Chinese Herbal Medicine for UTIs

You may have tried a lot of different things to treat UTIs by now (e.g. D-mannose, garlic, cranberry, oregano, etc.). We certainly have, and have battled UTIs for 10 years without lasting success. In yet another bid to avoid antibiotics which cause all kinds of issues, I’ve looked into how Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) might help. Since both my kids seemed to resolve their problems (cough-variant asthma and clammy/sweaty hands respectively) with a tailored course of CHM, I grew more hopeful for the idea that chronic UTIs could be reduced or treated.

Why Chinese Herbal Medicine Could Treat UTIs

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, people may present with similar UTI symptoms, while the causes for the symptoms are often different for each person. Sometimes they are a constellation of causes. For a UTI, you could even think of the overgrowth of the bacteria (E. coli or proteus mirabilis) as one of the symptoms rather than the cause itself. For people without UTIs, they are exposed to those UTI-causing bacteria all the time, too, however, their bodies just don’t allow the bacteria to take root or multiply enough to cause an infection.

In this context, a Chinese herbal formula, (which may or may not have some antibacterial or anti-inflammatory properties) also tries to address the weaknesses that allow the bacteria to flourish. These weaknesses vary from person to person. They can be a weakened immune system, an imbalance of hormones, lack of estrogen, a weak liver function, or a weak kidney function. TCM typically sees UTI symptoms as damp heat in the lower body. Damp heat is a distinctly TCM term, but just think of it as the state of a physical environment that’s conducive to the growth of mold, other allergens or bacteria – except in this case, that physical environment is in your body. 

Common TCM Formulas that Treat UTIs

I found the formulas (listed in this section) to appear most frequently on various TCM practitioners’ or TCM-related websites when I searched for Chinese herbal medicines to treat UTIs. Most of these herbal medicines appear to be targeted towards clearing damp heat in the lower body. Some are targeted more towards hormonal/menstrual regulation, and others help to reduce inflammation. Some seem to address an endless variety of symptoms. 

Chinese herbal formulas for UTIs, from L to R: Zhi Bai Di Huang, Ba Zheng Wan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Ba Zheng Tang

Here are the formulas that I came across most often:

  • Ba Zheng (Eight Rectification) – I saw this formula mentioned quite a lot and seems to be a formula that specifically targets urinary symptoms and is used for acute UTIs. We tried this and it worked! Unfortunately, while the UTI symptoms disappeared, it also caused a lot of diarrhea in my sample size of one (an elderly female). However, my data point also happens to have a sensitive digestive system, so you may not have the same experience. Berkeley Community Acupuncture had helpful information on how long and how often it could be taken. It’s not meant to be taken long term. If you can’t stand pills, I also found Ba Zheng in liquid formula.
  • Er Xian  (Two Immortals) – this formula seems more commonly used for menopausal symptoms. However, some research indicated that it was also recommended by some TCM practitioners for preventing recurring UTIs.
  • Long Dan Xie Gan (Gentiana) – this formula is targeted at liver health and seems to be recommended for acute UTIs with pain.
  • Zhi Bai Di Huang (Anemarrhena, Phellodendron and Rehmannia Formula) – this formula is known to address menopausal symptoms and boost kidney function. It can be taken long term, and was listed as a formula suitable for chronic UTI sufferers.
  • San Jin Pian (Three Gold Tablets)  this was mentioned in some of the clinical studies and seemed to have good potential for effectiveness. On a separate UTI occurrence, we tried this one too. It didn’t seem to work for us, but did cause diarrhea.

Final Notes to Keep in Mind When Trying a Formula

Formula name conventions – note that when searching for a formula, each formula name ends with either a Pian/Wan/Tang/San. These are Chinese terms for the form that the formula comes in and corresponds, in order, to tablets/teapills/decoctions/granules.

Best used immediately – Through my reading, as well as witnessing the experiences of an elderly female, I think that TCM formulas are best used immediately at the first sign of symptoms or in conjunction with antibiotics. It seems that after a certain amount of time, too much bacterial growth or inflammation has occurred for TCM formulas alone to overcome. While some formulas are anti-bacterial in nature, I don’t know if any would be as strong and sweeping as an antibiotic. Some research has found that simultaneous use of CHM and antibiotics to significantly reduce the rate of recurring UTIs. This suggests that while CHM may not be able to overcome a raging infection, it can balance your body’s internal environment to make it less conducive to bacterial growth afterwards.

Finding the right formula  for you may largely depend on accurately diagnosing your own individual causes for the UTI.  A good TCM practitioner can probably help you with that and can also modify these well-known formulas to even more specifically tailor them to your particular needs. However, seeing a practitioner can cost upwards of $200, not including follow up visits, etc., which may or may not be covered by health insurance. I don’t have any great ideas for addressing that cost because even after researching a lot of the material online, I didn’t have enough experience with the herbs or diagnosing a person’s health from a TCM perspective to feel confident in my assessments.

Nevertheless, we tried to skip working with a TCM practitioner, and did some trial and error. Then we tried a TCM practitioner who couldn’t seem to diagnose accurately enough. Finally, after the Ba Zheng Wan caused diarrhea while simultaneously curing the UTI, I felt that it would be worth trying yet another TCM practitioner to get a more customized formula that was easier on the digestive system. Additionally, we were interested in finding a suitable, long-term formula for addressing the body’s imbalances since we suspected that these imbalances were at the root of the recurring UTIs. 

As of this post’s date, we have managed to avoid antibiotics for 6 months, while addressing two flare-ups with CHM instead. If you’re a fellow UTI sufferer, you know how that feels! Fingers crossed!! 

Resources

This research suggests that Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) can help reduce the rate of recurring UTIs and has a role in treating UTI symptoms:

A review of clinical studies on CHM and UTIs:

A TCM practitioner recommendations for UTI treatment (primarily recommended San Jin Wan and Ba Zheng Wan):

Online Chinese herbal medicine storefront with nice write up explaining TCM view of UTIs and different types of formulas that might work:

Online post about UTI and treatments including TCM:

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