Health insights you can learn from your next trip to the loo
You know that you've had your share of water/beer/coffee by the frequency in which you need to use the bathroom, but what else can pee tell you about your health and habits? A lot, it turns out. We asked R. Mark Ellerkmann, M.D., director for the Center of Urogynecology at the Weinberg Center for Women’s Health and Medicine in Baltimore, MD, for some of the specific health and lifestyle issues your urine’s odor, color, and frequency can indicate.
The reason you have to pee on a stick after your first missed period is that shortly after conception (when a fertilized egg implants into the lining of the uterus), the fetus begins to secrete the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is what is detected by home pregnancy tests, Dr. Ellerkmann says. Some women also notice a strong, pungent odor early on, even before they’re aware they’re pregnant.
Once you’ve got a baby on board, running to the bathroom constantly is just one of the pesky parts of pregnancy, for a variety of reasons: your kidneys have to work harder to eliminate waste products from both you and the fetus, and as you (and the baby) get bigger, pressure on your bladder from your expanding uterus can send you to the ladies’ morning, noon, and, annoyingly, in the middle of the night.
Medically speaking, if there are red blood cells in your urine—known as “hematuria”—this could indicate a variety of conditions, according to Dr. Ellkermann, from kidney stones to an impact injury (in rare cases this can be caused by strenuous exercise like running long distances). A sweet odor can be indicative of diabetes, since your body isn’t properly processing glucose. If you’re over 35 and have erratic or heavy periods and an increase in urine frequency, you may have fibroids, benign uterine tumors that can press on your bladder (depending on their size, which can range from an olive to a grapefruit). Needless to say, if you see blood, smell any usual odor, or have any other concerns, see your doctor.
Crazy for carrots? Bananas for beets? Certain fruits and vegetables that have dark pigments (like the anthocyanin that gives beets and blackberries their deep red color) can tint urine either pink, in the case of red or purple produce, or orange if you’re eating foods rich in carotene like carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins. If you’re on a produce kick or just a really big fan of borscht, a change in urine color is nothing to be alarmed about, just take note if it stays the same after you’ve given the farmer’s market a rest (vitamins can have a similar effect, particularly Vitamin C, as well as certain medications). And of course there is the notorious asparagus pee odor, caused by a harmless compound the veggie contains.
Yes, that awful burning feeling is a pretty good indication you’ve got a dreaded urinary tract infection, but frequency (more than seven times a day, according to Dr. Ellkerman) is also a sign it’s time to call your doc. Other symptoms of a UTI can include fever, chills, pelvic/lower-back pain, and, occasionally, the presence of red blood cells can tinge urine pink, while white blood cells that are rushing to fight your infection can turn urine cloudy or cause an unpleasant odor. If you experience any of these symptoms, you likely need antibiotics to clear up the infection; your doctor can detect the presence of a UTI with a urine sample. If you’re tempted to swill some Ocean Spray instead, don’t bother—unless you really like it. Cranberry juice won’t help after the fact, but may prevent a UTI by making it difficult for bacteria to adhere to the bladder wall.
And they should be, as all of those things are either necessary, delicious, or both. Unfortunately if you have stress incontinence, they can also make it worse. While this isn’t terribly common in woman under 40 (though it can occur if you’ve had a baby or gynecological surgery), coffee, alcohol, sugar, and spicy foods can irritate bladder walls and aggravate the condition.
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You’ve may have heard that urine color—specifically dark yellow—can indicate dehydration, and this is indeed the case. When you’re properly hydrated, pee should be clear or just vaguely straw colored (the color in urine is caused by a pigment called urichrome, which gets lighter and darker depending on how concentrated urine becomes), and you should be going regularly, about once an hour depending on a variety of factors. A strong urinary odor, also due to concentration, is a sign of dehydration as well. And yes, you do need the recommended eight cups of fluid per day, but you don’t have to guzzle water to get it. Fruits and veggies contain water; if you’re loading up on those, it contributes to your daily eight-cup goal. But hydration is also about self-regulation. If you’re exercising, you need more fluid, (though only if you’re training for a marathon or doing some other sort of very intense and long-duration activity do you need a sports drink), so be aware of your body’s needs; fatigue and irritability can indicate dehydration as well.