What is it?
Interstitial Cystitis (IC) also referred to as painful bladder syndrome (PBS), or bladder pain syndrome (BPS), is a chronic inflammatory condition affecting women, men, girls and boys, regardless of age or race. Most IC patients have recurring pelvic pain, pressure, or discomfort in the bladder and pelvic region, which is associated with urinary frequency (needing to go often) and urgency (feeling a strong need to go).
The severity of the condition varies – it can range from fairly mild symptoms to experiencing chronic pelvic pain. The sudden urge to urinate can cause excruciating pain and may also be accompanied by abdominal pain, pressure or spasms. Pain can be in the abdominal, urethral or vaginal area and can be so extreme that it can wake the sufferer up in the night. Pain can be aggravated by stress/ anxiety, travel and sexual intercourse.
Causes of IC
The exact cause of interstitial cystitis (IC) remains a mystery, but researchers believe a trigger (caused by one or more events) may initially damage the bladder or bladder lining, and ultimately lead to the development of IC. Triggers may include bladder trauma, pelvic floor muscle dysfunction and hypersensitivity/inflammation of pelvic nerves for example.
How Diet Might Trigger IC Flares
Irritation to the Bladder Wall
One theory is that a layer of the bladder wall is damaged which may allow substances found in the urine to seep into the sensitive layers of tissue which make up the bladder wall. When urine that contains these substances hits these parts of the bladder, they become irritated, causing pain and discomfort after eating bothersome foods and beverages.
Other scientists propose that substances in certain foods and beverages may excite sensitive nerve endings found in the bladder, resulting in bladder symptoms.
Increased Nerve Sensitivity
People with IC appear to have higher levels of pain receptors that are sensitive to certain compounds in foods. For example, they may have more receptors for capsaicin, the substance found in peppers. While bell peppers contain very small amounts of capsaicin and so usually don’t exacerbate IC, hot peppers contain higher amounts and may trigger IC flares.
Organ Cross Talk
Researchers have also proposed that IC bladder pain is caused by cross talk from the colon to surrounding organs. The pelvic organ nerves- the bladder, colon and prostate- are bunched together like telephone wires and plug into the same region of the spinal cord near the tailbone. People with IC have bladder nerves that are constantly transmitting pain signals to the spinal cord. When the colon is irritated, colon nerves also send pain signals to the same area on the spinal cord and this amplifies the pain.
Help For Relieving IC Symptoms
While research into the link between IC and foods/beverages is limited, it has shed light on certain foods and drinks which a broad number of IC sufferers have found trigger flare-ups. Changes in diet help many sufferers control their symptoms but studies have found there is a lot of variability from one IC patient to another. Thus, figuring out what to eat-and not to eat-can be stressful.
Along with avoiding common food triggers, a food elimination diet can be helpful, as well as identifying food sensitivities and keeping a food and symptoms diary. There are also a number of supplements which can help support integrity of the bladder lining and help reduce inflammation and pain, both issues implicated in IC.
Exercise- The health of your bladder depends on good blood flow to the area, and on having flexible and strong muscles around your bladder and other pelvic organs to protect and support them. Thus exercise, such as low impact aerobics, or yoga may be beneficial.
Stress- Most people with IC recognize that stress plays a part in exacerbating symptoms or triggering flare-ups. Learning basic relaxation techniques, mediation or EFT (also known as tapping) are evidence-based tools that can help mange stress.
Smoking- Research has shown that cigarettes irritate the bladder and may worsen IC symptoms of frequency, urgency and pain. Thus, quitting smoking may help reduce the severity of your IC symptoms.
Gordon B et al (2015) Nutritional Considerations for Interstitial Cystitis/Bladder Pain Syndrome. J Acad Nutr Diet 115 9 1372-1379
Interstitial Cystitis Association (2016)Interstitial Cystitis and Diet last accessed 7.3.2017 at
Jhang JF, & Kuo HC1 (2016) Pathomechanism of Interstitial Cystitis/Bladder Pain Syndrome and Mapping the Heterogeneity of Disease. Int Neurourol J 20 Suppl 2 S95-104
Shorter B et al (2007) Effect of comestibles on symptoms of interstitial cystitis. J Urol 178 1145-52
Article written by Sylvia Salvendy - London
Hello, I'm Sylvia Salvendy, BSc Nutritional Therapist, Health Coach and EFT ("Tapping") Practitioner. I work with men and women who want to lose weight for once and for all, without resorting to faddy, complicated diets and deprivation. I also help men and women with associated concerns like emotional eating, cravings... [read more]