Chinese medicine has been an effective treatment for urinary symptoms such as frequency or lack of bladder control (incontinence) for thousands of years. Urinary incontinence is diagnosed as stress incontinence, which occurs during exertion or sneezing and is attributed to weak pelvic floor muscles. Or, as urge incontinence, which involves contraction of the pelvic floor muscles that puts pressure on the bladder. It is not uncommon for an individual to have a combination of both.
These conditions have the potential to significantly impair quality of life. This includes dealing with its associated social stigma, which comes with embarrassment and lack of confidence. It involves overthinking and worry about finding a bathroom at a moment’s notice, especially when out and about. Moreover, it can lead to lack of physical activity, isolation, and even depression. Many individuals are so ashamed about this condition that they hide it from their physician – even though they are the first person that should be consulted.
Incontinence often comes with advancing age and is a health problem that typically develops slowly and progressively – one that needs to be addressed when it begins, rather than waiting for it to become severe. Many women experience lack of bladder control after childbirth, especially with a vaginal delivery and if a woman’s mother or older sister has had bladder issues. Additional causative factors include hormonal imbalance, obesity, heavy smoking, constipation, diabetes, chronic cystitis, and other inflammatory diseases. It further stems from weak bladder muscles, damage to nerves that control the bladder, pelvic floor dysfunction, blockage from an enlarged prostate in addition to autonomic and central nervous system problems.
According to Chinese medicine, the most common cause of urinary issues stems from weakness in the qi (vital energy) of the kidney, which is said: “to govern water.” This means that the energetics of this organ system is responsible for the metabolism of water and urination as well as filtering urine. Kidney qi is further said to hold urine within the bladder – explaining its connection to an overactive bladder condition. This is particularly the case during the winter months as it is the season related to the energetics of the kidneys and bladder.
Chinese medicine treatment focuses on strengthening kidney qi through acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, massage, tai chi or qigong exercise as well as Chinese lifestyle and dietary recommendations. Treatment may take some time to see results as energies need to be built up, so it is important to be patient with the process. It also depends on length of time that this problem has existed combined with an individual’s constitution and potential for healing. Strengthening of additional organ systems such as the spleen, lungs and live may be necessary to obtain desired results.
Clinical research trials have found acupuncture to be successful in the treatment of stress incontinence and Overactive Bladder Syndrome, which causes a sudden urge to urinate, which may be difficult to stop and lead to urge incontinence. Deputy director at the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine David Shurtleff states: “The research on acupuncture for stress incontinence suggests that acupuncture could be a reasonable and low-risk approach to try before attempting riskier, more invasive treatment such as surgery.”
Food such as walnuts can be eaten to prevent incontinence through strengthening kidney essence. They can be eaten raw or added while preparing your oatmeal. Walnuts also help to prevent a cough, which is helpful with stress incontinence that happens with coughing.
Other dietary recommendations include limiting or eliminating caffeine, alcohol, sugar substitutes and refined sugar. Stress reduction techniques and nutritional supplements are also helpful. These include antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and alpha-lipoic acid as well as anti-inflammatories such as bromelain, quercetin, and turmeric. Cranberry eaten as a food or taken as a supplement is also mentioned as a possible remedy due to its ability to prevent infection and inflammation of the urinary tract. Omega 3-fatty acids, probiotics and the herbs saw palmetto and uva ursi are also recommended.
In terms of Chinese herbs, it is best to consult an acupuncturist that is highly trained and certified in Chinese herbal medicine, rather than choosing a formula on one’s own. In addition to strengthening the energetics of a particular organ system, they are also utilized to increase circulation, eliminate chronic inflammation, clear low-grade infection and support tissue growth. And tai chi and qigong are additionally helpful for strengthening the pelvic floor muscles. Furthermore, acupuncture builds blood to nourish overall health and specifically to the bladder area. And it reduces inflammation, strengthens adrenals, balances hormones and calms the nervous system – all which play a role in the regulation of urination.
Attention must also be focused on strengthening the pelvic floor muscles. Standard medicine has typically recommended Kegel exercises, which are a good place to begin depending on necessity. However, there are other methods for strengthening this area of the body for both men and women, which involves what is known as neuromuscular re-education and myofascial release techniques. Fortunately, there are physical therapists that specialize in this treatment approach. Working in this way with a trained professional is essential in addition to receive acupuncture and other Chinese medicine modalities that focus on opening energies of the lower spine and sacrum, in addition to working with the underlying energetic cause. Getting on a program of healthy nutritional and/or weight management is also essential.
Chinese medicine treatment is an individualized treatment approach that works with a person as a whole. In doing so, it focuses on alleviation of symptoms along with addressing the root energetic cause. There is much to be gained from an integrated Western and Eastern approach for treating this health issue. Although it is essential to keep prevention and early treatment in mind, improvement happens quicker and easier.
Shoshanna Katzman, L.Ac., M.S. is an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, Tai Chi, and Qigong Instructor as well as director of Red Bank Acupuncture & Wellness Center in Shrewsbury, NJ approaching 30 years. Shoshanna is an author of Qigong for Staying Young: A Simple 20-Minute Workout to Cultivate Your Vital Energy and co-author of Feeling Light: The Holistic Solution to Permanent Weight Loss and Wellness. For more information be sure to visit www.healing4u.com and www.qigong4.us.