Overactive bladder, or OAB, is often an uncomfortable and frustrating condition. OAB can involve symptoms like incontinence (the leakage of urine), feeling the need to urinate urgently and frequently and nocturia (having to get up multiple times during the night to urinate).
Thankfully for patients, dietary changes can sometimes help ease unwelcome symptoms.
The National Association for Continence (NAFC) takes care to stress, “There is no ‘diet’ to cure incontinence.” However, some patients do see an improvement in symptoms by making certain changes.
What works for one patient may not for the next. Patients should discuss making any changes to their diet with their doctor, so that the best plan for their unique body can be made.
Caffeine is well known for being a diuretic, or a substance that tends to increase the body’s production of urine. What’s more, the NAFC reports that caffeine “can have effects on the body's metabolism, including stimulating the central nervous system and increasing bladder activity.”
According to the NAFC, “Studies have demonstrated that individuals with bladder symptoms who have reduced caffeine intake to less than 100 mg/day noted improvement in symptoms.”
Coffee may be the first caffeine-heavy substance to come to mind, but caffeine is also present in soft drinks, teas, chocolates and some over-the-counter medications.
Artificial Sweetener Angst
The study of the interaction between artificial sweeteners and urinary symptoms is still ongoing. However, according to the NAFC, “Artificial sweeteners (sodium saccharine, acesulfame K and aspartame) have been shown to affect bladder function in limited animal studies. They have been found to cause bladder irritation in people with interstitial cystitis (IC) or chronic bladder inflammation.”
What’s more, these artificial sweeteners often make urinary tract infection (UTI) symptoms worse – showing some connection between the fake sweets and the bladder.
The NAFC does report that stevia, which is a natural sweetener often used as a replacement for white sugar, has not been found to cause any aggravation for overactive bladder symptoms.
As the jury is still out and research is still ongoing, patients may want to try going without the artificial sweeteners and see for themselves if symptoms improve.
Alcohol Avoidance and Spicy Sensations
Alcohol is another common diuretic that often results in more trips to the restroom, partially because the consumption of alcohol inhibits the antidiuretic hormone (ADH) that works to keep water in the body.
Furthermore, “Alcohol has also been shown clinically to act as a bladder stimulant, triggering symptoms of urgency,” reports the NAFC.
Cutting back on the cocktails can help some patients see an improvement in their symptoms.
The same is true for some patients when it comes to spicy or acidic foods. According to the NAFC, “Some individuals have noted bladder control issues after consuming high acid and hot and spicy foods such as tomato-based dishes and citrus fruit drinks.”
The Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio reports that spicy or acidic substances may cause bladder control problems because these foods can irritate the bladder lining.
Again, this is a matter of individual bodies, and not universal laws. Experimenting with cutting back or keeping a diary of when symptoms are worse may help patients track connections between foods, drinks and urinary symptoms.
Many patients may not realize they need to strictly limit the amount of liquids they consume to control bladder issues. However, if patients cut too much liquid out of their diet, they may actually being making the situation worse, according to the NAFC.
“The smaller amount of urine may be more highly concentrated, thus irritating the bladder surface,” reports the NAFC. This irritation can actually make patients need to go to the bathroom more often - the exact opposite of what someone may be trying to accomplish by limiting fluid intake.
According to the NAFC, “Some studies have found that patients with OAB who reduce their daily fluid and water-containing food intake by 25 percent have improved episodes of urgency, frequency, and nocturia.” However, the organization also instructs, “Do not restrict fluids to control incontinence without following the advice of your physician and establishing a baseline intake.”
The Good Samaritan Hospital suggests finding a balance by drinking most of the daily fluids needed during the daytime, and cutting back as the evening wears on. This method may be particularly helpful for nocturia symptoms that disrupt sleep.
A doctor can help patients determine how much water they should be drinking on a given day, and if adjustments need to be made to these levels.
Again, it is important to remember that foods that affect one person’s bladder symptoms may have no effect on the next patient.
To test the waters, the NAFC recommends that “if caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners or spicy food is a regular part of your diet, try eliminating them for a week to see if your symptoms improve. Then gradually, every one to two days, add one food/drink back into your diet, making note of any changes in urinary urgency, frequency or bladder control loss.”
This may be a good method of experimenting with dietary changes that may help ease some urinary symptoms. But it is also important to remember that any major shifts in diet should be discussed with your doctor to ensure that you're getting all the nutrients that you need.
The effect of diet on overactive bladder is not an area with universal rules, but it does provide a chance for some patients to make strides in easing their symptoms.
As research continues, more will be learned about how certain substances interact with bladder symptoms, and how patients can take steps at home to make life with overactive bladder a little bit easier.