A urinary tract infection(UTI) sits high on the list of things that keep me up at night, namely because I’m running to the bathroom. I can’t put my finger on what age I started getting UTIs, but I can remember visiting the urologist after searches on WebMD led me to think I had Interstitial Cystitis, a chronic bladder issue. It turns out I didn’t, but still had to foot the bill of my imaginary condition.
A few years ago, I developed C. Diff. Colitis, an inflammation of the colon caused by bacteria from taking too many antibiotics. I’ve been hesitant to take antibiotics ever since and have embarked on a quest to restore my gut bacteria and microbiome—something I’m still learning about but know is vital in the grand scheme of overall wellness.
For years I was advised that probiotics help prevent UTIs, but I didn’t know I was using the wrong ones. I started following Vanessa Fitzgerald, a holistic health coach and PCOS specialist, and discovered a wealth of information on probiotics. She recommended Jarro Dophilus Women’s probiotic. Because of her recommendation and the glowing Amazon reviews, I made the trek to Whole Foods and purchased it. Within the first week, I noticed less swelling, no urge to urinate, and improved odor (which was never an issue, but definitely a bonus). The probiotic has also drastically mended my relationship with sex—if that doesn’t sell you on it, nothing else will. This probiotic has had such a positive effect on my vaginal wellness that I’m willing to publicly out my UTI issues for the sake of helping other women who have experienced the same.
In addition to taking probiotics, familiarizing myself with healing practices has also been transformative. By now, we’re probably all familiar with the myth of drinking cranberry juice to address UTIs. However, it’s too diluted to deliver the right amount of active ingredients; cranberries might be helpful, but consuming cranberry juice to heal UTIs is a common misconception. Still, looming questions surrounding the use of preventative measures abound. What are probiotics actually good for? How long should we wait to feel the full effects of probiotics? When should we seek medical attention if a UTI doesn’t go away? I consulted two experts to help clarify: Felice Gersh, M.D. OB/GYN, author of PCOS SOS Fertility Fast Track, and founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, as well as Daniella Levy, founder of Happy V, a line of clinically proven products for the treatment of chronic BV and UTIs.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
First, let’s discuss how to differentiate a UTI from Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), which are both very common. Although the two can occur simultaneously, they affect different areas. "BV is an infection of the vagina, and a UTI is an infection of the urological system, most commonly of the bladder," Gersh explains.
You may already know that probiotics are used to prevent UTIs, but how long should you wait until you notice a change? "Diets, exercise, intimacy—all of these factors vary from person to person and they all affect how and when probiotics work. Some people may see the effects of probiotics after 48-hours of having taken the appropriate dosage, for others it could take several weeks," Levy says.
Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of the most common types of probiotics. According to Levy, it is the predominant bacteria found in vaginal flora. "It has been extensively studied as a probiotic, and results show that it may provide several health benefits. However, there are many different strains of L. Acidophilus, and you should know which you are taking," Levy says.
Now that you're up to speed on probiotics, what about prebiotics? "A prebiotic is anything that helps the efficiency and effectiveness of a probiotic. It serves as that source of fuel for the probiotic to get to work," Levy explains. "Essentially, probiotics need a fuel source to repopulate in the vagina and gut in order to fight off harmful bacteria. Combining probiotics and prebiotics ensures your body is getting the healthiest and most optimal bacterial colonies in your gut and vaginal flora.” Products such as Happy V Prebiotic+Probiotic deliver an all-in-one solution, promising the probiotics are as effective as possible.
When To Seek Medical Treatment
Familiarizing myself with the function of bacteria in the gut gave me a better grasp on healing my body. However, I still avoid antibiotics and wait for emergencies to visit the doctor, so naturally, I questioned at what point to seek medical attention if a UTI doesn’t go away. "For a UTI, if [you have] no flank pain, nausea, or fever, and when not pregnant and not immune suppressed, it’s best to try to self-treat for up to three days," Dr. Gersh advises. "If extremely miserable, take the over-the-counter bladder numbing medicine and contact your physician."
Understanding that UTIs are not necessarily a sign of poor hygiene or entirely associated with sex is crucial in expanding the dialogue on vaginal health. I experienced UTIs and BV for years and it wasn’t until I couldn't resort to antibiotics that I started finding solutions on my own. Probiotics have dramatically improved my vaginal wellness, and I hope this research aids you in your journey, too.
Jepson RG, Williams G, Craig JC. Cranberries for Preventing Urinary Tract Infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;10(10):CD001321. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001321.pub5
Kim J, Park Y. Lactobacillus and Urine Microbiome in Association with Urinary Tract Infections and Bacterial Vaginosis. Urogenital Tract Infection. 2018;13(1):7. doi:10.14777/uti.2018.13.1.7