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Are Bladder Problems Keeping You Away From the Action? Food Sensitivities May Be to Blame
It’s a problem no one wants to talk about, but we all know it exists: that all-too-familiar sense of urgency and pressure that means you should get to the bathroom quickly. It’s a BLADDER PROBLEM. Sales of big baby underwear, stress incontinence pads, adult disposable panties, and over-the-counter medications like Detro and Uristat show that bladder problems are unfortunately common for many women and men at every stage of life.
Bladder problems run the gamut – widespread nocturia in children, frequency and urgency in young adulthood, stress incontinence after childbirth and continuing into seniority, frequency/urgency syndromes in all ages, and bladder spasms or “passing” problems in older men. Although these are relatively routine bladder problems, a surprisingly large number of people have more serious problems, including recurrent bladder infections, prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland) or interstitial cystitis (IC – chronic pain and urgency syndrome also known as painful bladder syndrome – PBS).
In many patients, urologists and primary care physicians may perform tests without finding a recognizable cause. Patients with persistent symptoms are usually left with the option of taking medications such as Detrol, Ditropan, or Flomax, which sometimes create their own problems, including side effects such as urinary hesitancy. These medications also do nothing for the accompanying pain and burning that occurs with diseases like IC, so patients with more severe symptoms often need to use narcotics and anti-anxiety medications. Medications such as Pyridium (the active ingredient in Azo and Uristat) may temporarily help with discomfort, but are not intended for long-term use.
Could there be a common cause for many of these bladder problems? One strong possibility is an unknown food sensitivity that triggers either an allergic reaction, an autoimmune reaction, or both. Clinical studies have shown that patients with chronic bladder discomfort often have elevated levels of histamine in their urine compared to those in control groups. Patients with chronic bladder discomfort also often have elevated SED, a measure of inflammation. Both of these findings suggest that environmental or food sensitivities, allergies, or some other heightened immune response may be responsible for the symptoms they are experiencing. Another clue is that some patients experience complete relief of symptoms when they receive intravenous fluids in the hospital, when they are too sick to eat solid food, or when they follow an allergen-eliminating diet. Food sensitivities are also involved in enuresis in children due to irritation of the urinary tract. Studies have shown that once food allergens are eliminated, bedwetting often stops being a problem.
In some people, chronic inflammation and accompanying irritation may also indicate the existence of an autoimmune disease such as celiac disease (CD), (also called gluten-sensitive enteropathy (GSE) or celiac sprue). People with CD experience toxicity when they ingest proteins in wheat, barley, and rye, commonly known as gluten. CD and IC of chronic bladder disease often occur together, as reported by participants in support groups for both conditions. Many gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, discomfort, and diarrhea are common among IC patients. Although these symptoms are often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it is possible that at least some people diagnosed with IBS are actually experiencing a reaction to eating wheat and other gluten-containing grains. According to published studies, IC is present in 40-60% of patients diagnosed with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), 38% of patients with IC were also diagnosed with IBS. It seems reasonable that patients with IBS symptoms should be screened for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. One reason this may not have been the case is that in the past, celiac disease was considered rare, mostly affecting young children, and was thought to have a narrow range of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. That’s simply not the case anymore. The incidence of gluten intolerance is increasing and the symptoms of both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity vary widely and are known to affect all age groups.
The gluten sensitivity/bladder sensitivity connection is not well known. Until I discovered it myself through years of trial and error, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Since my diagnosis of gluten intolerance and subsequent recovery from interstitial cystitis on a gluten-free diet, I have learned that I am far from alone. I recently wrote about my experience healing interstitial cystitis and other health issues on a gluten-free diet and published an article on a popular celiac support website. The response I received was overwhelming. I’ve had people write to me from all over the US, Canada and the UK. Moms wrote about their babies, young women wrote about recovering from bladder discomfort, and many older women wrote that they no longer had stress incontinence! All the people who responded to my article discovered the same phenomenon I had: eliminating wheat and other gluten-containing grains reduced or eliminated their bladder symptoms, which ranged from childhood bedwetting to senior incontinence. Could avoiding gluten really be the solution for the thousands of people who suffer daily from bladder pain, urges, frequency and incontinence?
These are some of the many comments I received:
“I didn’t have bladder irritation or infection, but I did have stress incontinence. I was told this was ‘normal’ for a 60-year-old woman. When I stopped using gluten 5 years ago, my incontinence went away.”
“I can actually plan to leave the house now, where I couldn’t before without a serious map of all the bathrooms in all the stores along the route.
“I suspected a connection. Celiac runs in my family – I asked for testing – they said I wasn’t thin enough. I finally stopped using gluten myself. This cleared up my constant UTIs, hives on my legs and lower abdomen.” , bleeding gums and all those intestinal problems! It’s been 15 months now and I feel better every day.”
Many of us with bladder and gastrointestinal issues can relate to these experiences.
A significant number of people suffering from IC, a very painful, progressive bladder disease for which there is no cure or highly effective treatment, have experienced recovery on a gluten-free diet. Because this disease affected me personally, I collected such stories for several years and included them in an article I wrote. These are a few of the many anecdotes I’ve collected over the past few years:
“I’ve had IC for over ten years. I’ve been on a gluten-free diet for over six years and it’s been the only thing that’s given me any relief from IC. I no longer take any medication at all – I don’t.” I didn’t even see a doctor for a few years because of IC. I would definitely recommend anyone with IC to give it a try. It definitely gave me my life back.”
“My IC was the first in 1995 and the long road to a Celiac diagnosis took the next 9 years. I am finally starting to heal.”
“I have both IC and a wheat allergy that I ignored and paid for with severe pain with IC. Absolutely nothing worked and no doctor would have heard of it being related. I’ve been told by several that diet won’t fix anything.” ..That was until my experience with dermatitis (Dermatitis Herpetiformis, a variant of celiac disease) forced me to go gluten free and it completely stopped the IC pain. To have my life back is nothing short of a miracle.”
My own research has shown that the body’s reaction to gluten can cause ulcers in the mouth, lips and tongue, esophagitis, deterioration of the intestinal villi (which leads to malabsorption of nutrients), and pain and inflammation in the ileocecal junction (the area where the small and large intestines meet) and in the pelvic and abdominal areas of the body. Is it any wonder that this destructive process also affects the mucous membrane lining the bladder? Doesn’t it make sense that inflammation of the pelvis and lower abdomen surrounding the bladder can cause both urgency and frequency? A doctor recently wrote to me,
“My wife suffered from severe, incapacitating interstitial cystitis for years. She was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003. Since starting a gluten-free diet, her interstitial cystitis has almost disappeared. I have searched the literature and found little over the years, but as a clinical doctors, the anecdotal evidence was impressive. Why not the bladder lining? Celiac disease seems to stimulate autoimmune responses almost everywhere else!”
Is there any downside to eliminating gluten from our diet? Following a gluten-free diet can be more expensive, especially if you rely on ready-made gluten-free products. However, eating gluten-containing grains is not nutritionally necessary—cultures around the world have thrived without them for thousands of years, and alternative grains contain many of the same nutrients, including protein, fiber, B vitamins, and iron minerals. magnesium and zinc. A gluten-free diet is based on the same principles as any healthy diet: a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, alternative whole grains, sources of protein and healthy fats. Brown rice, wild rice, corn, buckwheat and quinoa are easy substitutes for wheat, barley and rye. Lesser known non-gluten grains include sorghum, teff and amaranth, which are staples in Africa and Latin America. Your local health food store is a great source of these items, sold as whole grains or flour. Many Bob’s Red Mill grains and flours are tested for gluten and labeled as gluten-free.
My own health improved so much with the gluten-free diet that I was inspired to change careers from a hospital nurse to a celiac and gluten intolerance educator. I write and publish resource guides, offer one-on-one counseling to clients starting a gluten-free diet, teach cooking classes, and write numerous articles for websites and local health magazines (see http://www.glutenfreechoice.com). One of the questions I see a lot is, “How long does it take for bladder symptoms related to gluten sensitivity to go away on a gluten-free diet?” This depends on how severe the problem is and how long it has been going on. Some people actually start to feel better within a few days, while others take a month or more. Full recovery can take several years for adults, less time for children. The good news is that trying a gluten-free diet is relatively easy, and there are plenty of resources available to the consumer on the subject. If you feel better after trying a gluten-free diet for three weeks, then this may be the answer you’ve been looking for. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are sensitive to gluten. Gluten sensitivity has implications for autoimmune disease, gut health, and even neurological and mental issues. Celiac disease increases the risk of developing diabetes and colon and rectal cancer. Men with urological problems or chronic pelvic pain should always be screened for prostate enlargement and prostate cancer by their doctor. For more information, visit the following websites:
celiac.com, glutenfreechoice, gluten.net and for interstitial cystitis ica.org (website review)
Wheat is one of the most common items in our food supply, both in products that we can clearly identify, such as bread, pasta and snacks, and in products where wheat is a “hidden” ingredient, such as baked beans, mustards and soups . Gluten (wheat and all related wheats, barley, rye, and anything made from them) is one of the first food triggers to suspect when ruling out a sensitivity that precipitates bladder symptoms. Along with gluten sensitivity, other food allergies and sensitivities usually occur because the gut is often very damaged. This allows proteins to enter the bloodstream before they are fully broken down into amino acids, triggering the production of antibodies against many common allergens. Eggs, soy, dairy, and cane sugar are common culprits in people with gluten-induced bladder sensitivity.
It is important to know that spelled, faro, triticale and kamut are all wheat relatives that contain gluten. Oats do not contain gluten, but are often cross-contaminated when they are grown in the same fields where stray wheat kernels have also germinated and grown, or when they are milled in the same facilities. Some people also react to the oat protein avenin in a similar way to gluten.
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