What is Pelvic Floor Dysfunction?
The term “pelvic floor” refers to the group of muscles and surrounding tissues in your pelvic region that hold all of your pelvic organs in place. These organs include your bladder, bowels, rectum, and if you’re a woman, your uterus, cervix, and vagina. When these muscles are weakened or injured, you may experience what doctors call pelvic floor dysfunction, or PFD. Pelvic floor dysfunction encompasses a broad range of conditions and symptoms, the most common being:
- Prolapse, or the sagging and pressing of organs against one another causing pain and pressure
- Bladder problems like stress incontinence, urgency, and overflow that can cause leakage and frequent trips to the bathroom
- And bowel control problems like stool incontinence
If you’ve been diagnosed with PFD, or suffer from some of the uncomfortable symptoms mentioned above, you’re not alone. Nearly one quarter of American women are affected by one or more pelvic disorders, the frequency of which increases significantly with age.
While strengthening and maintaining muscle tone in your pelvic region can be an effective intervention for preventing the onset and managing the symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction, nutrition can also play an important role. Emerging research suggests that some foods and beverages may be beneficial when preventing and treating PFD, while others may exacerbate symptoms. Consider the following when making dietary changes, and remember to always listen to your body for cues about what works best for you.
Vitamin D to support muscle strength and function
Vitamin D-rich foods and/or supplements may improve pelvic floor health by supporting muscle function. Increasing vitamin D in the diet can lead to an improvement in overactive bladder symptoms and may reduce incidence of urinary incontinence. We absorb vitamin D from food and also through our skin when exposed to sunlight. Many people don’t get the daily recommended amount of vitamin D. As such, it would be beneficial to overall health to incorporate more vitamin D-rich foods into the diet:
- Fatty fish like salmon, halibut, and mackerel
- Milk (which is fortified, but not all milk products like cheese and yogurt are, so check the label)
- Some fortified breakfast cereals
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods to reduce inflammation
When the muscles of the pelvic floor are exposed to trauma like pregnancy and childbirth, they can become inflamed making them hyper-sensitive to pain. That inflammation can persist, even long after the traumatic event. In this case, normal pressure from a full bladder or colon can feel extremely uncomfortable. Dietary interventions can be very effective in reducing inflammation without prescription drugs. Anti-inflammatory foods include those that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and magnesium. Consider choosing more foods from the following:
- Fatty fish or fish oil like salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Eggs (yolks included)
- Nuts like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts
- Seeds like pumpkin, flax, sunflower, and hemp
- Dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and spinach
- Canola, corn, safflower, and rapeseed oils
As well as foods that are rich in inflammation-reducing antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant compounds) like:
- Berries like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and acai berries
- Fruit like red grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots
- Dried fruit like raisins, dates, and plums
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and potatoes
Some spices have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Spices are a great way to add flavor to foods without contributing additional sugar or sodium. Experiment with some new flavors and cuisines using:
- Cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, ginger, pepper, chili powder, paprika, garlic, coriander, onion and cardamom
Fiber and water to reduce constipation
Straining to have bowel movement on a regular basis may be putting undue stress on pelvic floor muscles and tissues. Many individuals who report urinary incontinence symptoms also report frequent constipation. You may be able to alleviate both constipation and urinary incontinence by incorporating more high fiber foods into your diet:
- Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread and pasta, and popcorn
- Fruits like berries, apples, oranges, and exotic varieties like mango and guava
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, artichokes, and brussel sprouts
- Legumes like black beans, lima beans, and garbanzo beans
- Seeds like chia and flax
- Nuts like almonds and pistachios
It’s important to incorporate fiber slowly into the diet– eating too much at once may actually make symptoms worse or cause diarrhea. It’s also very important to stay hydrated. Fiber works to bulk stool, while water works to flush waste products out. Try to drink water throughout the day by carrying a refillable water bottle with you and sipping on it periodically.
Decrease caffeine, alcohol, and soda consumption
It’s no secret that caffeine is a powerful diuretic. The frequent, high consumption of drinks like coffee, black tea, sodas, and energy drinks that contain ample amounts of caffeine can put extra stress on the bladder and exacerbate storage and voidage symptoms. High consumption is considered 2 or more caffeinated drinks per day. Scale back on daily caffeine by opting for:
- Half-caf and then decaf coffee
- Herbal teas
- Water (which can be naturally flavored with fresh fruit and herbs)
Alcohol also acts as a diuretic, but can affect symptoms in people differently. Consuming alcohol in moderation, up to one drink per day for women and two per day for men, or less, may help with PFD symptoms.
Sodas, too, will likely make symptoms worse. Both regular and diet sodas are often caffeinated, which we’ve already discussed can be a problem for many individuals. The role of carbonation and artificial sweeteners (found in diet sodas) in PFD is still unknown, but may also contribute to irritation and urgency.
Acidic foods and beverages
Drinking acidic juices like orange juice, lemonade, or tomato juice in large quantities will likely contribute to urinary symptoms. However, orange juice and many other fruit beverages are typically a great dietary source of vitamin C (a powerful antioxidant) and other important micronutrients. The same goes for acidic fruits and vegetables. The benefit of consuming these foods outweighs the risk, so we don’t recommend cutting out any acidic fruits and veggies like tomatoes, oranges, grapefruits, or cranberries unless you find these foods uniquely irritating. When consuming fruit juice, it’s best to stick to a modest 4-6oz serving and to choose 100% juice as it contains the most amount of nutrients and the least amount of added sugar.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can cause pain and discomfort throughout the pelvic region. Nutrition has been shown to play an important role in reducing risk of PFD onset and symptom management. Try choosing more foods from the suggestions mentioned above that are rich in Vitamin D and Vitamin E, omega-3’s, magnesium, antioxidants, and fiber. Drink plenty of water in place of caffeinated, carbonated, and artificially sweetened beverages to stay adequately hydrated.
Making dietary changes, big or small, can feel overwhelming, but we’re here to help. Feeling unsure about what foods you should be eating for PFD or how to incorporate new foods into your routine? Make an appointment with one of our experienced dietitians so we can help you get started on achieving your dietary goals, and be sure to check out our women’s health page for more resources.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Her passion for nutrition blossomed from her own experience and her aspiration to help others who may be facing similar challenges.