There’s a reason why urine is one of the first things doctors look at when they’re diagnosing a potential problem or condition. Your pee is a natural health gauge and one of the easiest ways to determine if something’s not quite right. So next time you go, take a moment to examine it. After all, it’s in your own best interest to get to know your pee a little better.
First things first: It helps to understand what pee is. “Urine basically is made by the kidneys and comes down through the bladder,” says S. Adam Ramin, MD, urologist and the medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. “The kidneys act as a filter of our bloodstream.” At any given time, roughly 20 to 25 percent of our blood is running through the kidneys and getting filtered, taking out toxins along with excess acid and electrolytes. The resulting fluid that contains these toxins is urine.
Here are six essential questions everyone should be asking about their own urine:
1. What color should my pee be?
Not too dark and not too light, according to Ramin. “Generally it should be light yellow,” he said. “If it’s darker and more concentrated, it’s usually an indication that the body is dehydrated. If it’s totally clear, it can be overhydrated.” Keep in mind that what you eat can affect the color, too. For example, Ramin says a fluorescent green tinge is often associated with the ingestion of vitamin B12 supplements. And eating beets can make your urine have a pinkish hue a few hours after consuming them. However, if you haven’t eaten beets and notice a reddish color, it could be the sign of a bigger issue. “If it’s red, there might be blood in the urine,” cautions Ramin.
The next time you go to the bathroom and notice dark urine in the toilet, go drink a bottle of water and see if that does the trick to lighten it up. And if your urine looks red (but you haven’t been eating beets), you should definitely talk to your doctor.
2. How often should I go to the bathroom?
What’s “normal” for one person isn’t necessarily the same for another, but Ramin says most people tend to go to the bathroom every few hours. The frequency should reflect how much you’re sipping. “If someone is not drinking a lot, but they’re going every hour or half hour, that’s abnormal,” Ramin says. “Or if they have a really strong urge to urinate but they can’t, then that’s not necessarily normal, either.” These are all indications that it’s time to talk to a doctor.
3. What if my urine smells different?
You’ve probably heard that eating asparagus can make your pee smell funny. While this is true, it’s still a little fuzzy as to whether it’s related to the body producing certain components or some people smelling odors that others cannot. However, we do know that urine will smell different if you’ve drunk alcohol and should give off a stronger smell in the mornings, according to Ramin. But if you notice an unusual scent not related to something you ate, Ramin says it could mean something more serious. “Foul-smelling urine is usually an indication of infection,” he cautions. “If it smells like feces material, it usually indicates there’s bacteria growing in the urine.”
4. When should I see a specialist?
Ramin says people often avoid seeing a specialist, but he really wishes they would consider this as an option earlier on. “If you see blood in your urine with your own eyes, don’t discount that as just an infection—insist on seeing a urologist,” he says, adding that any pain while urinating warrants a medical examination as well. Those who have frequent bladder infections or other persistent problems should also make an appointment to see a specialist (instead of just getting antibiotics from a primary care physician). By doing so, you could potentially avoid bigger problems down the road.
5. Is urine sterile?
This myth has been around for quite some time, and researchers at Loyola University in Maywood, Ill., recently set the record straight. After studying urine in women, they found it’s not necessarily germ-free like many doctors are taught. They say more research has to be done to understand it better, but the notion that pee is sanitary shouldn’t keep being passed around. The takeaway? Whether you’re in a public or private restroom, wash your hands every single time you pee—no exceptions.
6. What’s the best thing I can do for healthy urine?
Remember the importance of basic hydration, says Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD, a dietitian from Victoria, British Columbia. “In my experience, the biggest barrier to drinking enough water is drinking lots of soda, juice and other sweet drinks,” she says. “Not only do our bodies not need all that sugar or artificial sweetener, but it creates a super-sweet taste to be our ‘normal’ and, by contrast, water tastes gross.”
As with all healthy-living practices, it takes commitment and discipline to up your water intake. To get more water in, replace your sugar-infused beverages one by one with water. If you need some flavor, add cucumbers or berries, which will contribute a natural source of flavor or sweetness. And when you’re deciding how much to drink? Don’t obsess over the “eight glasses a day” rule—now that you know what the color of your urine means, let that tell you when you’re thirsty.