What Your Urine Says About Your Health

Few people pay attention to their urine unless there's a problem or they're taking a pregnancy test.  But the truth is, urine can tell you a lot about your health. Here, answers to some of the most common questions about urine-as well as key facts and information.

What is urine?  Water, of course, but also waste products collected from the blood stream by the kidneys.  It gets its name from urea, a waste product produced by the breakdown of protein-based foods.

Why is urine yellow?  Normal urine color ranges from pale yellow to deep amber - the result of a pigment called urochrome and how diluted or concentrated the urine is.

  • If your urine is clear and pale with very little color, it's probably because you're well hydrated and your urine is dilute (watery). 
  • If it's dark amber, your urine is concentrated and you need to drink more water. 
  • If it's bright yellow, it's probably due to B vitamins and carotene from your vitamin supplements.

What makes urine smell?  Normal urine has little to no smell.  If it's highly concentrated however, it might smell like ammonia.  Some foods (like asparagus) as well as medicines and vitamins can temporarily change the way urine smells.  Rarely, a very sweet smell can indicate illnesses like Maple Syrup Urine Disease, diabetes, or infection. 

After the kidneys process urine, it travels to the bladder for storage.  The urethra is the tube that lets urine out of the body.  A man's urethra is much longer than a woman's.  Women get more bladder infections than men because there's a shorter distance for bacteria to travel from outside the body to the bladder. 

Bladder infections (also called Urinary Tract Infections or UTIs) are common and uncomfortable. The telltale symptoms of a UTI are:

  • Burning or pain with urination
  • Difficulty passing urine
  • A feeling of urgency, and sometimes
  • A foul odor. 

Rarely, UTIs occur without symptoms. More often, they're so uncomfortable that people see a doctor quickly.  The doctor will do a lab test called a urinalysis to look for bacteria, blood cells, and other signs of infection.  Healthy urine has few or no bacteria, white or red blood cells, protein, or sugar. 

Glucose or sugar in the urine is a red flag for diabetes. If the body is unable to process blood sugar properly, the kidneys won't filter all of it out and it shows up on urinalysis. If there's a lot of sugar, urine might even smell sweet. This is not a definite test for diabetes and doctors will order other lab tests to make a proper diagnosis.  During pregnancy, it's not unusual for a small amount of sugar to pass through the kidney's extra-busy filters.  If there's more than a little though, doctors will test for gestational (pregnancy-related) diabetes.

The bladder has a storage capacity of about two cups. When it's reaching the full point, the nerves surrounding the bladder tissue send out signals.  But what if you get that "gotta go" feeling more frequently than usual?

  • While it could be a sign of UTI, it could also be a healthy sign that you're drinking more water or eating more water-filled foods like fruits and vegetables. 
  • Some medications, (for example blood pressure pills) have a diuretic (water releasing) effect. 
  • Pregnant women need to urinate frequently because of they're circulating more blood volume and because their growing uterus puts pressure on the bladder.
  • If you have to urinate so often that it's bothersome, see your doctor.

What if there's blood?  It might be no big deal but it could be a sign of kidney infection, kidney stones, bladder, or kidney cancer.  This is one symptom to take seriously and get checked out by your physician.