Remember the days when you would go to the doctor and get an antibiotic for every sniffle and cough? Those days are over because overuse and overreliance on antibiotics have created bacteria which can no longer be killed by ordinary antibiotics. Doctors are now rightly conflicted because the antibiotics they prescribe may kill most of the bacteria but leave the few that are resistant and allow those strains to proliferate. Multiple antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria cause infections in one in 16 people admitted to hospitals in Canada and cost $250 million per year. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that by 2050, there will be 10 million deaths annually worldwide caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, overtaking diabetes and cancer combined.
In my 22 years practicing as a naturopathic physician, I have seen an increasing rate of these tough infections in my patients. In particular, I have seen many women, particularly older women, who’ve had multiple bladder infections in a year, and some even need to use very strong intravenous antibiotics to treat them. The naturopathic approach to treating recurrent UTIs goes beyond just killing the superficial bacteria. It endeavors to change the environment that is allowing the bacteria to persist. It is a multi-faceted approach that is an example of how naturopathic medicine can play a role in reducing antibiotic resistance by stopping these types of tough bugs in their tracks.
UTIs are generally created by bacteria from the feces migrating up the urethra and taking hold in the bladder. In tough recurrent cases, biofilms can form that harbor infection. Biofilms are a slimy goop that protects the bacterial community from antibiotics and the body’s natural defenses. For my patients with recurrent UTIs, the first step is to make sure they understand how to practice good hygiene. Then I teach them how to check their own urine at home with a dip stick that can show signs of infection. I use herbs that help to reduce the adherence of the bacteria to the bladder wall. These herbs essentially flush out the bacteria, unlike antibiotics which are trying to kill them. Thus, the bacteria don’t mutate to avoid the herbs the same way. I also use antibacterial herbs to reduce the population. Plus we look at ways to break down the biofilm to allow greater access to the bacteria. Scientific studies have shown that there are herbs that can do just that. For my older patients, we look at strengthening the tissues of the urethral opening by introducing a bit of estrogen locally. Repeated antibiotic use in the past has usually disturbed the natural defences provided by the good bacteria in the body. Studies show that oral use of certain probiotics bolsters the genital good bacteria colonies, which can then act as the first line of defense against migrating nasty bacteria and reduce the incidence of UTIs as effectively as daily use of an antibiotic. I also look at ways to enhance the immune system with lifestyle and natural medicines, so the body’s natural defences are in fighting shape. This type of whole-body approach can be very successful at stopping the cycle of infection and thus reduces the use of antibiotics. We all need to do our part to turn the tide on antibiotic resistance.