Back to Bladder Control Basics

Imagine this scenario: You, or someone you care about, has developed a bladder-leakage problem. The first step is making an appointment to see the doctor, right? While no one disputes the importance of seeking medical attention for health issues, when it comes to bladder leakage, there are a few behavioral changes you can make on your own while you wait for your appointment. Although these changes may not solve the problem, some women can find relief by making adjustments to their diet, routine, or lifestyle.

If you leak when you sneeze, cough, or laugh, for example, you may have stress incontinence, and this generally means your pelvic floor muscles are weak. "Kegel exercises, done correctly, can help," says Leslie Wooldridge, a geriatric nurse practitioner affiliated with Hackley Health at the Lake Women's Center in Muskegon, Michigan. "But you must do the Kegels correctly and on a regular basis. You should learn to do quick squeezes for one second and squeeze and hold for ten seconds."

Urge incontinence is characterized by a sudden loss of urine for no apparent reason while feeling a strong need to urinate, according to information from the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov). If you suffer from this type of incontinence, you may see improvement by making changes to your diet, Wooldridge explains: "If you have urge incontinence, you should avoid caffeine and other irritating foods and drinks." These include older artificial sweeteners, such as saccharine; too much milk (calcium can irritate the bladder); alcohol; spicy foods; citrus drinks; or too much water, she notes.

"I see a huge increase in the number of patients suffering from bladder leakage in January because the weight-loss programs are all telling people to drink water to lose weight," says Wooldridge. She recommends a minimum of six cups per day and a maximum of eight cups a day, plus one cup per half hour of strenuous exercise. Wooldridge estimates that about 25 percent of her patients find relief by simply reducing the amount of water and caffeine they ingest.

Although drinking large amounts of water can increase bladder-leakage problems, losing weight can help. "There's a clear correlation between extra weight and incontinence," says Wooldridge. The added weight puts pressure on the bladder, which can lead to leakage.

Researchers have confirmed this correlation. A study published in the February 2006 issue of Diabetes Care, for instance, found that "losing a modest amount of weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity reduces the occurrence of urinary incontinence (UI) in women with prediabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not yet diabetic."

Constipation can also cause bladder leakage, she notes, as can smoking. "If there's stool in the colon, it can press against the bladder from the back," she notes. Many people find relief from constipation by eating foods that are rich in dietary fiber, such as apples, flaxseed, or beans. And quitting smoking is a good idea for many reasons, including the fact that nicotine can irritate the bladder. In addition, nonsmokers typically cough less, and coughing a lot can weaken the pelvic floor muscles over time, she notes.

Last but not least, Wooldridge advises her patients, especially those age 60 and older, to get over their embarrassment about bladder leakage and educate themselves. "Talk about it with your daughter," she says. "Chances are she knows a lot about this topic!"

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