Those with interstitial cystitis, also known as painful bladder syndrome, deserve effective and accessible options for managing their condition. While there is no outright cure for IC, treatments usually include lifestyle changes that affect diet and stress levels.
An interstitial cystitis diet is one of the first lines of treatment for the condition, and it focuses on eliminating trigger foods while emphasizing foods that alleviate bladder symptoms and pelvic pain.
In this article, I will outline the most common symptoms of interstitial cystitis and their causes before addressing dietary changes that improve the condition. I share how you determine which foods to include in this diet, as well as special considerations before and during this process.
Table of Contents
- Symptoms of Interstitial Cystitis
- How Diet Affects Interstitial Cystitis
- Foods to Avoid with Interstitial Cystitis
- Foods to Eat to Prevent Interstitial Cystitis
- Downsides of an Interstitial Cystitis Diet to Consider
Symptoms of Interstitial Cystitis
Interstitial cystitis (IC) refers to inflammation and irritation of the bladder wall This condition may scar or stiffen the bladder wall, and it can limit bladder capacity.
This chronic condition, also known as Frequency-Urgency-Dysuria Syndrome, is marked by common symptoms such as:
- Pelvic pain
- A strong and/or frequent urge to urinate
- Pressure contributing to soreness around the pelvis, bladder, and perineum
- Pain during sex
- Weak pelvic floor muscles
Men experience pain around their penis and scrotum, while women have IC symptoms that worsen at certain stages of their menstruation period.
These symptoms appear similar to those of urinary tract infections, but the conditions differ. A UTI, which is caused by bacteria, clears up after a course of antibiotics. Interstitial cystitis is a chronic disorder that does not clear up and can only be managed.
Diagnosing Interstitial Cystitis
Before you can move on to a treatment plan, it’s encouraged to diagnose your condition. While there is not a single test for IC diagnosis, healthcare providers run through a series of exams to rule out other issues and evaluate preexisting or other concerning health conditions.
These tests often include:
- Bladder wall biopsy: tissue samples from the bladder are checked for cancer or abnormal cell presence
- Cystoscopy: a viewing device inserted through the urethra examines the bladder and urinary tract; checks for blockages or changes in structure
- (In men) Lab exam of prostate secretions: assess for inflammation or infection
- Urinalysis: lab testing for specific conditions (i.e. blood cell type and count, germ presence, excess protein)
- Urine culture/cytology: checks urine for bacteria (potentially what kind) and white blood cells
These tests may point to comorbid conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue, or endometriosis, that affect your course of action. They also help determine whether you have ulcerative IC or non-ulcerative.
Regardless of your specific cluster of health issues, many studies support the idea that an interstitial cystitis diet will reduce flare-ups, alleviate symptoms, and lead to a higher quality of life.
Can Diet Help with Interstitial Cystitis?
Interstitial cystitis has no known cure and is known to be difficult to treat. Treatment plans may focus on enlargening or training the bladder, medication, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), but an interstitial cystitis diet is one of the easiest and most accessible methods of management.
There is undeniable evidence that the food you ingest affects your overall health, and this is especially true with interstitial cystitis. An interstitial cystitis diet limits the intake of foods that trigger IC flare-ups, but it also increases the consumption of food with a therapeutic effect.
How Diet Affects Interstitial Cystitis
While there is no specific cause of interstitial cystitis, I understand that, at its root, this condition relates specifically to the inflammation of the bladder. I also understand that a person’s diet has a direct impact on their bladder health, and therefore, what they eat can minimize or exacerbate bladder inflammation.
Knowing this, dietary changes are one of the most effective ways to not only alleviate bladder symptoms of interstitial cystitis but control IC flare-ups by treating it at the root.
To do this, IC patients should work with a clinician and/or dietitian to determine which foods trigger and contribute to their IC pain. During this time, they may also work through a list of bladder friendly foods to determine which are the most effective in alleviating bladder irritation and other symptoms.
An Elimination Diet for Interstitial Cystitis
This specific method of treatment is referred to as an “elimination diet,” and goes beyond cutting out suspect foods and hoping for the best. This falls into the Urology Care Foundation‘s first stage of treatment: lifestyle changes.
Understanding that each patient must figure out their own trigger foods, an elimination diet considers your specific IC symptoms and potential trigger foods so you may evaluate their effects on your condition.
You start by cutting potential trigger foods from your diet completely, then determine whether your IC symptoms get better. If you experience a decrease in bladder pain, it’s safe to assume that at least 1 suspect food contributed to your painful bladder syndrome.
After about 1 or 2 weeks, you pin down certain foods that trigger your symptoms. This usually involves adding back food from the list, only 1 per day, to see if it triggers your condition.
By adding back food slowly, you:
- Limit the triggering effects of your diet
- Pin down specific foods that affect your condition
- Learn what you can and cannot eat with greater certainty
A food journal works well to help you (and your physician) understand which foods trigger your condition and which foods actually improve your bladder health. Elimination diets require plenty of up-front effort, but they’re the most effective method for creating an interstitial cystitis diet intrinsic to your needs.
Foods to Avoid with Interstitial Cystitis
It’s easiest to start with a list of foods that you should avoid if you have interstitial cystitis. These foods worsen your condition by altering the pH level and potassium content of your urine and activating pain receptors in your bladder.
This list varies depending on your specific condition and triggers, but the most common foods and ingredients to avoid eating on an IC diet include:
- Processed foods (hot dogs, most sandwich meat, boxed snacks)
- Acidic foods (tomatoes, cranberry juice, chili peppers, citrus fruits)
- Artificial sweeteners and flavoring agents (citric acid, monosodium glutamate)
- Soy products (soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and edamame)
- Acidic dairy products (yogurt, sour cream)
- Caffeinated, alcoholic, and carbonated drinks
- Chocolate (including chocolate ice cream)
- Gluten (particularly for those with celiac disease)
The list goes on and on, but there’s a clear trend of spicy foods, processed foods, and acidic foods that can help you discern what may not be safe. This easily clears whole cuisines, such as That or Indian food, right off your table, but only an evaluation of these foods will determine how they affect you.
Fruits to Avoid with Interstitial Cystitis
What may shock some individuals is that not all fruits are safe for consumption. While fruits don’t have the biggest reputation for being harmful, there are a handful that you should avoid until they’re cleared for your diet.
- Oranges and orange juice
- Pineapples and pineapple juice
Shockingly, cranberry juice is one of the most bothersome fruits you can consume. While this juice works well for general bladder health, it is acidic enough to irritate the bladder. As a diuretic, cranberry juice also increases urinary frequency, urinary urgency, and will probably lead to bladder pain as a result.
Other fruits that are minimally suspect include:
These are less likely to trigger pain, but should still be treated with care until cleared for your diet.
Foods You Can Eat with Interstitial Cystitis
Technically, you can eat any food if you have interstitial cystitis, but there are certain foods that stand out at IC diet friendly.
These foods are least likely to cause bladder pain or additional IC symptoms, and they may even improve your condition. Some examples of foods that improve bladder health include:
- Greater water consumption (to assist with proper bladder voiding schedule)
- Chamomile or peppermint tea
- Most vegetables (primarily leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, and gourds)
- Garlic and turmeric (for anti-inflammatory benefits)
- Natural cheese and dairy with low acidity (cream cheese, whipped cream)
By creating an eating plan alongside an experienced clinician or dietitian, you can make sure you include only beneficial foods and avoid foods likely to exacerbate your symptoms.
They can also help you find appetizing recipes and fill up a meal plan so you don’t grow bored with your interstitial cystitis diet.
Supplements for an Interstitial Cystitis Diet
L-arginine is arguably the most effective supplement in addressing IC symptoms. This is an essential amino acid that increases nitric oxide and nitric oxide synthetase.
These products have certain properties that ease IC symptoms, including combatting bacterial, relaxing smooth muscles, certain hormone releases, and increasing T-cell counts that modulate immunity.
While the efficacy of L-arginine remains controversial in treating IC, certain studies show firm support for its supplemental use.
Other beneficial supplements for an IC diet include:
- CBD: for its efficacy in treating comorbid conditions like anxiety or fibromyalgia
- Curcumin: a potent anti-inflammatory agent specifically tested against IC
- Aloe: replaces glycosaminoglycans that are likely malformed or damaged in the protective liners of the bladders of IC patients
- Probiotics: overall helpful in addressing symptoms of interstitial cystitis
- Fish oil: contains anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that address bladder inflammation
- Boswellia: heals the lining of the bladder and specifically known to ease IC symptoms
The Interstitial Cystitis Association provides a more extensive list of supplements for use as a complementary therapy.
You can also check my list of supplements to avoid.
Foods to Eat to Prevent Interstitial Cystitis
When filling your diet with foods to prevent flare-ups, look for well-known friendly foods. These often contain functional compounds such as the supplements listed above, such as probiotic foods like kefir.
Focus on foods that promote proper bladder and urinary health without affecting symptoms like urinary urgency.
Establishing your trigger foods is essential to create your list of foods that prevent interstitial cystitis, but the most promising foods include:
- Vegetables, such as swiss chard, green beans, or snow peas
- Gentle beverages, such as pear juice or peppermint tea
- Easy grains and breads, like rice cereal, Italian sweet bread, or potato bread
- Low acidity fruits, such as pink lady apples
It’s a good idea to have a list of meals that work well with an IC conscious diet. Some examples include:
- Breakfast: oatmeal with safe fruits, nut butter, avocado toast, hard-boiled eggs, omelets with safe vegetables
- Lunch: grilled chicken, baked salmon, or wraps with select meats; paired with rich vegetables and/or rice
- Dinner: Tuna salad, stuffed bell peppers, ground beef meals, pork chop meals, safe vegetable sides
- Snacks: sliced fruits with nut butter, almonds and safe cheeses
Aim for minimally processed foods and pay attention to any food sensitivities you may have. While foods that prevent flare-ups exist, it’s more effective to avoid triggering foods.
Downsides of an Interstitial Cystitis Diet to Consider
The downsides of an interstitial cystitis diet do not outweigh the benefits, but acknowledging them before your journey improves your chances of success.
A thoughtful diet requires both discipline and understanding. You may attempt it on your own, but working with a professional is often more effective in determining triggers and holds you to a higher accountability.
While a food diary may seem like a lot of work, it’s a helpful tool for evaluating certain foods. This habit may be triggering for those with a history of an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. You should not record a food diary unless cleared by your attending physician.
An elimination diet clears your meals of many nutrient-dense foods, such as citrus fruits, and it’s difficult to find an appropriate replacement. Furthermore, vegans or vegetarians end up avoiding popular soy-based protein sources they may rely on. This requires closer assessment and emphasizes the need to find appropriate alternatives.
Dietary changes are not the only recommended course of action in living with interstitial cystitis. While they are strongly encouraged, individuals should consider additional changes like prescription medication, neuromodulation therapy, and surgery to improve their quality of life and manage symptoms.