Are Bladder Problems Keeping You Away From the Action? Food Sensitivities May Be to Blame

It's the problem no one wants to talk about, but we all know exists: that all-too-familiar feeling of urgency and pressure that means you had better get to a bathroom fast. It's a BLADDER PROBLEM. The sales of big kid underwear, stress-incontinence pads, adult disposable briefs, and over-the-counter medications like Detro and Uristat make it apparent that bladder problems are unfortunately a common occurrence in many women and men throughout every stage of life.

Bladder issues run the gamut - extended bedwetting in children, frequency and urgency in young adulthood, stress incontinence after childbirth and continuing into the senior years, frequency/urgency syndromes in all ages, and bladder spasms or problems "going" in older men. Although these are fairly routine bladder issues, a surprisingly large number of people have more serious problems, including recurrent bladder infections, prostatitis (an inflammation of the prostate), or interstitial cystitis (IC - a chronic pain and urgency syndrome also known as painful bladder syndrome - PBS).

In many patients, urologists and primary care doctors may run tests without finding a discernable cause. Patients with continued symptoms are usually left with the option of taking medications such as Detrol, Ditropan, or Flomax, which sometimes create problems of their own, including side-effects such as urinary hesitancy. These medications also do nothing for the accompanying pain and burning that occur in diseases like IC, so patients with more severe symptoms often need to take narcotics and anti-anxiety medications. Medications like Pyridium (the active ingredient in Azo and Uristat) can help with discomfort temporarily, but are not meant to be taken long-term.

Could there be a common cause underlying many of these bladder problems? One strong possibility is unknown food sensitivities that trigger either an allergic response, an autoimmune response, or both. Clinical studies have shown that patients with chronic bladder discomfort often have elevated levels of histamine in their urine, as compared to those in control groups. Patients with chronic bladder discomfort also often show elevated SED rates, a measure of inflammation. Both of these findings indicate that environmental or food sensitivity, allergy, or other heightened immune response may be responsible for the symptoms they are experiencing. Another clue is that some patients experience total relief of symptoms when on I.V. fluids in the hospital, when too ill to eat solid food, or when following an allergen-elimination diet. Food sensitivities have also been implicated in bed-wetting in children, due to irritation of the urinary tract. Studies have shown that once food allergens are eliminated, the bed-wetting problem often ceases to be an issue.

In some people chronic inflammation and accompanying irritation may also indicate the existence of an autoimmune condition like Celiac Disease (CD), (also called Gluten Sensitive Enteropathy (GSE) or Celiac Sprue). People with CD experience toxicity when they ingest the proteins in wheat, barley, and rye, commonly known as gluten. CD and the chronic bladder disease IC often occur together, as reported by participants in support groups for both diseases. Among IC patients, many suffer gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, discomfort, and diarrhea. Although such symptoms are often diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), it is possible that at least some portion of people with a diagnosis of IBS are actually experiencing a reaction to eating wheat and other gluten-containing grains. According to published studies, IC is present in 40-60% of patients diagnosed with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and 38% of patients with IC have also been diagnosed with IBS. It seems reasonable that patients with IBS symptoms should be screened for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. One reason that this may not have been the case is that in the past celiac disease was considered to be rare, mostly affecting young children, and was thought to have a narrow range of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. This is simply no longer the case. The incidence of gluten-intolerance is growing, and symptoms in both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten-sensitivity vary widely and are known to affect all age groups.

The gluten sensitivity/bladder sensitivity connection is not well known. Until I discovered it myself by years of trial and error, I would not have believed it to be possible. Since my diagnosis of gluten intolerance, and my subsequent recovery from interstitial cystitis on a gluten-free diet, I have learned that I am far from alone in making this connection. Recently I wrote about my experiences in healing from interstitial cystitis and other health problems on a gluten-free diet, and published the article on a popular celiac support website. The response I received was overwhelming. People wrote to me from all over the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Moms wrote about their children, young women wrote about recovering from bladder discomfort, and many older women wrote to say that they no longer suffer from stress incontinence! All of the people responding to my article discovered the same phenomenon that I had: excluding wheat and other gluten-containing grains reduced or eliminated their bladder symptoms, which ranged from childhood bedwetting to incontinence in seniors. Could avoiding gluten really be the answer for thousands of people who suffer daily from bladder pain, urgency, frequency, and incontinence?

These are some of the many comments I received:

"I did not have bladder irritation or infection, but I did have stress incontinence. I was told that was "normal" for a 60 year old woman. When I went gluten-free 5 years ago, my incontinence disappeared".

"I can actually plan to leave the house now, where I couldn't before without a serious map to all bathrooms in all stores on the route."

"I suspected a connection. Celiac is in my family - I asked for testing - they said I wasn't thin enough. Finally I went gluten-free on my own. This cleared up my constant UTI's, hives on my legs and lower abdomen, bleeding gums, and all the intestinal distress! It's been 15 months now and I'm feeling better each day."

Many of us with bladder and gastro-intestinal problems can relate to these experiences.

A significant number of people who suffered from IC, a very painful, progressive bladder disease for which there is no cure nor a highly effective treatment, have experienced healing on a gluten-free diet. Because this disease has impacted me personally, I have been collecting such stories for several years, and included them in the article I wrote. This is a few of many anecdotes I have collected over the past few years:

"I have had IC for over a decade. I have been on a gluten free diet for over six years and that has been the only thing that has given me any relief from IC. I no longer take any meds at all - I haven't even been to a doctor for IC in several years. I would definitely suggest anyone with IC give it a try. It definitely gave me my life back."

"My IC came first in 1995 and the long road to being diagnosed with Celiac lasted 9 more years. Finally, I'm beginning to heal."

"I have both IC and a wheat allergy, which I ignored and was paying the price with the severe pain with IC. Absolutely nothing was working and no doctor would hear of it being related. Several have told me that diet would not solve anything...That was until my experience with dermatitis (Dermatitis Herpetiformis, a variant of Celiac Disease) forced me to be gluten-free and it has completely stopped the IC pain. It's nothing short of a miracle to have my life back."

My own research has shown that the body's response to gluten can cause mouth, lip, and tongue ulcers, esophagitis, deterioration of the intestinal villi (which leads to malabsorption of nutrients), and pain and inflammation in the illeo-cecal junction (the area where the small and large intestine join) and in the pelvic and abdominal regions of the body. Is it any wonder that this destructive process also affects the mucosa lining the bladder? Doesn't it make sense that pelvic and lower abdominal inflammation surrounding the bladder can produce both urgency and frequency? A physician wrote to me recently stating,

"My wife suffered for years with severe, incapacitating interstitial cystitis. In 2003 she was diagnosed with celiac disease. Since beginning a gluten-free diet, her interstitial cystitis has pretty much disappeared. I looked through the literature and found little over the years, but as a clinician, the anecdotal evidence has been impressive. Why not the bladder mucosa? Celiac disease seems to stimulate autoimmune reactions just about everywhere else!"

Is there a downside to excluding gluten from our diets? Following a gluten-free diet can be more expensive, especially if relying on ready-made gluten-free products. However, eating gluten-containing grains is not necessary from a nutritional perspective - cultures around the world have thrived for thousands of years without them, and alternative grains contain many of the same nutrients, including protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and minerals iron, magnesium, and zinc. A gluten-free diet is based on the same principles as any healthy diet: a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, alternative whole grains, protein sources, and healthy fats. Brown rice, wild rice, corn, buckwheat and quinoa are easy substitutes for wheat, barley, and rye. Less-familiar non-gluten grains include sorghum, teff, and amaranth, which are staples in Africa and Latin America. Your local natural foods grocery store is a great source of these items, sold as whole grains or flours. Many of Bob's Red Mill grains and flours are tested for gluten content and labeled gluten-free.

My own health has improved so much on a gluten-free diet that I was inspired to make a career change from hospital nurse to celiac disease and gluten intolerance educator. I write and publish a resource guide, offer individual counseling to clients new to a gluten-free diet, teach cooking classes, and write numerous articles for websites and local health magazines (see One of the questions I see often is, "How long does it take for bladder symptoms that are related to gluten sensitivity to resolve on a gluten-free diet?" This depends on how severe the problem is, and how long it has persisted. Some people actually begin to feel better in a matter of a few days, others take a month or more. Complete healing may even take several years in adults, less time in children. The good news is that trying out a gluten-free diet is relatively easy, and there is a wealth of resources available to the consumer on this topic. If you feel better on a three-week trial of a gluten-free diet, then maybe it's the answer you've been looking for. Be sure to let your doctor know if you are sensitive to gluten. Gluten-sensitivity has implications for autoimmune diseases, intestinal health, and even neurological and mental-health issues. Celiac disease increases the risk of developing diabetes and colo-rectal cancer. Men with urological issues or chronic pelvic pain should always be screened by their doctor for enlargement of the prostate and for prostate cancer. For more information, check out the following websites:, glutenfreechoice,, and for interstitial cystitis, (check websites)


Wheat is one of the most common items in our food supply, both in products we can clearly identify, such as bread, pasta, and snack foods, and in products where wheat is a "hidden" ingredient, such as in baked beans, mustard, and soups. Gluten (wheat and all wheat relatives, barley, rye, and anything made from them) is one of the first food triggers to suspect when ruling out sensitivities that precipitate bladder symptoms. Other food allergies and sensitivities tend to occur along with gluten sensitivity, since the gut is often quite damaged. This allows proteins to leak through into the bloodstream before they are fully broken down into amino acids, which triggers antibody production to many common allergens. Eggs, soy, dairy, and cane sugar are common offenders in people with gluten-induced bladder sensitivity.

It is important to know that spelt, faro, triticale, and kamut are all wheat relatives that contain gluten. Oats do not contain gluten, but are often cross-contaminated when grown on the same fields where stray wheat kernels have also germinated and grown, or when milled in the same facilities. Some people also react to the oat protein avenin similarly to gluten.

Wendy Cohan, RN is a practicing nurse in the Portland, Oregon area. In addition to working as a visiting nurse, she consults privately with clients on gluten-related and bladder-related health issues, speaks publicly on celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and writes and publishes in her role as a Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance Educator.

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