While we don’t tend to talk about our pee too often – even to our physicians – it’s actually part of an incredible system to which we owe much of our health. Our kidneys work round the clock to filter water-soluble wastes, toxins, bacteria, yeast, excess protein, and sugars out of our blood, that would otherwise build up in our system and make us ill.
And not only does our urinary tract work as an effective filtration and disposal system, but it also functions as an early warning detection system, flagging certain signs and symptoms of potentially serious health problems that may otherwise go unnoticed.
The next time you head to the loo, here’s what to look for:
What your urine color says about your health
Urine is made up mostly of water, as well as uric acid, minerals, enzymes, waste materials, and substances such as urochrome, which gives urine its usual straw-yellow color. Here is your color reference list:
Pink or red: From beets, blackberries, and iron supplements, the color change usually is temporary and harmless. It sometimes occurs after strenuous exercise, but it can also flag other, more serious conditions, such as hematuria (blood in the urine). A 2012 analysis published in the Southern Medical Journal lists off several possible causes, such as kidney stones, urinary tract infections, enlargement of the prostate gland, anemia, certain inherited conditions, or bladder cancer. If you notice pink- or red-hued urine, then contact your doctor immediately. Your doctor can perform a simple test to determine whether it’s actually due to blood in your urine and where to go from there.
Brown: From rhubarb and fava beans. This is also a common alert for the presence of a urinary tract infection, especially if you experience a burning sensation when you go. With normal urination, you shouldn’t feel any discomfort. Brown could also indicate a buildup of bilirubin in the blood, possibly indicating a liver problem, a blocked bile duct, a gallstone, hemolytic anemia, or a tumor.
Orange: From carrots and B vitamins. Darker orange could signal severe dehydration. This could easily be remedied by drinking more fluids, but if ignored it could eventually lead to serious complications such as cramping, chronic fatigue, brain swelling, seizures, or low blood volume.
Green or blue: From asparagus and some antidepressant medications. In more unusual cases, this could mean a urinary tract infection.
Dark yellow or amber: You may be severely dehydrated. Drink more fluids. If ignored, this could eventually lead to serious complications such as cramping, chronic fatigue, brain swelling, seizures, or low blood volume.
Transparent: Clear urine is a sign of being too hydrated.
Pale straw to amber or honey: This coloring reveals you are well hydrated, but if it gets darker you may need to fill up on some H2O.
White or milky: White or milky urine could indicate an excess of certain minerals or proteins in your urine. Consult with your doctor if your urine appears white or milky.
What your urine odor says about your health
Back in the day, doctors used to routinely smell a patient’s urine – and sometimes, even taste it – to help them diagnose particular conditions and illnesses. While this practice has largely been abandoned in modern-day medicine (you won’t hear me complaining here), an unusual smell emanating from the toilet bowl can be an important warning sign of something that isn’t quite right.
The smell of your urine is related to the volume and concentration of certain chemicals that are excreted by your kidneys. Here’s what to note:
● No detectable odor: Normal. Urine doesn’t have a very detectable odor but, as with urine color, particular foods, supplements, and medications could cause your pee to be more pungent than usual.
● Slight odor: Asparagus, garlic, and meals high in animal-based foods, such as meat and eggs, are often to blame for odorous urine. Dehydration can also cause urine to be more concentrated, so it will have a stronger smell.
● Strong or foul odor: If your urine persists to have an unusually strong or foul smell, it could indicate a urinary tract infection, a kidney infection, bladder inflammation or infection, a metabolic disorder, a liver problem, or a sexually transmitted disease.
● Sweet, fruity, or yeasty odor: Could flag a case of diabetes or a rare genetic disease called Maple Syrup Urine Disease.
How often you need to go
On average, most people urinate about four to eight times a day. However, realistically, how often you go to the bathroom largely depends upon how much fluid you drink, what you tend to eat, how much caffeine and alcohol you’ve had, how active you are, and what your daily lifestyle is like.
Unfortunately, some people’s busy jobs and schedules lead them to “hold it in” for longer than others.
● Four to eight times a day: Normal range.
● More than eight times a day: The need to urinate more frequently often accompanies natural aging. Diuretic medications and some blood pressure medications can also cause you to go more often.
● Stronger sense of “urgency” or not experiencing a sense of completion after you’ve gone: Could be a symptom of several different health problems – urinary tract infection, pregnancy, prostate problems, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, an overactive bladder, interstitial cystitis (an inflamed bladder), or even a stroke or neurological disease.
Cloudy, foamy, or particulate urine
Normally, urine is clear or mostly translucent. If it’s completely clear and colorless, than it probably means you’ve been drinking a lot of water (it’s important to drink a lot of water every day, but drinking excessive amounts isn’t healthy either). Outside the norm, here’s what to watch for:
● Cloudy: If you occasionally notice that your urine is cloudy and are experiencing no other symptoms, it may simply indicate that you are mildly dehydrated and need to drink more. Cloudy urine could also be symptomatic of a urinary tract infection. In women, it could be due to vaginal discharge, vaginitis, or pregnancy. More serious potential causes include kidney issues, metabolic problems, pituitary problems, or a condition called chyluria, which is when chyle leaks into the urine due to a blocked lymph channel.
● Foamy: This is sometimes the result of an extremely fast stream of urine hitting the toilet bowl – nothing to be concerned about if this happens on occasion. But if you start to notice foamy urine more consistently, then it may be a sign of proteinuria, a condition characterized by a high concentration of protein in the urine and that usually indicates a kidney condition. It could also flag diabetes, an infection, or high blood pressure.
● Visible particles: This can be a sign of kidney problems, as well as the presence of bladder stones, kidney disease, a urinary tract infection, or other serious conditions.
Maintain and care for your urinary tract system
Most of us have been conditioned to wrinkle up our noses when it comes to urine, or to just flush it down without a second thought. But in order to notice the unusual warning signs that your pee may be trying to give you, you have to first familiarize yourself with its usual qualities – and this involves shamelessly looking down into the toilet bowl now and again, and noting what your pee looks like and smells like. It also involves paying attention to your daily bathroom habits, and making sure that you are taking care of your urinary tract system.
Staying adequately hydrated is not only key for maintaining a healthy urinary system, but it is also vital for healthy digestion and elimination, for keeping blood pressure and body temperature normal, for cushioning your joints and, essentially, for the proper functioning of every single organ and system in your body. And while most of us are familiar with the ‘eight glasses of fluid a day’ rule, the truth is that our actual fluid needs vary from individual to individual, depending upon your weight, size, activity level, caffeine, alcohol, salt and sugar intake, medications you may be on, as well as the weather and climate you live in.
Drinking eight tall glasses of water a day could work as an easy guide to ensure you are drinking, but be sure to drink more on hot days, after you exercise, and when you are consuming caffeine, alcohol, or a lot of sugary or salty foods. Or drink when you are thirsty, and let your urine be your guide – if it’s darker than straw-yellow, then try drinking more pure, fresh water, noting how your urine color changes as your water intake changes.
Related: Proteinuria (protein in urine) causes, complications, and symptoms