Suffering from a urinary tract infection (UTI) can be painful and very frustrating. There has been much discussion about the potential for stress to cause UTIs. But, where’s the evidence? This article has been written by gathering information from scientific sources in order to answer some questions about the links between stress and UTIs.
What are UTIs?
With approximately half of all women reporting having at least one UTI during their lifetimes, they are very common conditions1. UTIs refer to any infection in either the urethra, bladder, or kidneys2. A widespread form of UTI is cystitis, which is a bladder infection that causes a burning sensation when urinating2.
Typical symptoms of UTIs include2:
- Burning sensation or other pain when urinating
- Urine that appears cloudy
- Feeling the need to go to the bathroom more often
- Pain in the lower back or abdomen
- Flu-like feelings, such as fever and shivering
- Very low temperature (e.g., below 97 degrees)
- Blood in the urine
With the last of these listed (blood in the urine), one should seek medical advice as it may also be a sign of cancer3.
Does stress play a role in developing UTIs?
Some scientific studies present a link between stress and symptoms associated with UTIs. However, it is not always the case that researchers determine stress as being a contributing factor. For example, a study into adolescent illness found that those with stress were more likely to have urinary ill-health4. However, it remains unclear whether or not the stress was a triggering factor, albeit likely that was the case. In that study, the symptom most commonly linked with stress was dysuria4, which is the medical term for discomfort or a burning sensation when passing urine5.
Other research, however, states that “stress appears to influence the development or exacerbation of LUTS” (lower urinary tract symptoms)6. Although the authors note that the exact nature of the relationship between psychological issues and bladder-related complaints remains not fully understood, they do attribute at least some of the causes of UTIs to stress6. In fact, the conclusion of that study, in which it is expressed that treating the concerns of the bladder is unlikely to remedy the issue as the psychological root is not being managed6, illustrates the clear link between stress and UTIs.
There is certainly evidence to show a causal relationship the other way around. That is, repeating UTIs leads to psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression7. However, some argue that stress itself cannot directly cause a UTI, although it can weaken your immune system, meaning that you’re more susceptible to infections8. To explain this further, stress can lead to an overproduction of cortisol, which reduces the benefits of the immune system9. Though cortisol is necessary to help the body counter stress - as well as assisting other systems, such as metabolism - an overly high amount thereof can limit the ability of the immune system to tackle unwanted pathogens10.
What else might cause a UTI?
There are many different causes of UTIs. Physiological causes of UTIs include11:
- Poor hygiene
- Bowel incontinence
- Kidney stones
- Blocked urethra
In addition, some man-made products have been linked to potentially causing the development of UTIs, including11:
- Having a catheter fitted
- Some spermicides
- Particular tampons
- Antibiotics, if overused
Finally, sexual activity can trigger the onset or worsening of a UTI. This is particularly the case if one sleeps with many or new partners, or if intercourse is highly frequent or intense11. This is backed up in academic literature. For example, a research project ascertained that Escherichia coli (a bacteria that causes UTIs) was indeed shared between sexual partners12.
How can I prevent developing a stress-induced UTI?
As has been explained, there is a broad range of potential causes of UTIs. Nonetheless, the following tips can help you to reduce the likelihood of developing a UTI13:
- Keep hydrated
- Wear loose clothing
- Maintain good hygiene
- Consider birth control options
- Manage stress
Consuming heavily caffeinated beverages can cause potential damage to your kidneys; this, in turn, can trigger the development of a UTI. On the other hand, drinking plenty of water will help to flush unwanted bacteria and germs out of your body. Of course, it might mean that you need to go to the bathroom more often, but that’s a price worth paying to keep healthy.
Wear loose clothing
A UTI can sometimes become more severe through wearing tight pants or leggings. So, you’re better off wearing looser fitting clothes, especially if you are already suffering from a UTI and want it to go sooner.
Maintain good hygiene
UTI’s can often be caused by poor hygiene, particularly in relation to going to the bathroom. Make sure that you wipe your genital area properly after going to the bathroom and thoroughly clean the area when showering or bathing. Also, engaging in sexual recreation, make sure that your partner is clean, and that hands and toys are germ-free. Use antibacterial soap and try to avoid scented products, especially around your genitals.
Consider birth control options
Some methods of birth control can lead to the development of a UTI. Discuss options with your doctor to see if there’s an alternative product that you can use if you have a long-lasting or repeating UTI.
In terms of this article, this is the most critical aspect to consider. Modern lifestyles can be fraught with stressful situations, some of which can’t be avoided. However, for any that you can steer clear of, make sure that you do. For those that aren’t, there are techniques that you can try to reduce your stress (see below).
How can I reduce my stress level?
One of the best ways of reducing stress is through mindfulness and meditation. There are many different types of meditation14, some of which you may find more helpful than others. However, any method of reducing your stress level can help to lower the chance of you developing a UTI. The main types of meditation include:
- Mindfulness: This is the most popular meditation technique in the western world. It is based on paying attention to your thoughts as they pass through your mind15 and is ideal for practice by yourself and at any convenient time. This helps you to develop awareness regarding how you feel, and assists with responding appropriately to challenges.
- Focused meditation: Concentrating with one of your five senses to focus your attention16. This is similar to mindfulness, but also helps to refocus your attention if you start to become anxious or stressed.
- Visualization: Using all five senses to vividly imagine a scene of serenity and calm17. This technique allows you to channel your energies more positively.
- Spiritual meditation: Similar to prayer and used in many world religions, this is used to establish a deeper connection with a deity or with the universe. Essential oils18 are commonly used in association with this form of meditation. Using spiritual mediation is best for those seeking a link to a higher power.
- Movement meditation: Not limited exclusively to yoga (although that can also be beneficial), this form of meditation can involve walking through woodlands, working in your garden, or any type of gentle motion. The central aspect to this is to allow the movement to guide you19. This helps to clear your mind and become more appreciative of your surroundings.
- Mantra meditation: Using a repetitive word or sound to clear the mind, originally stemming from Buddhist and Hindu teachings20. You may find this type useful if you don’t find silence relaxing, or if you find it easier to focus on a specific sound, rather than on your breathing. Using a mantra lets you remove unwanted thoughts.
- Transcendental meditation: Similar to mantra meditation, but over the long-term. This has been popularized in scientific studies21 as it promotes structure and is more customizable than mantra meditation. It is believed, with prolonged practice, transcendental meditation can provide permanent mental wellness.
- Progressive relaxation: By gradually tensing and releasing different muscle groups in the body, the body can achieve higher levels of relaxation22. This may be helpful if you are finding physical feelings of tension associated with stress. This method will allow your body to become relaxed.
- Loving-Kindness meditation: Used to strengthen feelings of compassion for others by opening the mind to send and receive positive thoughts and emotions23. By employing this form of meditation, you can learn to work and live more harmoniously with others.
There are many different causes of UTIs. It is generally believed that stress isn’t necessarily a direct trigger of developing or exacerbating UTIs. However, it can compromise your immune system, meaning that your body is less efficient at fighting off germs or bacteria. This is what can then cause a UTI.
Methods of reducing the likelihood of getting a UTI include drinking lots of water, keeping your genital area clean, and reducing your stress level, among others. This article recommends meditation and mindfulness as tools for lowering your stress as much as is possible.