If you’re curious about herbal remedies for overactive bladder, you’re hardly alone. The CDC says about 75% of people with the condition have turned to a complementary treatment at some point.
Why do people go natural? Because their medical treatments don’t work, or they may have unpleasant side effects, says Bilal Chughtai, MD, an assistant professor of urology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
But are herbal treatments worth it? It’s hard to know for sure. “There’s very little scientific research on the topic,” says Linda Brubaker, MD, a professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "Without quality studies, doctors can’t say if these remedies work, or if they’re safe to use -- either alone or with other medications.”
Chughtai, who studies how herbs affect the urinary tract, agrees. “We’re still in the very early stages of uncovering how herbs may treat overactive bladder,” he says.
But even without solid proof that they work, a number of these remedies are on the market. Some have been used to treat OAB for centuries.
Here’s what we know about 10 common herbal treatments.
Gosha-jinki-gan: This blend of 10 herbs is one of the most studied products. Japanese researchers found that people who took it daily for 8 weeks went to the bathroom less. Other studies confirm that it lowers the urge and helps with incontinence. Chughtai says it may work by stopping nerve signals to the bladder.
Hachi-mi-jio-gan: This Chinese remedy is a blend of eight natural ingredients. A Japanese study done on animal tissue showed it eased bladder muscle contractions.
Buchu (Barosma betulina): Found in the mountains of South Africa, this flowering plant has been used as medicine since the 1650s. It has treated everything from coughs and kidney infections to stomachaches -- and OAB.
Cleavers: Because of small, sticky hooks on the leaves, this herb is usually brewed into a tea to treat urinary tract infections. There’s no research on it about OAB, but Chughtai says many people believe it can soothe the bladder.
Horsetail: Named for its long, tail-like appearance, this member of the fern family grows in swamps, marshes, and rivers. It’s high in antioxidants, which are thought to protect against the natural stress that comes with aging. “Over time, bladder tissue can become unhealthy and fibrous,” Chughtai says. Horsetail may slow or reverse this process, although there’s little research to back that idea up or show that it helps OAB.
Corn silk: These fine threads are a pain when you’re shucking corn, but they’re packed with vitamins and antioxidants. They’ve been used to treat urinary tract infections for centuries. More recently, they’ve become a treatment for OAB. But there’s no research showing how well they work.
Ganoderma lucidum: For 2,000 years, this mushroom has been a staple of Chinese medicine. A Japanese study showed it lowered the urge to go after 8 weeks. Doctors think it lower levels of the hormones that boost prostate growth -- one cause of OAB in men.
Resiniferatoxin: Made from a Moroccan cactus-like plant, this remedy is known for its scorching-hot pepper-like burn. Experts believe it works by blocking nerves in the bladder that tell your brain you have to go. It may also help your bladder hold more, which means fewer trips to the bathroom.
Capsaicin: Chili peppers get their heat from this spicy compound. It probably acts the same way as resiniferatoxin, Chughtai says. A small trial in Thailand found that it helps you go less and controls leaks. One downside: It can cause side effects like pain and irritation.
Saw palmetto: People in Europe use this extract, made from the berries of the dwarf palm tree, to treat problems caused by an enlarged prostate. Research suggests that compounds in saw palmetto may work with nerves in your urinary tract to ease OAB.
Before You Go Herbal
Plant-based treatments sound safe because they’re made from natural ingredients, but that may not be true, Chughtai says.
The FDA doesn’t control these products the way it does prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Some may not contain the herbs listed on the label. Your best bet is to see a naturopath, holistic doctor, or a physician who specializes in complementary medicine. They can help you choose wisely.
Always tell your primary care doctor or urologist about any supplement you’re thinking about taking. They'll check into whether it might mix poorly with any meds you're taking. And if you get the OK to take the supplement, they'll want to know if you have side effects.