Respectful Insolence

Glutton for punishment that I am, all in the name of skepticism, critical thinking, and evidence-based medicine, I am sometimes wont to surf through the stranger parts of the Internet in search of truly amazing material for Your Friday Dose of Woo. Sometimes, I hit the jackpot, as I did a few weeks ago. Sometimes I don’t. Regardless, I’m always amazed at the strangeness that I encounter. This week, I was pondering what topic to cover. Once again, there were so many possibilities that I was having a hard time making up my mind, even more so than usual. While contemplating this dilemma, I felt the call of nature.

Heading to the commode, I was still trying to decide between so many different varieties of woo. And then, during the pause that refreshes, I remembered something. This was a topic that came up from time to time back on Usenet on misc.health.alternative. It was a practice that I always had a hard time understanding (much less stomaching), and I realized that I’ve never discussed it before, either on this blog or my previous blog.

I’m talking about urine therapy.

Apparently there’s a fairly significant contingent of alties who believe that drinking their own urine (or, almost as disgusting, rubbing it on their skin–or even more disgusting still, still, boiling it and concentrating it and then rubbing it on their skin) is a panacea that can treat or even cure many diseases or conditions. I know what you’re thinking. I just told you about how obsessed some alties are about their own waste, going so far as to undergo colon cleanses to “purge” the waste supposedly stuck to the lining of their colon that (they believe) are slowing “poisoning” with their own waste and even undergoing purges that supposedly “cleanse” the liver of toxins. Why, then, would many of them then willingly ingest their own liquid waste in the belief that it will “heal” them of many disease?

Damned if I know.

I also know one other thing that you’re probably thinking: Why do I focus so much on excretory bodily functions in Your Friday Dose of Woo? Think about it. I’m a surgeon. Surgeons pay lots of attention to bowel and bladder function because they’re very important in determining how a patient is doing after surgery. If any of you have ever had bowel surgery or even just abdominal surgery before, ask yourself: What did your surgeon ask you each and every day after surgery? I bet you know the answer: Did you pass gas? Did you have a bowel movement yet? And we also frequently ask whether you can urinate without difficulty. Maybe it’s just habit, and I can’t help myself. But, I would point out, it’s the freakin’ alties who are coming up with these “therapies,” not me. Finally, it gives me the opportunity to trot out all sorts of bad bathroom humor. (What that says about me I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

In any case, if you listen to the pee drinkers (which is what we used to call them on misc.health.alternative), you’ll soon find that there’s nothing that that liquid gold can’t do:

Urine is considered to be an invaluable source of nourishment and healing that perhaps has been too controversial or not financially rewarding enough for it to be talked about and encouraged as a potent medicine. One’s own urine, a living food, contains elements that are specific to one’s body alone. The body is constantly producing a huge variety of antibodies, hormones, enzymes and other natural chemicals to regulate and control its functions and combat imbalances that one may not be aware of.

Clinical studies have proved that the thousands of critical body chemicals and nutrients that end up in urine reflect the individual body’s functions. When re-utilised, these chemicals and nutrients act as natural vaccines, antibacterial, antiviral and anticarcinogenic agents as well as hormone balancers and allergy relievers. The information that urine contains therefore cannot be duplicated or derived from any other source. Just as nature produces no two people who are exactly the same, there are no two urine samples in the world that contain exactly the same components.

“Don’t take this therapy lightly. Multiple sclerosis, colitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, hepatitis, hyperactivity, pancreatic insufficiency, psoriasis, eczema, diabetes, herpes, mononucleosis, adrenal failure, allergies and so many other ailments have been relieved through use of this therapy. After you overcome your initial gag response (I know I had one), you will realize that something big is going on, and if you are searching for health, this is an area to investigate. There are numerous reports and double blind studies which go back to the turn of the century supporting the efficacy of using urine for health.”

There, now. Doesn’t that sound as though it’s worth it to drink your own pee to get all those benefits? Still not convinced? Then how about this testimonial from a woman with multiple medical conditions:

This natural therapy became, for me, a priceless gift of health, as it has for many others. It gave the fastest, most dramatic results of any natural or manmade medical treatment I have ever tried and was truly the miraculous happy ending to my long story of illness and failed medical treatments. By using this simple, natural medicine, along with other natural healing approaches such as homoeopathy, herbs, good nutrition and rest, I have been able to remain consistently disease-free and I feel better and stronger than I have ever felt in my life since that fateful day in July so many years ago.

Amazing, eh? Given that most of us produce a couple of liters a day of this fantastic substance, it’s amazing that doctors and pharmaceutical companies have even bothered to develop drugs. Heck, if, as urinophiles claim, urine’s powers have been recognized for thousands of years, one wonders why all those traditional healers bothered with herbs at all! After all, if you can cure any disease and promote such fantastic health just by drinking your own pee, you’d think that it would be obvious to all. If that wondrous golden fluid has such powerful healing effects, you wouldn’t need a controlled, randomized, double-blind trial to detect them.

So what is the concept behind urine therapy? Well, alties seem to have the strange idea that, because urine comes from an ultrafiltrate of blood, it is something akin to the distilled essence of blood. All of it seems to come down to a mystical thinking about “life essence.” Blood is often viewed in such a way, and the writings advocating urine drinking often ascribe magical-sounding powers to the yellow fluid. This urine worship is usually coupled with a profound misunderstanding of what urine is, as shown here:

Urine is not, as many believe, the excess water from food and liquids that goes through the intestines and is ejected from the body as “waste”. It is much different and much more. When you eat, the food you ingest is eventually broken down in the stomach and intestines into extremely small molecules. These molecules are absorbed into tiny tubules in the intestinal wall and then pass through these tubes into the blood stream.

The blood circulates throughout your body carrying these food molecules and other nutrients, along with critical immune defense and regulating elements such as red and white blood cells, antibodies, plasma, microscopic proteins, hormones, enzymes, etc., which are all manufactured at different locations in the body.

As the blood circulates, it passes through the liver where toxins are removed and later excreted from the body in the form of solid waste. Eventually, this now purified “cleaned” blood makes its way to the kidneys. When blood enters the kidneys it is filtered through an immensely complex and intricate system of minute tubules called nephron through which the blood is literally “squeezed” at high pressure. This filtering process removes excess amounts of water, salts and other elements in the blood that your body does not need at the time.

These excess elements are collected within the kidney in the form of a purified, sterile, watery solution called urine. Many of the constituents of this filtered watery solution, or urine, are then reabsorbed by the nephron and delivered back into the bloodstream. The remainder of the urine passes out of the kidneys into the bladder and is then excreted from the body.

The very first sentence of the above passage is wrong. Urine is your waste. Yes, it is 95% water plus electrolytes filtered from the blood. But it is also roughly 5% nitrogenous waste, mainly in the form of urea. When you drink your own pee, you’re basically recycling the nitrogenous waste again, forcing your kidneys to do the work of excreting it yet again. (In the military, they refer to this sort of thing as “paying for the same real estate twice.”) It is true that drinking your own urine is harmless in small amounts, but if you drink a lot of it, reingesting the nitrogen-containing compounds your body was trying to eliminate, these nitrogenous wastes can accumulate. Among the functions of the kidneys include: excreting nitrogenous waste, adjusting the pH of the blood by regulating the excretion of bicarbonate ion in the urine, regulating the electrolyte composition of the blood by either holding onto or excreting appropriate electrolytes, and regulating blood volume by making the urine either dilute or concentrated. All of these are critical functions. Indeed, in renal failure, there are serious electrolyte disturbances (primarily a buildup of postassium, which the failing kidneys can’t excrete and which, when the blood level of potassium gets too high, can cause cardiac arrhythmias and even cardiac arrest).

Alties also like to link urine with amniotic fluid, again connecting it to some sort of life essence in the womb, the substance that bathes and protects the developing fetus:

As medical researchers have discovered: “Urine is the main component of the amniotic fluid that bathes the human fetus. Normally the baby ‘breathes’ this urine-filled amniotic fluid into its lungs. If the urinary tract is blocked, the fetus does not produce the fluid, and, without it, the lungs do not develop.” (G. Kolata, “Surgery on Fetuses Reveals They Heal Without Scars”, The New York Times, Medical Section, 16 August 1988)

While it is true that there is a large amount of fetal urine in amniotic fluid, that does not make it the same thing. Also, although it is true that amniotic fluid is required for fetal lung development and that it is made up largely of fetal urine, it does not follow from these observations that urine will do anything postnatally when ingested. Of course, if alties really want to follow that logic, they would try to breathe in their own urine, but sadly the result would be the same as if they tried to breathe in water–not pleasant.

In any case, all urine really is is nothing more than unneeded electrolytes in water, plus leftover nitrogen waste, particularly urea. It also contains small amounts of ammonia and even formaldehyde, along with traces of a variety of subtances, vitamins, cytokines, and proteins at low concentrations. The urinophiles are correct about one thing: Urine is not toxic generally, and it is sterile in the absence of urinary tract infection. Of course, it is also an excellent bacterial culture medium; so if it’s left to sit around for too long it will grow bugs. Lots of bugs. That’s one reason why it starts to stink after several hours if you urinate but don’t flush. It’s also why urinophiles like their favorite life-giving beverage “fresh from the tap,” so to speak. In any case, as urinophiles are fond of pointing out, people trapped in collapsed buildings or at sea can prolong their lives by drinking their own urine. True enough, but that’s because drinking urine in such a case decreases the overall rate of fluid loss from the body because fluid that would otherwise be lost is being reingested. It does not follow from the observation that drinking one’s urine when no water is available will prolong life that urine has any sort of miraculous life-giving properties. (Drinking water would be much better.) Nor does it follow that doctors and those evil pharmaceutical companies are trying to hide urine’s supposedly miraculous properties from people, while studying compounds in urine that might be useful therapeutically:

Then there’s the research into wounds and burns using urea (the primary solid component of urine). As only one research study among many reported: “In America, urea has been used for the treatment of various infected wounds and it has been found to be extremely efficient…even the deepest wound can be treated effectively…. Urea treatment has been successful where other treatments have failed. For external staph infections we found urea preferable to any other dressing…there are no contra-indications to its use.” (Dr. L. Muldavis, 1938, Royal Free Hospital, London).

Now these medical reports are only a few of the more than 50 research studies I compiled and published in the book Your Own Perfect Medicine, but they certainly give an indication of the importance of what we’ve never been told about urine by the medical community. As far back as 1954, the Journal of the American Medical Association (July issue) reported that “More scientific papers have probably been published on urine than on any other organic compound.” Another publication revealed that “more than 1,000 technical and scientific papers, related only to low molecular weight substances in urine, appeared in medical and scientific literature in one single year.” All this fuss about a substance that we’re told is nothing more than a body waste?

Note the year of one of the references cited: 1938. I like to think that medical science has progressed considerably in 68 years myself, but maybe that’s just me. Given that many alties still cite Bechamps, who was a contemporary of Louis Pasteur, as an authority, I have to guess that they like their science out of date. In any case, the observation that there are useful compounds in urine worth studying does not imply that drinking your own urine will provide you with enough of them to have an effect. Moreover, all the “vitamins” and “nutrients” in urine got there because they weren’t needed. That’s one of the key problems with a lot of the claims for vitamin C therapy, for example. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin; excess is rapidly eliminated by the kidneys into the urine. The very reason it’s there in the first place is because the body didn’t need it and doesn’t have a mechanism to store it. Indeed, the fallacy in thinking is not just limited to nutrients, an example of which can be found here:

One of the useful components that urine contains are enzymes. Urine contains many enzymes, one of which is called Urokinase. While doing research on this enzyme, scientist found that Urokinase causes vasodilatation and resembles nitroglycerine in its ability to strengthen the bloodstream from the coronary artery to the cardiac muscle. Today, Urokinase is used in drug form and sold as a miracle blood clot dissolver for unblocking coronary arteries. The existence of enzymes such as Urokinase in urine, might explain why urine therapy is said to be effective against arteriosclerosis, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, etc..

Point number one: It’s highly unlikely that there is enough urokinase to have a therapeutic effect in a glass of urine. Urokinase as used in, for example, acute myocardial infarction, is given at huge dosese, doses that add up to 100,000 units or more over 12 hours. These are amounts many orders of magnitude greater than what can be found in anyone’s urine. Point two: urokinase is a freakin’ enzyme! That means it’s a protein. It’s denatured and rendered inactive by stomach acid, and then in the small intestine digestive enzymes break it down to much smaller peptides and ultimately to amino acids. There’s would be no active enzyme absorbed after ingestion even if there were enough enzyme in a glass of pee to have a therapeutic or preventative effect.

Finally, drinking one’s own urine is not without unpleasantness other than the fact that you’re drinking your own urine. As described in the Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine:

Side effects can include headache, diarrhea, itch and rashes, pain, fatigue, soreness of the shoulder, and fever. An increase in symptoms of the specific illness may also occur. These symptoms can last from a week to six months. Starting the therapy with small doses can alleviate some of these side effects.

I doubt about the “increase in symptoms of the specific illness,” but I have little doubt that drinking your own pee could cause headache, diarrhea, itch, and rashes. Hmmm. Maybe there is a consistency after all. Drink your own pee and clean out your colon at the same time. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Naahhh. It still doesn’t make any sense.

Comments

  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    August 18, 2006

    Urine is considered to be an invaluable source of nourishment and healing that perhaps has been too controversial or not financially rewarding enough for it to be talked about and encouraged as a potent medicine. One’s own urine, a living food, contains elements that are specific to one’s body alone. The body is constantly producing a huge variety of antibodies, hormones, enzymes and other natural chemicals to regulate and control its functions and combat imbalances that one may not be aware of.

    It’s a shame you can’t un-read something.

    I think I need some fresh air.

  2. #2 DrSteve
    August 18, 2006

    I only recommend this to sufferers of Maple Syrup Urine disease. And even then, only in the presence of pancakes.

  3. #3 DIanne
    August 18, 2006

    I doubt about the “increase in symptoms of the specific illness,”

    I don’t. If someone drinks their own urine in an attempt to cure a given disease and doesn’t take effective medication for the condition, the symptoms will probably increase. It’s not the drinking urine that causes the problem, of course, but the belief that drinking urine will cure the illness that does the damage.

  4. #4 Alex Whiteside
    August 18, 2006

    On kids’ TV here in the UK (CBBC, I think) there was a program called “FoT”, short for “False or True”, in which they would present a series of mini-documentary features, and at the end of the show reveal which ones were real and which ones were invented. I remember two – one about people getting viruses from computers, and one about people drinking their own urine.

    The latter is about my earliest “what the hell” memory, discovering it was a “True” that after explaining to everyone else (I was about 13, I think) how completely wrong the proponent on screen was. I’d naturally assumed that as the things he were spouting were complete nonsense, the story had to be made up.

    Thanks for reminding me of my first real sceptical experience.

  5. #5 Hyperion
    August 18, 2006

    *”I also know one other thing that you’re probably thinking: Why do I focus so much on excretory bodily functions in Your Friday Dose of Woo? “*

    C’mon doc, you can come clean to us about your secret coprophilia fetish. Actually, on a more serious note, given the nature of human perversity, it’s probably not a good idea to google “urine drinking” on the grounds that I have no doubt that there are websites out there catering to that desire…and I don’t mean websites of the altie variety.

    *”Point two: urokinase is a freakin’ enzyme!”*

    I’ve noticed a number of alties also have some mysterious fascination with enzymes as well, for some strange reason. A support group for a particular neurodevelopmental disability that I’m involved with was recently disturbed by alties promising that some digestive enzyme could solve our problems…I think it was called bromelin or bromeline. Might be worth looking into for next Friday’s dose of woo.

    I told our interlocutors that I felt that digestive enzymes were probably excellent for digesting things, and that should I ever have a problem doing so, I’d give them a call.

  6. #6 frumiousb
    August 18, 2006

    Apparently there’s a fairly significant contingent of alties who believe that drinking their own urine

    Compared to the contingent who drink other people’s urine

  7. #7 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    August 18, 2006

    Compared to the contingent who drink other people’s urine

    We don’t call those alties, we call those German Porn Stars.

    Definitely a 9 on the weird-shit-o-meter

  8. #8 Ethyl
    August 18, 2006

    Wow, that summary of how urine gets made is really…

    Oh, gods, never mind. I can’t be sarcastic enough.

  9. #9 Vermonster
    August 18, 2006

    And if urine’s good to drink, how much better must it be when injected!

    http://www.kevinleitch.co.uk/wp/?p=364 quotes a believer: “This was recommended by Dr. Buttar’s office for my NT son who has tons of allergies. I believe Dr. Imam in NY does it.”

  10. #10 Sastra
    August 18, 2006

    I’ve noticed a number of alties also have some mysterious fascination with enzymes as well, for some strange reason.

    Well, back in the 70’s many of the laundry ads were burbling in excitement about the “power of enzymes.” Since actual scientific content seems to be secondary to hitting emotional buttons in altie-land, it could be that the general positive aura accompanying the frequent reference to these “amazing cleansing agents” in TV commercials simply drifted into their health cures.

  11. #11 Orac
    August 18, 2006

    And if urine’s good to drink, how much better must it be when injected!

    http://www.kevinleitch.co.uk/wp/?p=364 quotes a believer: “This was recommended by Dr. Buttar’s office for my NT son who has tons of allergies. I believe Dr. Imam in NY does it.”

    Ack! How could I have forgotten about this one? I should have incorporated it into the post!

  12. #12 Samantha Vimes
    August 19, 2006

    Gives new meaning to the phrase “taking the piss”.

    I notice that this one doesn’t claim to cure bad breath.

  13. #13 ebohlman
    August 19, 2006

    Orac: I think Rev. BigDumbChimp and Hyperion have stumbled upon what should be your next topic: the belief in “living” (usually meaning raw) and “dead” (usually meaning cooked) foods, with the former being good for you because of all their enzymes. Tom Billings’ site, http://www.beyondveg.com, is a good place to start looking (Billings actually believes in a fair amount of woo but does a good job of debunking the wilder claims of those who pursue idealistic diets).

    On today’s post, the notion that I’d ever see a sentence starting with “The information urine contains…” had never occurred to me (fortunately, the induced laughter was not sufficient to increase the information contained in my shorts).

  14. #14 kitty
    August 19, 2006

    A few years ago, at a cats’ health discussion board one woman was trying to convince everyone how urine therapy was supposed to be great for cats and we should all do it. She was claiming it would protect them from kidney failure of all things – a fairly common problem in mature cats. Yes, right. The majority of posters had enought common sense not to buy her idea of feeding waste products to their cats. Apparently she read some book about it, and of course if it is written in a book it must be right.
    She also tried to convince everyone that fasting is good for the cats (cats can develop fatty liver desease if they don’t eat for as little as 2 days, by the way, so it is certainly another great suggestion).
    I’ve never thought some humans we doing themselves and not just to poor cats. Wonder if this woman did it herself as well.

  15. #15 akibare
    August 21, 2006

    The only “use” I’ve ever heard of for pee that seemed to have some basis in reality were tales of people long, long ago (Romans?) who would collect it and let it sit around for the ammonia content, for use in cleaning (!!!).

    “Information” in urine makes some sort of sense, I suppose (after all, urine samples are pretty common) but I’m just going to say NO to drinking it.

    I’ll second ebohlman’s request for some discussion of raw food-ism. It’s the enzyme thing? I never knew that… only about the crazy Hollywood starlet thing.

  16. #16 Eric
    August 21, 2006

    The alchemists used to boil it down to extract out the phosphorus.

    http://www.vanderkrogt.net/elements/elem/p.html

  17. #17 Ruth
    August 21, 2006

    Back when cloth was woven and dyed at home, urine was used to fix some natural dyes.

  18. #18 bigring55t
    August 21, 2006

    Eric and Ruth-I think it may also have been used to cure leather and to clean armor. But my up to date question is, if urine is so good for you, what’s with all the freakin’ dialysis treatment centers everywhere? No, really, go ahead and explain that, I wanna know.

  19. #19 Ruth
    August 22, 2006

    bigring55-
    My sister looked pretty bad when her kidneys failed, but is now feeling great thanks to a kidney from our brother. There is a reason that stuff is getting filtered out.

  20. #20 bigring55t
    August 22, 2006

    Ruth- i am glad your sister is doing better, i have a friend who has been through 3 kidneys and is now doing fine, but without dialysis she never would have made it. Still, it amazes me how many treatment centers there are. It seems that every time i turn a corner there is another one. Not that that is bad, but the overwhelming demand that must exist…

  21. #21 Inquisitive Raven
    August 22, 2006

    I have to wonder if the whole urine drinking thing has its roots in getting high. Once, many years ago, I came across a discussion of a lichen that the Norsemen used to eat. Apparently, the lichen didn’t get you high, but a metabolite did, so they’d eat the lichen, urinate into their helmets and drink the urine to get high.

    I wasn’t able to verify this with Google, but I did find something similar. Apparently Amanita Muscaria or fly agaric (the classic red capped toadstool) is not as toxic as its reputation (not to say that it’s not toxic, just that the level of toxicity is exaggerated), and is the mushroom used by Siberian shamans to induce visions. In addition, at least one of the pharmacologically active compounds survives in the urine. As a result, drinking the urine of a mushroom user will get you high, and this is indeed a documented practice as shown here:

    http://leda.lycaeum.org/?ID=1403

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria

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