For some women, incontinence is a daily struggle, but there are plenty of ways—from lifestyle changes (say, quitting smoking) to minor tweaks (drinking less water) that can improve how the condition impacts your daily life.
Needing to urinate completely out of the blue (from overactive bladder) or worrying you may leak a little whenever your gym class starts jumping jacks (from stress incontinence) can be anxiety provoking and emotionally upsetting, but all of the doctors HealthiNation spoke to agreed: There’s no reason to suffer incontinence and think you can’t do anything to make it better.
In addition to medical treatments for incontinence, these lifestyle changes can improve incontinence symptoms too.
We don’t need to tell you that smoking is bad for your heart and lungs, but those toxic chemicals also take a toll on your kidneys and bladder. These critical parts of your body's filtration system must process the toxins from cigarette smoke too, says S. Adam Ramin, MD, a urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. “They weren't made for such a burden. [The chemicals] kill them, literally. From the risk of kidney failure to multiple types of urological cancers, smoking is one lifestyle habit that really isn't worth it.”
Smoking can cause a chronic cough, which increases your risk of stress incontinence.
Smoking can cause you to develop a chronic cough, which increases your risk of stress incontinence, which is when you leak urine when you put pressure on the bladder from laughing, coughing, jumping, or other such activities. Smoking is also an irritant to the bladder, which makes overactive bladder worse. It’s also a key risk factor for bladder cancer, according to the National Association for Continence.
Sure, losing weight can feel like it’s the answer to every health problem, but in this case, it helps to understand a bit about the bladder and your anatomy. Remember, the bladder is essentially a muscular organ and those muscular walls are what help prevent you from leaking urine when you laugh or jump. “One of the best ways to keep your bladder healthy is by maintaining a healthy body weight, because too much weight can put a great deal of pressure on the bladder,” says Dr. Ramin.
Scientific research backs this up: A classic study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that overweight women with incontinence (leaking urine at least 10 times per week) who were put on a strict weight-loss program lost 17 pounds in six months and had nearly 50 percent fewer episodes of incontinence. “This has been a real motivator for my patients to work on losing weight,” says Maria Canter, MD, director of the Urogynecology Center of Northern Virginia.
Certain foods and beverages make your bladder angry. Caffeine and alcohol can irritate the bladder and increase its activity. Some women with overactive bladder naturally restrict their fluid intake, which makes sense if you’re used to drinking A LOT of water each day. But dehydrating yourself can backfire. It can cause constipation, which makes overactive bladder worse. And it can concentrate your urine, turning it into another form of bladder irritant that makes you need to go. Chocolate, spicy, or acidic foods can also cause bladder problems, especially in those people who are already prone to overactive bladder symptoms, he says.
Exercise may very well be the best natural medicine for the mind and the body, and your bladder is no exception. “Exercise strengthens the pelvic floor muscles as well as general muscle tone. Both of these factors can help maintain control of urine,” says Dr. Ramin. A regular exercise routine also ensures a healthy flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your kidneys, says Dr. Ramin. “This helps keep them in proper working order to continue expertly filtering toxins out of the body.”
Strengthening your pelvic muscles is one of the best ways to maintain bladder control. Here’s how to do Kegels properly: “Find the muscles you use to stop urinating, and simply squeeze and hold them,” instructs Dr. Ramin. Reinforcing these muscles over time will allow you much more control over your bladder, minimizing leaking or severe urges to urinate. A regular Kegel routine will also help hold your pelvic organs firmly in place to avoid prolapse (a sagging of the pelvic organs, which is most common in women who’ve had a vaginal birth). The best part of Kegel exercises? It’s not clear to anyone else that you’re doing them. You can practice at the office during a way-too-long meeting, while you’re stuck in traffic commuting, or, hey, while you’re reading this article.
We’ve all done it: held in urine when we really had to go because it just wasn’t convenient. (Who wants to use the grocery store restroom unless it’s a dire emergency?) But trying to be a camel isn’t doing your bladder any favors. “Holding your urine for an extended period of time actually weakens the bladder muscles, and the longer the urine stays in your bladder the more your body is exposed to potentially harmful bacteria, which can raise your risk of developing a urinary tract or bladder infection,” explains Dr. Ramin. “Make it a habit to schedule yourself a quick break every two to three hours to use the restroom before the urge becomes severe.”
Some patients who experience urinary incontinence related to physical activity can try inserting a tampon when exercising, says Dr. Canter. The stress incontinence “occurs when the urethra, the tube that allows the bladder to drain, moves too much or is weak,” she explains. “When the urethra moves too much, it is called hypermobile. You can think of a hypermobile urethra as moving like a swing. This movement allows urine to slip out.” Placing a tampon minimizes how much the urethra can move around while you exercise, potentially minimizing urine leakage.Don’t forget to remove the tampon afterward.
Another option is a pessary, which is a plastic or silicone ring that is placed in the vagina (similar to a tampon) to support the pelvic organs. “The pessary is used to treat dropping organs, also known as pelvic prolapse, as well as urinary incontinence. The nice thing about the pessary is it can be cleaned and reinserted,” adds Dr. Canter.
Women with overactive bladder can try a behavioral technique known as bladder training to try to reduce the feelings of urgency and frequent urination. This is ideal for patients who may be going to the bathroom quite frequently; say, every hour or even more often. Let’s say it’s 10 AM and you feel the need to go; with bladder training, you’d try hard to distract yourself until 10:10 AM. Once you got that down, you could try to extend your time to 20 minutes before running to the bathroom. The goal is to delay urination in small increments so you can aim to wait two to three hours between trips to the toilet.
Nancy, 66, who lives with incontinence, says she prepares her bed with a waterproof mattress pad. “You will leak on accident and don't want a smelly, wet mattress,” she says. She suggests using double or triple sets on sheets on your bed to be ready for a nighttime issue. “So, if you leak, you strip the bed, throw soiled laundry in the washer, and are back in bed before you wake up completely.” This prevents you from having to do laundry or remake your bed in the middle of the night, which can be disruptive to a good night’s sleep.
We’ve come a long way from products that feel like adult diapers. Some women may opt for protective underwear. Both disposable and washable varieties can offer discretion and peace of mind. Bladder control pads, which have materials that absorb and draw liquid into the center of the pad, are another protection option.
Pack a thin, waterproof mattress pad when you travel to prevent leaking on sheets, Nancy recommends. She also advises to bring along a decorative waterproof chair pads, to use in any chair or in a car; ideal for long-distance car rides.
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