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The Incontinence Diet

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By Teri Brown

If your idea of breakfast on the go is a vanilla latte and a chocolate muffin, there’s likely more than one reason – besides the extra calories – to find a new breakfast alternative. Some foods, like caffeine and chocolate, for instance, can actually aggravate your incontinence symptoms.

"It is well known that certain foods can [aggravate] problems of urinary control," says Dr. Jennifer Pollak, director of the Florida Center for Urogynecology. "These bladder control problems include urgency, which is a strong desire to urinate accompanied by the fear of [leaking], the incontinence associated with urgency ... and needing to go to the bathroom often, especially after going to bed."

Common Triggers

Dr. Pollak believes many people could improve their incontinence by improving their diet. She says foods containing caffeine, such as chocolate, tea, coffee and soda, can act on the kidneys to increase urine production and, therefore, trigger bladder control problems.

"Caffeine can also be irritating the bladder itself and may act directly on the bladder to cause spasms", Dr. Pollak says.

Experts at Mayo Clinic believe that more than 500-600 mg of caffeine per day (the equivalent of two large coffees at Starbucks ®) can begin to cause some health complications (check out how much caffeine is in coffee, soda, energy drinks, chocolate bars and more at And if you have incontinence, consuming even lower levels of caffeine than that can aggravate your situation.

And beware of spicy foods. According to Dr. Pollak, these foods also can cause bladder irritation. "Certain ethnic foods such as Thai, Indian and Korean may contain increased amounts of curry and chili, which may be especially irritating to the bladder," she says. Evelyn Guy, from Demopolis, Ala., discovered the effect of spicy foods the hard way. Guy has had incontinence issues for years and after several surgeries, numerous doctor visits and a lot of day-to-day experience, she has found ways to manage her problem. One of those ways was to understand that her diet affected the severity of her incontinence.

"I noticed that every time I went to a local Mexican restaurant I would have major incontinence problems," says Guy. "I thought it was because of the excess cola I drank due to the hot dip, so I tried limiting my cola [but] to no avail. Then I tried drinking water with my meal. Still no relief. I then decided it was the spice or tomato or both. I tried changing what I ate, as I noticed that the spicier food made the incontinence worse."

Making Good Choices

Dr. Pollak says in addition to spices and caffeine, foods that are high in oxalates may irritate the bladder and aggravate certain inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract. Some of the foods high in oxalates include: apples, cantaloupe, onions, citrus fruits, cranberries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pineapples, plums, pomegranates, strawberries, tomatoes, spinach, aged cheese and aged, canned, cured, processed or smoked meats and fish.

In addition, preservatives, artificial colorings and artificial sweeteners also can affect the bladder. "Additives and preservatives, such as monosodium glutamate, aspartame (NutraSweet ®) saccharin and artificial colorings, may also irritate the bladder and cause increased urgency, frequency and [the need to urinate after you've gone to bed]," says Dr. Pollak. "Studies have shown that carbonated beverages, citrus fruits and drinks and acidic juices may worsen these irritations or urge symptoms."

Dr. Jack Cassell, a practicing urologist and author of the book [i]Better Living Through Urology: 21st Century Solutions to Age-Old Problems[/i] (Acorn Publishing, 2004) believes the diet/incontinence correlation is complicated. "Urinary tract health is a very complex issue," says Dr. Cassell. "That which might be in your mouth for only a few short moments will surely linger in your urine and feces for hours. Even mild acids ... will irritate the lining of your bladder and colon if they're in contact with them for prolonged periods of time."

Another important point to remember is that what irritates one person's incontinence may have no affect whatsoever on another person. "Keep in mind that irritated body parts (such as an irritated bladder) are more sensitive and more apt to get infected as well since irritation breaks down our natural infection barriers," says Dr. Cassell.

It may be hard to modify your diet, but the results can be worth it. For example, if tea and coffee are among your favorite drinks, try replacing them with an herbal tea instead. If you find that various fruits affect your incontinence, try reaching for a handful of mixed nuts or carrots instead. By being aware of how diet affects your incontinence, you can make wiser and more healthful food choices.

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