When I first was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis (IC), a chronic condition characterized by frequent urination and bladder pain, my doctor prescribed a couple medications and told me to keep track of which foods and drinks made my symptoms worse. I didn’t take this suggestion seriously at first, partly because a lot of my favorite things were the biggest bladder irritants (coffee and alcohol are two) and partly because I didn’t see how food could make such a big difference. I was wrong about that.
After two weeks of no improvement, I talked to a friend with IC, who emphasized that you have to be regimented about what you eat and drink. So, I decided to give up three of my favorite things: coffee, alcohol, and spicy food. My symptoms decreased almost immediately. But I didn’t realize I was still not doing nearly enough — until one night, when I woke up feeling like there was a deep cut in my bladder and acid had been poured into it. I had eaten a green apple before bed, a known IC trigger food. After that, I began eating according to the Interstitial Cystitis Network’s food list, and things got much better. Almost all the pain was gone, and my trips to the bathroom decreased.
When patients come to Jennifer Linehan, MD with interstitial cystitis symptoms, she will often prescribe dietary changes before trying any medications or procedures. This doesn’t mean dietary changes are all you need, but it does speak to the power of natural treatments.
“I often have to go through many treatment options before I find a treatment that works for them, so I encourage them not to get discouraged,” Linehan tells Bustle. In conjunction with exploring different treatment options with a doctor, here are some natural healing methods that might help alleviate IC symptoms.
1Eat Foods Low In Oxate, Histamine, And FODMAPs
As I mentioned, changing my diet was the most impactful thing I did. But the IC Network food list on its own isn’t enough, Melissa Albers, a nutritionist who specializes in treating interstitial cystitis, tells Bustle. In general, she suggests eliminating soy, sugar, and other fast carbohydrates, processed fats, food additives, alcohol, and caffeine and instead eating foods that are low in oxate, low in histamine, and low in FODMAPs. But she recommends working with a nutritionist to find the right plan for you.
“Stress reduction has been shown to decrease the inflammation of the bladder,” says Linehan. “[Stress] creates inflammation and free radicals in the body, so if you can reduce the oxidation and free radicals, we think that attacks the bladder and the nerves less. And the other thing is cortisol — we think there could be some relation of cortisol levels to when patients with IC have severe outbreaks.” To reduce stress, she recommends getting 30-40 minutes of low-impact exercise per day, joining a support group, going to a therapist, or getting a massage.
3Go To Physical Therapy
Many interstitial cystitis patients suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction, and working through this with a physical therapist can help relieve pain. “The exercises center around two things: core strengthening and relaxation of the pelvis,” says Linehan. “Because of the constant discomfort and pain, [interstitial cystitis patients] tend to tighten the muscles in the pelvis, and in doing so, they can make things more uncomfortable when they’re urinating.”
Linehan recommends L-arginine, which relaxes the bladder, and calcium glycerol phosphate, which lowers the acidity of your food. Aloe Vera can also help rebuild the mucous layer of the bladder, which is often damaged for IC patients, she says.
Many interstitial cystitis patients report improvement after getting acupuncture, says Linehan. “We don’t perfectly understand how that works, but it has been documented in patients with IC and any kind of bladder pain syndromes and even some bladder infections,” she says.
When you’re dealing with a chronic health condition, your life can begin to revolve around looking for ways to relieve it. But it’s also important to do things that make you happy and lift your spirits amid the struggle. Stress reduction will help you heal, after all.