Interstitial cystitis (IC), or more commonly known as painful bladder syndrome, appeared on the medical radar barely a century ago. The reasons why people develop IC are baffling to doctors and researchers. (The condition mostly occurs in women; approximately 90% of IC sufferers are female.) Recently, the condition was referred to in an article published in a peer-reviewed journal as a “urologic mystery.” But could it be that a thousands-of-years-old tradition can explain the root causes of IC—and offer a safe and effective remedy to mitigate its symptoms?
Herbal medicine dates back several thousands years. Is it possible a medicinal plant can help IC sufferers? But how could it in the first place? After all, IC wasn’t a disease thousands of years ago; much less 50 years ago, when rates of the bladder disease began to rise.
The reason why certain herbs may help is because natural medicine focuses on the root causes of disease rather than just treating symptoms. Although all medicines can produce side effects, herbal products included, plant extracts, so long as they come from a reputable company, generally don’t cause serious side effects. (Unlike the IC drug Elmiron, which can cause permanent blindness and vision trouble).
What Causes Interstitial Cystitis?
Before exploring if herbs can help alleviate bladder pain, let’s explore the theories as to what conditions attribute to the development of IC.
According to one theory proposed by The Institute of Traditional Medicine (ITM), IC is an “Autoimmune response that develops in susceptible individuals as a result of an earlier infection, perhaps by bacterial strains that have become more prevalent in recent decades.”
Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director of the ITM, says that if this is theory is true, the endothelial bladder cells would then have altered membranes, making them appear to the immune system as cells to be eliminated. This then suggests that the bladder cells are attacked, resulting in inflammation with degradation of the bladder mucosa. (The mucosa is the protective barrier of the outer lining, or endothelial lining.)
Another theory proposed by Dr. Dharmananda: IC may be one localized manifestation of a systemic autoimmune disorder. The disorder perhaps started elsewhere in the body, and sufferers of the condition can have pain or discomfort not only in the bladder. This certainly could be the case as many people with IC also have other unexplained pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia. The experience of flare-ups and remissions of the disorder that is often reported is consistent with experience of many autoimmune disorders.
Yet it’s not always the case that mast cells, which would indicate an autoimmune disorder, are present in the urine of people with IC. This is the reason why the above-mentioned urology paper described IC as a mystery.
Considering that Elmiron, the only approved FDA drug for IC, has caused eye damage in many users, as well as hair loss in others, some people with IC may want to explore alternative therapies
Can Herbal Medicines Improve Painful Bladder?
While it’s true that IC is a relatively new disease, herbal medicine has a history of successfully treating contemporary maladies such as HIV, hepatitis C, as well as several different coronaviruses, SARS-Co-V-2 included.
Moreover, other bladder conditions have been treated for centuries by herbal remedies. The need to urinate frequently and bladder pain are not symptoms that are unique only to IC. Therefore, herbs used for bladder conditions may be appropriate for IC.
According to Oriental medicine theory, bladder problems are caused by a condition known as “Damp Heat.” What causes Damp Heat? There are several factors, including stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Damp Heat usually results in another condition in TCM known as Blood Stasis. Think of Blood Stasis as a pooling of the blood in a certain area. With bladder conditions, this stagnant blood flow usually affects the heart.
Thus, herbal remedies for bladder conditions are formulated to remove damp heat and improve blood flow.
Time-tested herbs for blood stasis syndrome have been successfully used to improve uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and other causes of persistent abdominal pain.
Which Herbs Are Best For Bladder Pain?
Obviously, there’s no guarantee herbal remedies will work for IC, but there is one traditional remedy with a successful track record for urinary tract health called Eight Herb Rectifying Powder, which was formulated in 1100 A.D.
The following herbs are in Eight Herb Rectifying Powder, most of which you are likely unfamiliar:
- Dianthus superbus (Fringed pink aerial part)
- Plantago asiatica (Asian plantain seed)
- Polygonum aviculare (Knotweed aerial part)
- Rheum officinale (Rhubarb root and rhizome)
- Akebia trifoliata (Akebia vine)
- Gardenia jasminoides (Gardenia fruit)
- Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Licorice root prepared)
- Juncus effusus (Soft rush pith)
Talc: An Herb of Concern For Bladder Difficulty
In the traditional formulation of Eight Herb Rectifying Powder, talc mineral is included. These days, talc is a controversial ingredient. That’s because of the well-publicized thousands of Johnson & Johnson baby powder ovarian cancer lawsuits. Evidence shows that Johnson & Johnson (which owns the subsidiary company that makes Elmiron) knew for decades that some batches of its talc powder were contaminated with asbestos, a mineral that’s found in close proximity in nature to talc.
Ovarian cancer is strictly linked to applying asbestos-tainted talcum powder internally around the genital area; it’s not the talc itself. Thus, ingesting talc in pill or capsule form should not be considered a risk for ovarian cancer.
However, some users of asbestos-tainted talc have developed mesothelioma, a cancer of lining of the lung or other organs. Again, this is not a side effect of the talc itself but rather from inhaling contaminated talc particles.
But if you want to be safer than sorry, ask the distributor of Eight Herb Rectifying Powder (there are several, you will need to do your own research to find a reputable company) if they can prove the talc contained in their product is free of asbestos. A third-party lab report should be offered as proof.
People with painful bladder syndrome may believe that despite the risk of losing their eyesight, Elmiron is worth taking to manage IC. However, herbal medicine may offer relief without causing serious side effects. Eight Herb Rectifying Powder may be worth giving a try. For safety and purity of the herbs, make sure you do your research before selecting a brand that sells it.