If you’re prone to urinary tract infections, you’d probably do just about anything to prevent the next one. Could a dietary supplement be the key to keeping you infection-free? Maybe, says Charles M. Kodner, MD, associate professor of family and geriatric medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
“Most people who get a UTI just have one very occasionally, so it isn’t worth taking supplements every day to try and prevent another infection,” says Kodner. But if your problem is chronic—meaning it never seems to go away, or you’re getting a UTI at least three times a year—then using supplements may be a smart proactive measure.
You might be in this unlucky group if you use a catheter, are pregnant, have kidney stones or an enlarged prostate, or use a diaphragm or if you have a condition that affects the nerves that control your bladder, like Parkinson’s, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.
Even if you fall into one of these categories, Kodner says to remember that supplements are just one part of a complete prevention toolkit. Some people whose UTIs are relentless may need to be on antibiotics for 6 months to a year, whether or not they opt to add a supplement to the mix. (Always check with your doc to make sure it’s OK to combine a supplement with your meds.)
Kodner also warns that the evidence on supplements for UTIs is limited, yet they may be expensive and you need to be take them regularly for them to have a chance to work. “People should limit their supplement use to the ones that they truly think are effective at improving their symptoms, and they should definitely tell their physicians about all of the supplements they take,” he says.
Once you get the green light from your doctor, here are three you might seek out in the supplement aisle. (Want to pick up some healthier habits? Sign up to get healthy living tips, weight loss inspiration, slimming recipes, and more delivered straight to your inbox!)
Cranberries have an ingredient called A-type proanthocyanidin (PAC) that works like a Teflon coating inside your bladder to keep bacteria from infecting your bloodstream. PAC can’t stop bacteria from growing, but it can keep them from doing harm. “It makes it harder for bacteria to stick to the bladder,” says Kodner.
While gulping cranberry juice may help flush out your system, it also adds excess sugar to your diet—which is why most experts think cranberry extract capsules are a better pick. Cranberry is generally safe to try, but too much can cause kidney stones and some people say that it upsets their stomach, so be sure you’re only taking the amount your doctor recommends.
A natural sugar related to glucose, D-mannose is found in certain fruits and even in some of the cells in your body. As a supplement, it comes in powder or capsule form. Just like cranberries, D-mannose may keep bacteria from sticking to your urinary tract lining and infecting you. In this case, scientists think that the bacteria latches on to the bacteria instead of your bladder.
“D-mannose has been studied in patients with ‘neurogenic bladder,’ meaning the bladder doesn’t contract or empty normally due to some neurologic condition,” says Kodner. And when urine doesn’t flow or empty properly, you’re more likely to get recurrent UTIs.
A typical daily dose of D-mannose is 2 grams dissolved in 200 mL of water, but check with your doctor to see how much is right for you. Some people experience diarrhea as a side effect.
Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that live in your gut and are believed to keep “bad” bacteria (like the kind that can lead to UTIs) in check. To beef up the amount in your digestive tract, you can eat more foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kefir, or you can buy probiotic capsules. (Here you’ll find 11 surprisingly tasty fermented foods that help with digestion.)
Kodner says the research on probiotics is still evolving, but there’s some indication that they may help with UTIs. “It’s mostly the same story—probiotics may prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder and causing infection,” he says. Both Lactobacillus rhamnosus and L. fermentum strains have been shown to help kick the bad bacteria in the urinary tract to the curb.
The key to taking probiotics—and any supplement for prevention, says Kodner—is commitment. “If you’re going to try something, you should take it every day for at least a few months to see if it really helps,” he says. “Take it on a schedule like you would any other medication, not just here and there sometimes.”