Making a few tweaks to your daily routine can help you regain control of your bladder. No doctor’s appointment required
Leaky. Overactive. Bladder.
Words that strike dread in just about every adult who knows what it’s like to blow out 50 or more birthday candles.
We don’t want to think about urinary incontinence—the formal name for a group of bladder problems that lead to a leaky or overactive bladder. We don’t want to discuss it with our friends and family. We don’t even want to bring it up with our doctors. Plain and simple: We don’t want to deal with it.
But if you’re one of the nearly 33 percent of U.S. adults with urinary incontinence who frequently experiences a leak when you laugh or sneeze, or have frequent, strong “gotta go” urgency, there’s no ignoring your new reality.
Fortunately, medications, medical devices, and surgical procedures aren’t your only options. What you drink and eat, certain forms of exercise, and other daily habits may play a bigger role in easing symptoms of urinary incontinence than you think.
Here are six natural strategies that have been proven to help women and men stay drier.
#1. Keep drinking water. While understandable, it’s important to resist the urge to cut way back on water if you’re dealing with an overactive bladder or other form of urinary incontinence.
That only sets you up for an even bigger problem—dehydration. Your body’s systems need plenty of water to work properly. What’s more, dehydration can lead to extremely concentrated urine, which may irritate the inner wall of your bladder and aggravate your symptoms, according to the National Association for Continence.
Your best bet is to sip small amounts of water throughout the day, rather than guzzling bigger glasses with your meals, say experts at the American Urogynecologic Society. Switching to smaller, juice-sized glasses may help you adapt. And if frequent overnight bathroom visits are bothering you, aim to fit in your fluids before dinner and well before turning in for the night.
#2. Be a picky drinker. For some people, compounds in certain beverages irritate the sensitive inner lining of the bladder and also act as a diuretic. The result? You may suddenly have a lot of urine in your bladder, or feel bladder spasms.
The biggest culprits:
Caffeine. Sorry, coffee and tea lovers, the caffeine in your treasured ritual drink “is a natural diuretic, which has a direct stimulatory effect on bladder smooth muscle,” according to a study from the University of Michigan in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Urology. In the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers looked at the beverage choices of more than 65,000 women ages 37 to 79 and found that those who got the most caffeine were 25 percent more likely to develop urge incontinence compared to those who got the least.
Diet soda. Carbonated drinks and beverages made with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and acesulfame K may worsen an overactive bladder. Ascorbic acid and citric acid in bubbly soft drinks can contribute to bladder-muscle spasms.
Regular soda drinkers are wise to cut back, too. Research shows that people who drink more carbonated sodas have a higher risk for stress incontinence (leaks when you sneeze or cough), as well as overactive bladder (a strong urge to urinate).
Fruit juice. Bad news for fans of orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemonade, and other citrus juices. All of these popular sips have been found to irritate the bladder and trigger symptoms.
Beer, wine, and liquor. Alcoholic drinks may act as bladder stimulants and diuretics, too. Some research suggests these adult drinks may boost risk 30 percent or more—though sweet wines with a lower alcohol content may be less of a problem if you have an overactive bladder.
Keeping a bladder diary can help you keep track of which drinks may affect your bladder and whether cutting back is making a difference.
#3. Recognize which foods are friend or foe. “There is increasing evidence that diet may have a significant role in the development of overactive bladder symptoms,” note urology experts from London’s Kings College Hospital who studied the effects of food and beverages have on overactive bladders and other urinary tract symptoms.
Top on most experts’ lists of foods to avoid is chocolate (sigh). This sweet treat contains theobromine, a compound that is similar to the bladder-stimulating ingredient in coffee.
Other chart toppers on the no-no list are milk products and a number of fruits, including tomatoes, citrus fruit, cantaloupe, grapes, guava, peaches, pineapple, plums, and strawberries.
But before you cut all these nutritious goodies out of your diet “just in case,” urologists at Johns Hopkins Hospital suggest starting a bladder diary to help you identify your personal food triggers. Another option is to cut out one of these foods at a time to see if it makes a difference.
One nutrient that’s important to keep eating is fiber. Whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits are all high in dietary fiber, which helps keep your digestive system humming properly. And that’s important, because constipation and straining to have a bowel movement can worsen incontinence by pressing on your bladder.
#4. Try yoga. In a small 2018 study at the University of California, San Francisco, 56 women with stress urinary incontinence followed an easy yoga routine for three months. At the end of the study, the women’s total incontinence frequency decreased an impressive 76 percent. The routine included eight basic yoga poses, or asanas, including mountain pose, triangle pose, and chair pose.
The researchers say yoga is good for leaky bladders and strong urges in two ways: One, the poses help strengthen pelvic floor muscles; two, yoga helps reduce chronic tension and stress that can contribute to incontinence episodes.
#5. Do your Kegels. The muscles you use to control your urinary flow can benefit from their own unique workout, known as Kegel exercises. Women often learn them during their childbearing years, but they’re good to practice throughout life—for both genders.
They’re simple to do, and the payoff is a stronger pelvic floor. To do them, first familiarize yourself with the right muscles by stopping your urine flow in midstream. That’s the group of muscles you’re going to focus on later on.
During any downtime—before bed, during a commercial break, even at a stoplight—imagine using those pelvic muscles to lift a marble. Do this for a count of three, relax for three counts, then repeat 10 times. Repeat the series three times each day.
#6. Quit smoking. If you were looking for another good reason to stop smoking, this is it. Studies show that smokers are at a higher risk for urinary incontinence. Not only is cigarette smoke a bladder irritant, but over time many smokers develop a cough, which puts pressure on the pelvic muscles, increasing the chances for stress incontinence.
For help quitting, the National Cancer Institute can connect you to resources in your state. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Smokefree.gov offers a free motivational text-messaging program, where you can register to receive up to five messages a day for six to eight weeks.