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Interstitial Cystitis Self-Care Guide with My Top 10 Essential Practices

Living with Interstitial Cystitis (IC) can be challenging. I fully resonate with that! I also know that challenges can be overcome, as long as we have the right mindset and tools within reach. In this article, I’m listing out the top 10 interstitial cystitis self-care practices that can be added to your toolbelt to help you manage your interstitial cystitis symptoms. You’ll gain practical tips to implement right away in your interstitial cystitis treatment journey.


1. Interstitial Cystitis Diet

As we explore the top self-care tips for interstitial cystitis, let's begin with a crucial practice: adopting a short-term interstitial cystitis diet as your guide for an elimination diet. This method empowers you to pinpoint foods and beverages that may trigger sensitivity while highlighting those you can confidently include in your diet. For a comprehensive understanding of the IC diet (and why it's not suitable for long-term use), check out the full details here. Essentially, the IC diet serves as a valuable guide to help you identify your unique list of foods that irritate the bladder. 


In general, research has identified the following list of foods that irritate the bladder, potentially increasing interstitial cystitis symptoms (1):

  • citrus fruits 

  • tomatoes 

  • vitamin C 

  • artificial sweeteners 

  • coffee 

  • tea 

  • carbonated and alcoholic beverages 

  • spicy foods


However, in order to get your individual interstitial cystitis food list, you should start by doing an elimination diet. An elimination diet is a structured way of removing certain food groups and/or beverages for a set period, followed by a strategic re-entry of the eliminated foods to see if your body has a reaction. The result is you get an individualized list of trigger foods to avoid to best manage your interstitial cystitis symptoms.  


Here are some important considerations when attempting the elimination diet:

  • You should be under the observation of a trained healthcare provider, such as a Registered Dietitian (RD), to ensure you don’t develop any nutrient deficiencies.

  • Tread carefully if you have dealt with an eating disorder, as this can be a triggering experience.

  • You may lose weight, as the elimination of certain foods and duration of this diet can result in reduced calorie intake. This is another reason to work with an RD, as unintentional weight loss may not be ideal for your individual needs or health goals. 


2. Prioritizing Cooking

In the hustle and bustle of life, it's easy to prioritize work, family schedules, and other obligations over cooking homemade meals for ourselves. It’s even more tempting to pick up a meal from a food establishment if we're constantly on the go. But let’s get real! It’s an important aspect of interstitial cystitis self-care to make intentional space and time to focus on cooking meals that align with the interstitial cystitis diet.


Set yourself up for success by getting organized at the beginning of each week:

  • Start by planning your meals for the next 5-7 days. (If this step feels overwhelming, consider this dietitian approved interstitial cystitis meal plan or this IC-friendly meal builder!)

  • Next, source recipes that align with the interstitial cystitis diet. If you’ve already completed an elimination diet and have your individualized list of food and beverage triggers, be sure to choose recipes that omit your identified trigger foods!

  • Last, grocery shop to get all the ingredients you’ll need to make each recipe. A stocked pantry and fridge will make meal prep a breeze, minimizing barriers to follow through on your plan to prioritize cooking.


By cooking your meals, you’ll be in full control of the ingredients you use and put in your body. This is essential for controlling interstitial cystitis symptoms through the intervention of the IC diet. Additionally, by prioritizing cooking and preparing yourself to make nutritious choices at meals, you’ll be doing a favor for your overall health - that’s a win-win!


While you are following the IC diet, you’ll need tried and true recipes that not only omit foods that irritate the bladder, but that are also tasty! I’ve got you covered with tons of free recipes right here in the blog as well as several different e-cookbooks- all Dietitian created and aligned with the interstitial cystitis diet. 


Let’s face it, we all deserve a break from cooking a few times a month! Just because I’m a Dietitian doesn’t mean I’m not human! Check out these tips that will prepare you to make the best choices while dining out and feel confident in doing so.  



3. Hydration

A woman drinking a bottle of water

Adequate water intake is a super important component of interstitial cystitis self-care. Hydration is essential for optimal health and can be helpful for reducing some interstitial cystitis symptoms, such as painful urination. While this is true for some, not everyone with interstitial cystitis would agree. 


You’ll want to find your threshold (through trial and error) to find the optimal water intake amount that keeps you well hydrated and keeps your interstitial cystitis symptoms under control. If you’re concerned about your ability to maintain optimal hydration, talk with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian


While prioritizing hydration, please keep in mind the beverages from the list of common foods that irritate the bladder:

  • coffee 

  • tea 

  • carbonated and alcoholic beverages 


This doesn’t mean you have to avoid these forever- remember, there are plenty of other delicious beverage choices to remain well-hydrated! Plus, after conducting the elimination diet, you may find that you can tolerate some or all of the above-listed beverages. Until you find that out, check out these safe drink recipes and consider picking up a copy of my expert-curated IC diet safe mocktails and smoothies!



4. Heat + Cold Therapy

Using heat + cold therapy as a form of interstitial cystitis self-care should not be overlooked! It seems simple enough, but sometimes it's the “little things” that make a big impact. Much like when used for other conditions, you must first figure out whether your interstitial cystitis symptoms respond better to heat or cold. For me, it’s cold therapy to the rescue when I’m in a flare; but that may not be the case for you.


If you respond best to cold therapy, here are some ideas for daily incorporation into your interstitial cystitis treatment:

  • Apply an ice pack to your pelvic floor

  • If you don’t have an ice pack, you can freeze a water bottle or use a (towel-wrapped) bag of frozen veggies

  • If you have a pelvic wand, most can be frozen or chilled in the refrigerator (a great way to provide internal cold therapy!)


If you respond better to heat therapy, here are some ideas to help alleviate your interstitial cystitis symptoms:

  • Use a heating pad and apply to the area of discomfort

  • Warm up a microwavable comfort pack (follow the directions for max heating time!)

  • Take a warm or hot bath, infused with epsom salt (the magnesium content in epsom salt can ease pelvic pain, in and of itself!)


5. Stress Management


Another important interstitial cystitis self-care technique is stress management. We could all probably use this advice, regardless of IC warrior status! I take a deep dive into this topic, here, but will highlight the main points when it comes to the relationship between interstitial cystitis and stress.


When you’re in chronic pain, your body perceives this as a threat due to hard-wiring, part of being a human. This causes your nervous system to be very sensitive and sets you up for intolerance of even the smallest stress triggers that may pop up throughout the day. This can be the reason why you are stuck in a vicious cycle of stressing about a flare, causing a flare and then stressing even more that you are in a flare. 


So what to do about it? How do we break this vicious cycle? 


Woman meditating

Here are some strategies to help you manage stress, a key element in your interstitial cystitis treatment plan:

  • Reduce sensory overload. Think about your 5 senses and what experiences really overwhelm any of those senses. For example, if you’re sensitive to different sounds, try noise canceling earbuds or headphones - especially if you work in a noisy environment.

  • Breathe. Deep, rhythmic breathing not only relaxes the mind but alkalizes your body and reduces sensory overload.

  • Meditation. Short, 5-minute meditations could be a strong solution for an overactive brain. Carve out intentional time to decompress!

  • Nature walks, unplugged. Go out for a walk and take in the soothing sights and sounds of nature. 

  • Mindful eating. This is the practiced act of savoring food in the moment without judgment or fear. How our minds perceive food can be powerful - allow food you really enjoy to be uplifting! 


6. Gentle Physical Activity


Gentle physical activity is a must-do interstitial cystitis self-care act that many of us backburner. Thinking about the loads of literature that show the mind and body health benefits of physical activity, it’s no surprise this falls on this list! But when it comes to interstitial cystitis, we’re sometimes dealing with fear and limitations when it comes to movement and exercise. 


We have an in-depth article here that dives into how the pelvic floor muscles in interstitial cystitis react to certain exercises, such as kegels. Also, consider a consultation with a pelvic floor therapist if you’d feel better about getting individualized physical activity recommendations.  ICHelp.org provides many resources for finding a local physical therapist provider as well as general information about the role of PT in interstitial cystitis. Otherwise, implement gentle physical activity and build up to a goal of 3 times per week, even if only for 20 minutes each time, and consider:

  • Walking

  • Swimming

  • Dancing!

  • Tai Chi

  • Water aerobics  


7. Comfortable Clothing


If your body is already on fire from chronic pain, the last thing you need is uncomfortable clothes. If you’re sensitive to any pressure on the abdomen or pelvic region, tight clothing can be a trigger for worsening interstitial cystitis symptoms or a flare. Be sure your clothing fits properly and is comfortable! Check out some of my favorite comfortable and stylish clothing recommendations here. 


Natural fabrics like silk, bamboo and cotton feel cool and soft to the touch. This means jeans may need to exit your wardrobe for a while, replaced with wide elastic waist bands that stretch to fit comfortably. Avoid belts and buttons at the waist. And of course you may want to wear things that are easy to get on and off in the bathroom, especially if you are suffering from urinary frequency. 



8. Fragrance-Free Body Products

Artificial fragrance can be irritating to the skin, particularly if you’re already experiencing vulvar discomfort or pain as one of your interstitial cystitis symptoms. Additionally, artificial fragrance contains known hormone-disrupting chemicals. As a holistic practice of self-care, making the switch to fragrance-free body products may be a good move for you. 


It’s important to note that pure essential oils do not contain artificial fragrance but could still be irritating to your skin. Proceed with caution there! If you’re looking for truly fragrance-free, consider switching the products that come in contact with your body:

  • Free and clear clothing detergent (ditch the dryer sheets altogether!)

  • Unscented lotion and facial products

  • Fragrance-free body wash, shaving cream, and hair products

  • Artificial fragrance free makeup products


9. Support System

Your support system is absolutely key to a comprehensive interstitial cystitis self-care regimen! From living with chronic pain to navigating the feelings that come up when dealing with the many layers of an interstitial cystitis diagnosis, it’s a lot to handle! Give yourself some grace and check out my article on 4 ways to manage negative feelings, found here.


Build up your support system, if you haven't already, and consider some of these options:

  • Find a therapist. Psychology Today has a pretty comprehensive list of providers.

  • Get personalized support in our Road to Remission program. This comprehensive program offers a transformative, holistic approach rooted in science and tailored to your unique needs on your path to managing interstitial cystitis.

  • If you aren’t ready to commit to the Road to Remission program but want a private community for support, consider the IC Collective to fill that bucket.


10. Recommended Reading

Last but not least, make time to gain knowledge and understanding of interstitial cystitis and the accompanying factors that play into this diagnosis. Aside form the blog articles here on my site, I highly recommend these additional resources:


  • “The Way Out” A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain by Alan Gordon, LCSW

  • “Breaking Through Chronic Pelvic Pain” A Holistic Approach for Relief, by Dr. Jerome M Weiss, MD

  • “Outsmart Your Pain” Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Help You Leave Chronic Pain Behind, by Dr. Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD

  • Curable App - ​​evidence-based mind-body techniques and resources to help you manage and alleviate chronic pain.


Don’t wait until bedtime to do some reading! By adding reading to your self-care list, this means scheduling time during waking hours to do so. Schedule in 30-60 minutes throughout the week - literally, make it a calendar event to ensure it actually happens! 



Which of the above interstitial cystitis self-care techniques will you start right away?


Whether you choose to start with 1-3 of these self-care practices or keep all 10 in your toolbelt, the key is to integrate them into your daily routine. Regardless of how you choose to implement these strategies, always remember the primary goal: prioritizing self-care. Even when life pulls us in different directions, know that you've got this, and we’re here to support you! 




Sources:


  1. Friedlander JI, Shorter B, Moldwin RM. Diet and its role in interstitial cystitis/bladder pain syndrome (IC/BPS) and comorbid conditions. BJU Int. 2012 Jun;109(11):1584-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-410X.2011.10860.x. Epub 2012 Jan 11. PMID: 22233286.

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