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Not drinking your own urine seems like common sense, outside of a survival situation. However, the internet is home to a number of different online communities all dedicated to practicing urine therapy, the idea that drinking or bathing in your own urine is essential for good health and, in extreme cases, can cure any disease.
Urine therapy is the brainchild of John Armstrong, a British naturopath, whose family used it to treat stings and toothaches. From this, Armstrong drew the conclusion that urine was beneficial to the body in general, and that consuming it would increase your health and vitality in the same way that ploughing fallen leaves back into the soil rejuvenates it. He began prescribing urine fasting, where the patient consumes nothing but water and their own urine, in 1918, as well as topical application and the consumption of it alongside a normal diet to cure everything from gangrene to diabetes. Since then, other naturopaths around the world have adopted and built on his theories, prescribing them to patients even now.
While there is some scientific basis for using urine to treat toothaches and stings—the ammonia in urine neutralizes the acid produced by the bacteria that cause tooth decay and would have a similar effect on some insect bites (however as with jellyfish stings it can also make it worse)—Armstrong’s belief in it as a cure-all elixir is, obviously, nonsense.
“The more illnesses a particular cure is claimed to help, the more likely it is to be snake oil,” Dr. Jan Steckel, a writer and former pediatrician from Oakland, California, told the Daily Dot. “Many alternative therapies are quite effective. Drinking urine isn’t one of them. Like most alternative therapies that are ineffective, drinking your own urine (or anybody else’s) is claimed to help a very wide range of conditions, including cancer. It’s probably not going to kill you, but it won’t do you any good, either. There’s no evidence that it’s helpful for any of the conditions it’s used for. Moreover, it contains bacteria, a lot of sodium, and urea, none of which are very good for you.”
Sadly, just like many other unscientific beliefs, the internet has allowed the practice of urine therapy to flourish and there are growing numbers of adherents all around the world. As with the anti-vax movement, Facebook is one of the culprits behind the spread, with dozens of groups, pages, and videos dedicated to the practice. The nature of Facebook groups has allowed for considerable cross-pollination with anti-vaxxers, the detox and parasite obsessed, and other “alternative” beliefs, creating hybrid practices that go beyond Armstrong’s original suggestions.
Testimony: Aged Urine = worms, parasites released from bodyPosted by Urine Therapy 101 on Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Believers are now engaging in urine enemas in an attempt to rid their bodies of parasites (including the fictional rope worms, really pieces of the intestinal lining), candida overgrowth, or just to remove unspecified “toxins” which are apparently to blame for everything from cancer to acne. They’re also letting the urine age before using it out of the belief that it makes the substance more potent, something Steckel says is an especially bad idea as “urine can get infected—in other words, bacteria can multiply in it.” Allowing it to age will also cause the bacteria present to break down the urea into ammonia, a caustic substance with similar uses to bleach that is dangerous to ingest, inhale or, at high enough concentration, bring into contact with skin.
One popular use for this aged urine is as an eyewash, either to treat acute symptoms or as part of a regular regime designed to improve overall eye health. Dr. Steckel also warned that “not only could you get an eye infection, but you might also get something really nasty like gonorrhea or trachoma in your eye, which could further damage your vision. So, no. Don’t put urine, aged or otherwise, in your eyes.” However, its adherents remain convinced of its magical healing qualities, either experiencing a placebo effect or lying to achieve status within the group.
Urine therapy is more than an alternative medical treatment; it’s a way of life with quasi or overt religious elements for many of its practitioners. The assumption is that it’s always beneficial, and, as with similar parasite cleanses, that any negative effects are just a symptom of it working. This has led to people doing things like vaping their urine, something that is likely to irritate the lungs, and washing in it daily instead of water. While the urea in urine can help treat acne and certain skin conditions, it’s also going to irritate it, especially if not washed off quickly. To quote Steckel once again, “When urine is left on the skin a long time, it can cause a contact dermatitis, kind of like a diaper rash, that can itch or burn.”
Worryingly, that religious element has even lead to users suggesting people treat serious mental health conditions, such as PTSD, with it out of the belief that drinking their own urine will restore spiritual wholeness as well as physical. Obviously, it does neither of these things, but that isn’t going to stop the true believers from recommending it for everything from depression to cancer.
Siobhan Ball is a historian, archivist, and journalist. She also writes for Autostraddle and bi.org