Urine isn't something most people talk about. We barely give it more than a passing glance as it swirls out of sight down the toilet bowl. Yet changes in the urine -- its color, odor, and consistency -- can provide important clues about the status of your body. Your urine can reveal what you've been eating, how much you've been drinking, and what diseases you have.
"Urine and urinalysis have, for hundreds of years, been one of the ways physicians have looked at health," says Tomas Griebling, MD, MPH, vice chair of the urology department at the University of Kansas.
Recent research estimates that more than 4 million people in the U.S. suffer from symptoms of interstitial cystitis (IC), a chronic bladder condition. For most of them, staying close to a bathroom is a necessity. On average, a healthy adult urinates no more than seven times a day and seldom needs to get up at night to use the bathroom. Someone with a severe case of IC, on the other hand, may urinate as frequently as 60 times in 24 hours, including multiple nighttime trips to the bathroom.
"From a historical view, urinalysis was one of the original windows into what's happening in the body," Griebling says. That's because many of the substances circulating in your body, including bacteria, yeast, excess protein and sugar, eventually make their way into the urine.
Urine is an important part of the body's disposal process. Its job is to remove the extra water and water-soluble wastes the kidneys filter from the blood. "The urine is there primarily to get rid of toxins or things that would otherwise build up in the body that would be bad for the body," says Anthony Smith, MD, professor and chief of urology at the University of New Mexico.
When you notice that your urine has changed color, or there's a strange odor wafting up from the toilet, the cause might be something as harmless as what you had for dinner (which could have included beets or asparagus). It also might be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an infection or cancer.
Before you flush, here are a few urine changes to look out for, and what they might be saying about your health.
Urine gets its yellow color from a pigment called urochrome. That color normally varies from pale yellow to deep amber, depending on the concentration of the urine. Darker urine is usually a sign that you're not drinking enough fluid. "Your body needs a certain amount of fluid to function, so the body will hold on to fluid and the urine will become very strong and concentrated. When that happens, it will turn a darker color," Griebling says.