Cystitis, or urinary tract infection (UTI), is more often seen in women of all ages than in men. The symptoms are a combination of slow and painful urination, and urinary frequency and urgency, ranging from trivial to severe. The urine is often milky, and may be foul-smelling, due to the presence of pus and bacteria. Escherichia coli (part of the normal gut flora) are a major cause of the infection, along with other micro-organisms such as rickettsiae, amoebae, Chlamydia, Mycoplasma, Proteus, Staphylococcus, Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Gardnerella vagin-alis. Laboratory tests can establish the precise causative agent.
The song A Spoonful of Sugar (which helps the medicine go down), from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, well describes d-mannose, a 'first cousin' of ordinary sucrose (sugar) used to treat gut-derived E. coli infections. But how do gut bacteria reach the urethra in the first place? Easily, via the 'knickers', or the gusset of panty-hose or tights.
After E. coli invades the bladder, it attaches itself to the inner lining of the bladder and urinary tract using fine hair-like projections called 'fimbria', which are programmed to bind to molecules of d-mannose sugar. So, when d-mannose-laden blood passes through the kidneys, much of this sugar ends up in the urine, which then flows from the bladder through the urethra and out, mopping-up all the E. coli it encounters, to be finally flushed down the toilet. With ongoing infections, d-mannose needs to be taken every two or three hours.
Uva-ursi extract (UV-e; bearberry) is also used in naturopathic practice. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 57 other-wise healthy women (aged 32-63 years) suffering from recurrent cystitis were divided into two groups and, for one month, took either UV-e or a matching placebo (one tablet three times a day) while undergoing routine bacteriological and gynaecol-ogical examinations. At the 12-month follow-up, the results showed that 23 per cent of those taking the placebo had a recurrence of cystitis vs 0 per cent of those taking the UV-e-with no reported side-effects (Curr Ther Res, 1993; 53: 441-3).
To treat cystitis, European Gypsies use either the tough little leaves of the wild cranberry (also known as the cowberry) or of its close relative, the upland cranberry (or bearberry). One heaped teaspoonful of the leaves is added to two cups of water, and then boiled down to one cup to be drunk as necessary (Planta Med, 1970; 18: 1-25).
In fact, cranberry juice is used in English folk medicine to both treat and prevent UTIs. In one study, cran-berry juice inhibited the adherence of E. coli in the bladder and urethra of cystitis sufferers within one to three hours of drinking 15 oz of cranberry juice cocktail (J Urol, 1984; 131: 1013-6).
For fluid retention, European Romanies expose sufferers to the rising smoke of smouldering juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Although an infusion made from juniper berries is an excellent diuretic, Gypsies know that drinking it for prolonged periods can also cause kidney infections (and contractions in pregnant women). The smoke from juniper berries, which gives off volatile oils, has a much gentler diuretic effect (Senger G. Zigeunermedizin [Gypsy Folk Medicine]. Vienna: Carl Ueberreuter Druckerei, 1987).
To treat frequent urination in both men and women, Gypsies prescribe a tablespoon of dried yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with a teaspoon of Arnica montana blossoms (wolf's bane) infused in half a litre of boiling water. After allowing this to draw for five minutes, half of it is drunk before bedtime. The rest is then drunk, slightly warmed, the following morning on an empty stomach.
Yarrow is thought to stimulate the body's resistance to disease in general and is often used in phyto-therapy as a preventive medicine. (It is also specifically used for fevers, colds, hypertension, amenorrhoea and dysentery.) (British Herbal Pharmaco-poeia, Part One. London: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1976: 145; Wagner H, Proksch A. Immunostimulatory drugs of fungi and higher plants, in Wagner H et al., eds. Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, vol 1. London: Academic Press, 1985).
For cystic catarrh and/or bladder inflammation, Romany medicine prescribes two handfuls of dried, chopped black elder (Sambucus nigra) bark boiled in a half-litre of water. After leaving it to draw for 10 minutes, it is then strained; the entire quantity is to be drunk in small quantities throughout the day (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part One. London: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1976: 173).
For kidney infection, spiny rest-harrow (Ononis spinosa) along with sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) leaves are often prescribed by European medical herbalists (Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum, 1988: 237-8).
Oriental herbal medicine
The mushroom Polyporus sclerotium (zhu ling) taken in high dosages can increase urine production by about 62 per cent. It is thought that its diuretic effect takes place within the kidney glomeruli.
In the laboratory, alcohol-based extracts of this type of mushroom were able to strongly inhibit both Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli (Bensky D, Gamble A. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, revised edn. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1993: 132-3).
Harald Gaier, a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London, and the Irish Centre of Integrated Medicine, Co. Kildare (www.drgaier.com).