frequent or constant dribbling of urine because the bladder doesn’t empty completely.
- Functional—a physical or mental impairment keeps you from making it to the bathroom in time.
If you experience any of these types of incontinence you should discuss it with your doctor. Incontinence can be a sign of other underlying conditions. The treatment of urinary incontinence varies depending on the type of leakage and includes behavioral modification, medication, physical therapy, nerve stimulation, and surgical therapies.
Who’s at Risk for Bladder Infections and UTIs?
Women are more likely to get bladder infections because their urethras (the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body) are shorter and closer to the rectum.
Other risk factors include previous UTIs, sexual activity (especially a new partner), menopause, prostate enlargement, diabetes, and poor hygiene.
Tips for Improving Your Bladder Health
There are things you can do to improve your bladder health. You’ll notice, many of these things benefit your overall health, not just your bladder.
- Drink plenty of water—a good rule of thumb is to drink six to eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Drinking water is good for your health in general, so it’s a win/win.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine.
- Don’t smoke—and if you do, quit. Again, not smoking has a multitude of health benefits.
- Eat high-fiber foods (whole grains, vegetables, and fruits)—this helps avoid constipation.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Exercise your pelvic floor muscle (also known as Kegels)—this helps hold urine in the bladder. Doing these daily can strengthen these muscles and help keep urine from leaking when you sneeze, cough, laugh, etc.
- Use the bathroom when needed—holding urine for too long can weaken your bladder and increase your risk of bladder infections.
- Fully empty your bladder when urinating. Don’t rush it!
Some people develop a sensitive bladder that can get irritated (frequent urination, pressure, burning) with certain foods and beverages like coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, tomato-based products, and spicy foods. This is called an irritable bladder and can cause symptoms similar to bladder infections/UTIs. If you have a sensitive bladder, consider these foods that are more likely to soothe rather than irritate your bladder.
- Green beans
- Winter squash
- Lean proteins
- Whole grains
Most of these foods are also recommended as part of an overall healthy diet.
Sources: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institute on Aging, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Urology Care Foundation