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The Urinary System: Anatomy, Main Functions, Issues, and Advanced Topics
Understanding the urinary system’s anatomy, main functions, important definitions, and advanced topics will help you take charge of your own urinary health.
A lot of people are embarrassed to ask questions about the urinary system, but why should they be? Whether we’re talking about the male or female urinary system, this is something that affects everyone.
Today, we’re going to take the stigma out of something that’s a part of everybody’s overall wellness, and break down the parts of the urinary system, it’s main functions, important definitions, common problems, and advanced topics. By arming yourself with better knowledge, you can be a better advocate for your own health.
Quick Navigation: Click On Your Area of Interest, Or Simply Scroll Through
- The Main Function of the Urinary System & Anatomy
- Common Problems With the Urinary System
- The Urinary System and Sexual Health
- Advanced UTI Topics
- Advanced Urinary Incontinence Topics
The Main Function of the Urinary System & Anatomy
Urinary System Anatomy & Definitions
While the bladder is often the first thing that comes to mind when discussing urinary anatomy, there are several major organs of the urinary system:
- Kidneys - The filtering units driving the entire process.
- Ureters - Small tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder, emptying small amounts of urine every 10 to 15 seconds.
- Bladder - The membranous sac responsible for storing urine, then expelling it via the contraction of the bladder walls.
- Sphincter Muscles - By creating a seal around the opening of the bladder, these muscles are responsible for preventing urine from leaking out.
- Bladder Nerves - Your bladder contains special nerves that give your body the signal for when to urinate.
- Urethra - The final component of the urinary system, the urethra is the tube through which urine exits the bladder.
The urinary system diagram on the right highlights all of its main parts and major organs.
Main Function of the Urinary System
The main function of the urinary system is to remove liquid waste from the body. The liquid component of the waste leftover from the food we eat is called urea, which remains in our blood and needs to be filtered out by the kidneys. The male and female urinary systems work the same way, but it’s important to note that the male urinary system may be affected by prostate problems (see our Ultimate Prostate Guide).
Tiny components called nephrons make up the kidneys, and are responsible for that filtering. The byproduct of this process is urine, which is then expelled from the body with the help of the parts of the urinary system listed above. When each piece of the system works correctly, normal urination occurs. However, there are problems that may arise and cause issues.
Common Problems With the Urinary System
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
What is a UTI?: A urinary tract infection, or UTI, can affect any of the main organs and parts of the urinary system listed above. While the female urinary system is more susceptible to UTIs in general, the male urinary system may be affected, as well. UTI causes may vary, but they ultimately involve bacteria entering through the urethra, where they can then multiply in the bladder and potentially spread to other parts of the urinary system.
UTI Symptoms: If you’re affected by a urinary tract infection, your symptoms may vary based on which type of infection you have:
- Cystitis (infection of the bladder): Symptoms of a bladder infection may include discomfort/pressure in your lower abdomen, unusually frequent urination, painful urination, or blood in the urine, known as hematuria.
- Urethritis (infection of the urethra): UTI symptoms of an infection that’s only reached the urethra can include cloudy discharge and a burning sensation during urination.
- Acute Pyelonephritis (infection of the kidneys): This type of infection can be dangerous due to the risk of kidney damage, with symptoms including pain in the upper back, fever, nausea, vomiting, and chills.
What is Urinary Incontinence?: Urinary incontinence (UI) comes in several different forms, but can be defined as any loss of bladder control, thereby affecting the main function of the urinary system. Underlying causes can include a weakening of bladder muscles with age, an enlarged prostate in men, pregnancy or menopause in women, UTIs, and obstructions in the urinary system. The fact that these issues can have many causes highlights the importance of understanding urinary system anatomy.
Urinary Incontinence Symptoms: Much like UTIs, the symptoms of UI you experience vary based on the type you have:
- Stress Incontinence: A common form of UI, stress incontinence involves urinary leaks when sneezing, laughing, or exercising.
- Urge Incontinence: Characterized by intense urges to urinate followed by involuntary losses of urine, urge incontinence is caused by bladder muscles contracting at the wrong time, and may be caused by infection, neurological issues, or, in some cases, cancer.
- Overflow Incontinence: Results in dribbling or leaks due to trouble emptying the bladder fully during urination. It is often caused by weakened bladder muscles, urethral blockages, bladder nerve damage, or an enlarged prostate in men.
What is Bladder Cancer?: Cancer of the bladder is a common form of cancer. While often treatable, the fact that it can first appear with signs similar to UTI symptoms means that it’s important to make a visit to your doctor if you notice new or unusual symptoms related to your urinary system. Various forms of testing, including urinalysis and cystoscopy (a form of imagery used to view the inside of the bladder) may be used to detect bladder cancer.
Understanding that urinary system anatomy includes key organs like the kidneys, and knowing that the main function of the urinary system is filtering waste from the blood emphasizes the seriousness of this cancer.
Bladder Cancer Symptoms: The presence of blood in urine is usually the first symptom experienced by people with bladder cancer. Other symptoms may include changes in urination habits, urgency, painful urination, and a weakened stream. See your doctor if you believe you may be experiencing any of these symptoms.
The Urinary System and Sexual Health
Before we move into treatments, let’s take a brief look at some of the ways that urinary health and sexual health intersect.
- UTIs From Sexual Intercourse: Both men and women may get a UTI from having sex, but the female urinary system is especially vulnerable due to the shorter length of the female urethra, which makes it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder. Both normal intercourse and oral sex present a risk of introducing bacteria to the urinary system. Some doctors recommend urinating after sexual activity and gently cleansing the relevant area with warm water.
- Urinary Incontinence During Sex: Primarily affecting women, the leaking of urine during sex (also known as coital urinary incontinence) can be an embarrassing issue for those who experience it. Coital urinary incontinence can be caused by the same factors responsible for the other forms of UI mentioned above. By that same token, the treatment options for UI that we’ll explore in the next section are applicable to coital UI, as well.
With that being said, let’s take a look at a wide range of common treatments for different problems affecting the urinary system.
What's Good For Urinary Health Medically & Naturally?
For both UTIs and urinary incontinence, doctors may prescribe certain medical treatments. There are also some natural ingredients that many people use for urinary support at home.
Urinary Tract Infections
By far the most common treatment method for a UTI, antibiotics get to the root of the problem by eliminating the bacteria causing the underlying infection and resultant symptoms.
A long-touted natural support option for urinary health support, a compound contained in cranberries is thought to help prevent certain types of bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall. Cranberries are also rich in antioxidants.
Many people take an herbal approach to urinary health by using urinary and bladder supplements. Some common, natural bladder support ingredients include:
- Uva Ursi: Also known as bearberry, Uva Ursi is a plant that has been shown in studies to promote strong bladder function. 1
- D-Mannose: A type of simple sugar that has been shown to promote healthy bacterial levels in the urinary tract.2
- Butcher’s Broom: A small evergreen shrub, extracts from the Butcher’s Broom plant are used to help cleanse and flush the urinary tract.
- Buchu Leaf Extract: Growing naturally in South Africa, the Buchu plant has a long history as a bladder support botanical.
- Juniper Berry: Junipers are trees whose berries are also sometimes used as natural cleansing agents.
- Parsley Leaf: A well-known favorite for culinary garnishes, parsley is also a popular herb for urinary support, consumed either as a tea or an extract.
Making sure you get enough fluids on a daily basis is important for your overall health, and helps ensure that the main function of the urinary system can be carried out correctly. Drinking the right amount of water can aid with flushing out the bladder, thereby assisting in the process of cleansing the urinary system.
It might sound funny at first, but engaging in certain habits can help with some of the root causes of UI. Delaying urination by a short time when you need to go and attempting to urinate a second time after you do go can help to strengthen bladder muscles and ensure a more complete emptying of the bladder.
Also known as pelvic floor muscle exercises, kegels are performed by intentionally tightening your pelvic muscles for a few seconds, releasing them, and repeating the process in order to strengthen the muscles often responsible for loss of urine.
If your UI is still causing you problems after other treatment methods, your doctor may recommend the use of certain medications or medical devices to help. Medications prescribed for UI may include anticholinergics, mirabegron, alpha blockers, and topical estrogen for women.
By gaining a strong foundational knowledge of the urinary system, its anatomy, main functions, definitions, common problems, and advanced topics, you can empower yourself to make urinary health a focus in your own personal wellness.
- J Urol. 1984 May;131(5):906-10.
- World J Urol. 2002 Nov;20(5):285-93. Epub 2002 Oct 17.
The statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any disease.