Common Names

Uva-ursi, Bearberry, Mountain cranberry
Botanical Name
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
ERICACEAE ~ Heath Family

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the leaves of Uva-ursi which which, when fresh, are small, green, shiny and oblong. Uva-ursi itself is a small evergreen shrub that grows best on dry rocky hills where it can form an extensive ground cover.




How has it been used?

Marco Polo reported Chinese physicians using Uva-ursi to treat kidney and urinary tract problems and this served to bring it into popular use in Europe. That said there are also records of the Welsh Physicians of Myddfai already using it in the 13th century so it may already have been known about in European herbal medicine -- at least by some.

When Europeans later began to colonise North American they found that the Native Indians had already been long using it as a urinary remedy (they also smoked it along with tobacco in the marvellously tongue-tying mixture known as 'kinnikkinnik').

Rudolph Weiss says 'Uva-ursi is indicated for treatment of all inflammatory diseases of the urinary passages especially unspecific urinary tract infections' He also wisely suggests that 'patients should be instructed to drink plenty of fluids whilst taking this herbal drug'.

Uva-ursi is described by M. Grieve as 'of great value in diseases of the bladder and kidneys, strengthening and imparting tone to the urinary passages... used in inflammatory diseases of the urinary tract, urethritis, cystitis, etc.


Science on Uva-ursi

~ Uva-ursi has been extensively studied for the treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are famously hard to treat for many people, they either don’t go away with antibiotics or they only go away briefly. Because of this and because Uva-ursi clearly works this herb actually been given a good amount of modern scientific scrutiny and it turns out that there is a sugary molecule in Uva-ursi called arbutin that, when it gets into the urinary tract, gets transformed into ‘hydroquinone’ -- a natural, potent antibiotic (Nikolaev SM, Shantanova LN, Mondodoev AG et al? Rastitel'Nye Resursy 1996;32(3):118-123) (Robertson JA, Howard LA. J Clin Microbiol 1987;25(1):160-161)

~ In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial 57 women with recurrent cystitis were given a herbal treatment of Uva-ursi and Dandelion extract. Treatment for one month saw no episodes of bladder infections during the trial period and a significantly reduced number of recurrences for a full year following the treatment compared with placebo (Larsson B, Jonasson A, Fianu S. Curr Ther Res Clin Exp 1993;53(4):441-443)

~ Uva-ursi extracts have shown anitmicrobial activity against the common infectious organisms: Escherichia coli, Proteus vulgaris, Enterobacter aerogenes, Streptococcus fecalis, Sthaphylococcus aureus, Salmonella typhi and Candida albicans (Holopainen M, Jabodar L, Seppenene-Laakso T et al. Acta Pharm Fenn 1988;97(4):197-202)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of over 40 further studies and articles on Uva ursi are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Uva-ursi

Uva-ursi is generally a safe herb but is best taken in moderate doses as too much of it can cause nausea and digestive disturbances. We do not recommend using Uva-ursi for children but it is okay to use moderately for the elderly. Uva-ursi is not recommended to take during pregnancy or breastfeeding but it should be noted that there are no reports of adverse events in the medical literature in this regard. I think this caution is due to the general strength of the herb rather than any expectation of toxicity to the mother or child and I would personally use it in pregnancy if the alternatives were an unchecked urinary tract infection or the need for antibiotics which certainly do pose a potential danger.

Note that there are still occasional reports floating about in older literature about Uva-ursi being a dangerous herb that can cause vomiting, ringing in the ears, seizures etc. The source for this warning came from one study reported in 1949 whch did not use Uva-ursi but rather a high dose of the isolated chemical hydroquinone, (i.e. the herb was made into a drug). This experiment does not represent how the body will respond to the whole herb.


Personal experiences

I have treated many women with chronic, recurring cystitis over the years and, whilst I pretty much always use it along with other remedies, if it so happened that there was only one thing I could use it would definitely be Uva-ursi -- I have found it to be excellent and highly reliable.

The main active ingredient in Uva-ursi appears to be the antibiotic substance hydroquinone. It has been established that hydroquinone works best in an alkaline environment so if a urinary tract infection is not rapidly responding to Uva-ursi then take a small tsp of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) in water at the same time as the herb to quickly turn things around.

The maximum benefits of Uva-ursi reach a peak at about 3 to 4 hours after taking the herb so if a urinary tract infection is severe I recommend taking a dose of Uva-ursi every 3 to 4 hours until the symptoms have resolved.

You have to be careful not to exceed a certain level of the herb (maximum 2 tsps of dried herb per dose) or you can start upsetting the stomach but if this regime is kept up for a short while I pretty much always find the problem rapidly improves.

My general approach is to use Uva-ursi in combination with other herbs rather than as a ‘simple’ (i.e. just by itself). For the first 48 hours I think you need to ‘flush’ the system with a lot of Uva-ursi then it is best to ease the dosage right back. In practical terms this might mean using a strong tea frequently through the day for the first 2 or 3 days and then dropping it back to 1 or 2 cups a day.

Aside from success with using Uva-ursi in acute UTIs I have also found smaller doses of it very beneficial to prevent recurrence...

When you get a UTI you get some damage to the delicate smooth surfaces of the bladder and its connecting tubes (urethra and ureter) The lining of these surfaces needs to be glassy smooth to safely carry urine but the after-effects of an infection are tiny pock-mark like 'scars', on those delicate surfaces which then become ideal hiding places and breeding grounds for bacteria.

A person might think they have had 6 bladder infections in the last 6 months but in fact they have just had the one infection which never properly healed from the first time. The most important goal in these cases is to prevent an infection from developing for long enough that the tissue fully heals and redevelops its smooth and unbroken surface. It takes about 6 months without any symptoms of infection for chronic cystitis to be properly 'cured'. My experience with a great many women has been that a simple cup of tea containing a tsp or so of dried Uva-ursi just once a day for those 6 months may be all that is needed to break the cycle and affect the cure.

Uva-ursi combines perfectly with Corn Silk to open and ease the passing of the urine, with Marshmallow root to relieve inflammation and symptoms of burning, with Echinacea root to help rapidly resolve the infection and with Licorice to soften the intake of the medicine and to likewise reduce inflammation.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Uva-ursi is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B.

There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Uva-ursi can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

The rapid effects of Uva-ursi depend entirely on its stimulant, astringent, and tonic powers in physiological doses, though, in the smaller doses, it will relieve chronic irritation of the bladder. In chronic affections of the kidneys and urinary passages, it is frequently useful; in vesical catarrh, chronic gonorrhoea, strangury, leucorrhoea, and excessive mucous and bloody discharges with the urine.

The keynote to its use is relaxation of the urinary membranes, as is evidenced by catarrhal discharges and a feeling of weight and dragging in the loins and perineum. There is always a feeble circulation and lack of innervation in the urinary tract when uva ursi is indicated. It undoubtedly lessens lithic acid deposits in the urine, if there are bloody and mucous discharges, and pain in the vesical region, it speedily allays all these unpleasant symptoms. Cystic spasm is relieved by it, and, when calculi are present, it obtunds the cystic membranes to such an extent that the offending material is comfortably borne.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd