Your bladder wants you to know a few things.
Well, not really—it doesn’t have a brain, or mouth or anything. If it did (and try not to carry that idea too far), it would tell you a few ways to make your life much easier and more comfortable. There are many misconceptions about the urinary tract, and some of them prevent people from doing the simple things they need to do to stay healthy. Here’s what you should know.
1. You probably pee more than you think.
Go ahead, venture a guess; we’ll wait. The average person pees somewhere from 800 to 2,000 milliliters of liquid per day (for our mainly American audience, that’s up to a half gallon). The average person drinks about two liters of liquid per day, but some of that is expelled through sweat or metabolized through various body processes. Your actual, ahem, expenditure can vary, depending on your weight, how much liquid you drink, your stress level, and a bunch of other factors.
2. You can’t diagnose bladder issues simply by looking at your urine.
The color of your pee can provide a few clues to your overall urinary health, which is why Cleveland Clinic published a popular infographic in 2013 to explain what different colors might mean. It’s a useful infographic, but it’s not perfect. What you eat can certainly affect the color of your urine, which can mean an alarming false positive if you’re comparing your pee to this type of diagram. For instance, pink pee can mean that there’s blood in the sample; it can also mean that you recently ate beets. Asparagus can turn urine green, but that depends on how your body breaks it down. A pale yellow color can indicate that you’re well hydrated, but so can a yellow color, depending on your biology. You should certainly pay attention to the color of your urine. If you notice strange coloration that lasts for more than a day, tell a doctor—and tell your physician immediately if you see strange colors while experiencing any other symptoms. But don’t immediately freak out if your urine darkens, lightens, or changes hue. It might not mean anything.
3. You can’t defeat urinary incontinence simply by drinking fewer fluids.
In fact, that’s one of the worst things you can do. The impulse makes sense; incontinence is embarrassing, and restricting fluids seems like an obvious way to treat it. But urinary incontinence is rarely caused by excessive fluids. It can be related to a urinary tract infection, constipation, pregnancy, an enlarged prostate (in men, obviously), menopause (in women, slightly more obviously), or neurological disorders—and we’re just scratching the surface here. Restricting fluids isn’t a great idea. It can throw off the pH of your urine, potentially causing or worsening an infection, depending on the level of dehydration and a number of other factors. In any case, it’s probably not going to help. Keep drinking fluids, preferably water, and see a physician as soon as you can.
4. Frequently feeling like you “need to go” could mean a few things.
The urinary tract is a tricky thing, and a single symptom can have multiple meanings. One of the most common issues is feeling a persistent need to urinate even after your bladder is empty. This can be a sign of a urinary tract infection or minor irritation to the urethra. It can be an indicator of diabetes or kidney issues. In men, it can be a sign of prostatitis. In women, it can be a sign of a pregnancy. It could mean that you’ve eaten too many bananas. Your physician will evaluate your “need to go” along with other symptoms to arrive at a diagnosis, but the point is that you should never try to self-diagnose urinary issues. By doing so, you’re putting your body at risk—and putting yourself through extreme discomfort when you might be able to treat your health problems quickly and effectively.
5. Cola, coffee, and other drinks can cause issues.
If you’re suffering from urinary incontinence or experiencing pain while urinating, put down the soda. According to the Urology Group of Athens, caffeinated drinks can act as a bladder stimulant, causing a “sudden need to urinate.” Contrary to popular belief, diuretics don’t necessarily cause you to lose more fluid than you take in, so drinking coffee won’t dehydrate you—but by stimulating your bladder, the drinks could cause discomfort. Acidic drinks can also cause discomfort during urination. These substances don’t cause urinary tract infections, but they can make symptoms worse. For women, this is an especially important point. One study found that women who drink three or more cups of coffee per day have a 70 percent higher chance of having bladder problems. If you do drink coffee, cola, or other flavored beverages, be sure to supplement your intake with a few glasses of water.
6. Urinary incontinence shouldn’t be an accepted side effect of aging.
It’s true that incontinence is a more common issue for elderly people. In one questionnaire, 30 percent of elderly respondents said they’d had “one or more episodes of incontinence.” And women are disproportionately affected, even if they haven’t had children. That doesn’t mean that it’s a normal part of the aging process. A report by Alex Gomelsky and Roger Dmochowski notes that there are numerous treatment options for older individuals, including physical therapy (namely pelvic floor exercises), pharmacological treatments, and surgeries. These treatments can be extraordinarily effective, particularly when they’re used as soon as incontinence occurs for the first time. The point is that although older people often believe that they can’t do anything about bladder and urinary issues or fail to seek treatment, this course of action often creates unnecessary stress. Rather than deal with incontinence, older individuals should seek help.
7. You can fight some incontinence issues with Kegel exercises.
Kegel exercises, as you might already know, involve clenching the muscles that you use to stop urinating. This engages your pelvic floor, reducing the risk of certain types of incontinence. Wondering how that works? Well, a study by Andrea Marques, PT, PhD, et al shines some light on that subject: “The principle of specificity requires that the muscle must be trained with physical activity that replicates as closely as possible the functional movement required, (e.g., for a marathon athlete specificity requires running), at close to the maximal force or tension generated and progressive resistance weight training.” That means that you need to perform regular Kegel exercises at full effort to see results, but if you’re consistent, you’ll reap some substantial benefits. Another study showed that pelvic floor muscle training is the most effective first cure for female urinary incontinence, and given that Kegels also improve sexual function and quality of life, they’re certainly worth your time.
8. Urine actually isn’t sterile.
You might have heard this myth floating around the internet. For a long time scientists thought that urine was functionally sterile and that people with bacteria in their urine were suffering from disorders. Then the science caught up with those claims. A 2014 Loyola University Chicago study clearly showed that completely healthy women had bacteria in their urine, and the scientific community was blown away—no, seriously. This was an important study, because while it debunked a common misconception, it also called common laboratory testing techniques into question. In any case, the takeaway is that our bodies are full of bacteria, and even the bladder hosts some microorganisms. With that said, bacterial overgrowths can cause infections that endanger your entire urinary tract, so if you regularly feel pain while urinating, see your physician right away. And now that you know that urine isn’t sterile, stop using it as a household cleaner. What, that was just us? Okay, never mind.