IMAGINE a balloon filled with water deflating as you leak the water from its neck. In some ways, that mimics the bladder.
The bladder is a hollow organ in the lower abdomen that collects, stores and empties urine. It's a part of the urinary system that includes the kidneys through which blood is filtered to form urine, which contains waste and excess fluid after the body has fulfilled its needs.
The bladder contains ureters, two straw-like tubes taking urine from the kidneys to the bladder, and the urethra which transports the urine stored in the bladder outside (when one pees). The urethra is longer in men and is encased by the prostate at its start just below the bladder.
As the bladder ages it may become less elastic and its walls may toughen and become less accommodating. Or, like worn out rubber, it may be unable to recoil to empty itself as it used to. These changes may manifest in individuals going to the bathroom more often — both day and night — leaking of urine, and increased difficulty in passing your urine, amongst other signs and symptoms.
Recurrent infections of the urinary system, bladder stones, impaired kidney function and other conditions may ensue. Historically, bodily functions related to organs from the waist down are often not considered polite or appropriate and unfortunately, bladder problems may be ignored and unrecognised by clinicians, or hidden by patients who are too embarrassed to share their concerns.
It is important to note that bladder conditions don't only affect the elderly, and may also be relatively common in children and young adults. Bladder conditions aren't an inevitable part of ageing and bladder conditions can often be treated without medication and surgery. Here are a few tips for maintenance of long-term bladder health which may help improve both quality and length of life.
1. Ensure adequate fluid intake
The aim should be six to eight glasses of fluid each day as, especially in this tropical climate where you may sweat more, dehydration is a real possibility. However, if you have certain conditions such as heart disease or kidney failure then your fluid intake may be restricted and you should consult with your physician for advice. Water is the best fluid for bladder health, and at least half, if not more, of your fluid intake should be water. Your urine should ideally look straw (light)-coloured, not concentrated.
2. Cut down on alcohol and caffeine
Some fluids and foods are deemed to be potential bladder irritants for those who have sensitive bladders. Caffeinated products — coffee, some teas and sodas — and alcohol act as diuretics (substances that cause increased production of urine). Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and may affect bladder sensation and control (urinary leakage or stoppage).
3. Say no to smoking
Cigarettes contain multiple toxins and chemicals that are excreted by the bladder, and they can worsen certain symptoms such as frequency (going multiple times daily or nightly) and urgency (strong, unavoidable desire to pee) seen in some bladder conditions such as interstitial cystitis. Smoking also significantly increases the risk of bladder cancer (triples the risk) and is associated with up to 50 per cent or more of bladder cancers. So if you're a smoker, try to take steps to stop; and if you're not a smoker, don't start. Note that recent studies suggest these risks extend to e-cigarettes also.
4. Monitor your diet and be sure to exercise
Avoid constipation by eating lots of high-fibre foods such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits, which are not only good for colon health but also essential for bladder health as they reduce the risk of urinary stoppage and other urinary symptoms. Eating healthy foods in moderate amounts and maintaining a healthy weight by being physically active is also essential. For example, a study showed 50 to 80 per cent of women who had overactive bladder syndrome and were deemed to be overweight exhibited significant improvement in bothersome symptoms from increased physical activity and weight loss. Pelvic floor muscle exercise — Kegel exercises — may also help strengthen the muscles that keep you from leaking urine when you cough, laugh or sneeze or get the sudden urge to urinate.
5. Use the bathroom when needed, no excessive holding
Holding your urine for too long can overstretch the bladder and, over time, result in weakening of the bladder muscles, making them less effective. There's also the increased risk of urinary tract infections. Every three to four hours is good for a bathroom break.
6. Urinate after sex
Both women and men should urinate after sex as this helps with flushing away bacteria that entered the urethra during sex, which bacteria may increase your chances of a urinary tract infection.
7. Wipe from front to back after urinating
Women should wipe from front to back after a bowel movement to avoid introducing bacteria into the urethra.
8. Mind your clothes
Loose clothing and cotton underwear will allow ventilation to keep the area around the urethra dry. Tight-fitting jeans and nylon underwear may result in moisture and potentiate bacteria growth.
I hope these tips help with promoting good bladder health. However, conversations about bladder health are also important and should not be shunned. If you think you're having a bladder problem, then please do not hesitate to speak to your health-care provider.
Dr Jeremy Thomas is a consultant urologist. He works privately in Montego Bay, Savanna-la-Mar, and Kingston and publicly at Cornwall Regional Hospital. He may be contacted on Facebook and Instagram: @jthomasurology or by e-mail: email@example.com