Having IC can be like riding a roller coaster over and over again.
There are highs and lows, even and calm stretches and then there’s the dreaded flare that can arise either frequently, once in a while, or seem to drag on for months at a time!
When a flare strikes you need an arsenal of tools on hand.
A flare involves a strong increase in symptoms, which most commonly manifests as urinary frequency and urgency, burning in the urethra and/or bladder and muscle spasms in the bladder and pelvic region.
There’s also a whirlwind of emotions, depression and anxiety that can come with a flare, especially if you’ve been doing well for a long stretch before the flare strikes.
Here are my top 12 natural flare strategies for IC that you can add to your “IC toolkit” if you haven’t already:
1. Increase your water intake
This may seem counterintuitive, especially if you are having extreme urgency and frequency, but the more water you can get in you, the better.
Aim for at least 64 oz a day.
Diluting your urine is key to neutralizing the acids, toxins and other substances that may be irritating your bladder at this time. Water helps the kidneys do their job more effectively and flush out wastes.
2. Increase the intake of natural remedies that have an anti-inflammatory and soothing quality
Think of your bladder as hot and inflamed during a flare. You want to give it substances that promote bringing down the inflammation and will soothe a sore bladder.
Some examples include aloe vera (without citric acid or other harmful ingredients), curcumin (from turmeric), marshmallow root tea at room temperature and fish oil.
You will have to increase your dose of these supplements, as the regular dose usually won’t cut it during a flare. Speak with your holistically minded doctor, practitioner or nutritionist about how to do this safely and effectively.
3. Apply a cold pack, heating pad or hot water bottle
You will have to experiment a little with this to find out what works for you, but many IC sufferers find some relief with applying hot or cold, or a combination of both to the pelvic region, especially in the perineum area.
Cold packs can help reduce swelling and inflammation. In addition they can be useful for numbing the pain and calming muscle spasms. In general, you shouldn’t leave it on for more than 20 min. at a time and wrapping it in a towel is a good idea. Once the area starts to feel numb, it’s time for a break.
Heat can also help to reduce pain and muscle spasms by increasing blood flow to the area. In general, you should leave it on for no more than 20-30 min. at a time and wrap it in a towel to protect the skin.
Check with your doctor or physical therapist for proper methods of applying hot and cold to your pelvic region.
4. Practice deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing helps to calm down the sympathetic nervous system and in doing so, may help bring down pain levels. At the very least, deep breathing techniques can change your perception of the pain.
Shallow breathing keeps you in sympathetic mode and activates the fight or flight response.
The key is to consciously slow down your breathing and be sure to breathe deep into your belly and not just the upper half of your body.
In general, taking 5-6 breaths a minute can help put you into this relaxation mode and you can try this for about 5 min.
5. Take a warm bath with Epsom salts
A warm bath with Epsom salts is very helpful in relaxing tense muscles. During a flare it is likely that your pelvic floor muscles are even more tight (in response to the pain and discomfort), or the tight pelvic floor muscles (possibly in response to a stressful situation) could have activated the flare itself.
It’s a chicken and egg type deal – hard to isolate which came first!
Either way, an Epsom salt bath can help to reduce stress and provide some relief from the flare. Try adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to increase the calming effects of the bath.
6. Simplify your diet and supplement regime
During a flare it can be helpful to simplify your diet and minimize supplements to the ones you know for sure you don’t react to.
If you recently introduced a new food or supplement, take it out again and try to re-introduce it at a later time. Remember, it can take a couple of days in some cases for a reaction to a food or supplement to manifest.
You may do best on a bland diet at this time, such as plain chicken, rice and steamed veggies that you tolerate well.
7. Try some baking soda or alkalizing powder
Baking soda or a similar alkalizing powder can be a lifesaver during a flare. It seems to be especially effective agains bladder and urethral burning.
Try taking 1/2 teaspoon twice a day on an empty stomach.
If you have high blood pressure this is most likely not a good strategy for you and you should check with your doctor before attempting this!
8. Be in bed by 9:30 pm
The deepest and most regenerative sleep occurs between 10pm and 2am.
Between this time period your body is resting and repairing, which is so crucial for healing from any chronic disease.
It’s the best time to be sleeping for the repair of your adrenal glands. When your adrenals are tanked, you can no longer produce enough cortisol to keep inflammation in check.
During a flare it is especially important to make the most of those early sleeping hours. Going to bed too late will only make the pain worse and lengthen the recovery period.
You can learn more about how to get a better sleep with IC here.
9. Support your adrenal glands
Besides being asleep by 10pm, there are other ways that we can support our adrenal glands.
This is not only important during a flare, but it should be a strategy you are working on with your practitioner.
Herbs such as licorice root and ashwagandha are great for nourishing the adrenal glands and helping your body cope with stress.
Magnesium is also a key nutrient for the adrenal glands and has a calming effect on muscles and the nervous system.
10. Take time off work and other responsibilities
You can think of a flare as your body screaming at you to pay attention to it.
To really tune into your body and take the rest that is needed to recuperate, you may need to take some time off of work and other responsibilities where possible.
You may have pushed it too far in one area of your life and you need to take some time to take care of yourself.
I know taking time off is not possible for everyone, but if it within your means to do so, I highly recommend it!
11. Distract yourself
While I do recommend turning towards your pain with the breath and with a sense of self-compassion, I also understand that there are times when distraction can be very helpful.
If you are unable to breathe into the pain and be with it and find yourself angry and stewing in negative feelings about your situation, finding an activity to occupy your mind for a period of time can be helpful.
Reading a fiction book, playing your favourite computer game, or watching a movie with your best friend can be a welcome distraction from the flare.
12. Reach out to others in the IC community
You are not alone. There are so many other women and men out there struggling with IC and going through a flare at the exact same time.
Dealing with the emotional reaction when a flare up occurs is difficult, so don’t hesitate to reach out to someone and share where you are at and get some support.
After the flare has subsided or even during the flare if you have the energy and emotional stamina to do so, you can reflect on whether or not there is a message or lesson to be learned.
Was there something you did that played a role in this flare? Did you let stress management slip? Did you start back into poor eating habits? Perhaps it was that glass of wine you indulged in despite knowing that the consequences may be great.
This is not to say you should beat yourself up or blame yourself. We are all human and we will all make mistakes and have set-backs. You may not even be able to identify anything you did differently and the cause of the flare will remain a complete mystery.
However, reflecting on how you can take responsibility for the flare where possible, puts you in a more powerful place and allows you to make different choices next time around.
Although you can’t control everything around you, there are many decisions that are in your control and you can do your best to support your health and healing on a daily basis. It’s the small steps day in and day out that really add up over time.
Now, it’s your turn! Do you have a natural strategy for an IC flare that you can share with us? If so, please post it in the comments section below.