The primary function of the kidneys is to filter unneeded or toxic substances from the blood, and then excrete it through urine. Urine is stored in the bladder. Many problems can occur in this system, from urinary tract infections to chronic kidney failure. As with anything, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so start caring for your equipment now rather than later. Herbs that can be used for the kidneys and bladder are so numerous that you can get a headache while researching. I've curated a few of my favorites for you here. Many of them are locally available in the wild, or can be easily grown in your garden.
If you do have major kidney issues, be sure to consult a doctor, a naturopath or an herbalist before you dose yourself up with herbs. Kidneys are sensitive creatures, and taking the wrong herb can make them angry. Herbs do have powerful physiological effects, which are not always the effects you're looking for. When in doubt, start with a small dose and observe the effects. If you feel pain or any other weird symptoms, don't take any more!
Corn Silk (Zea mays)
Yes, I'm talking about the silk you rip off the ear of corn when you're shucking it. You can buy it dried at an herb store, or you can take the fresh stuff from the shuck pile. In my opinion, corn silk gets the best contact with the kidneys and bladder as a tea, because tea is made with water. Corn silk is a mild diuretic, and is also soothing. It combines well with more irritating herbs to balance them. Dried cornsilk tea makes a great daily tonic for people with urinary tract inflammation or frequent UT infections.
Marshmallow Root (Althea officinalis)
Marshmallow is the great soother of the kidney system. If irritation is suspected, this is a good herb to start with. It's also great for irritation of the stomach and intestines, so if you have that too, get on it! If you're consuming marshmallow alone, I recommend a cold infusion which is as simple as putting 2 Tbsp of the dried root in a quart jar filled with water, and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. Strain and drink throughout the next day! Ma
Uva-ursi/ Kinnick kinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Uva ursi is the poster child for acute urinary tract infections and bladder infections. I have found the stuff to be miraculous. Herbalists usually combine this with soothing herbs, like marshmallow or cornsilk, to lessen the possibility of irritation. It's an intense herb! Look at your local herb store for a tea formula or a tincture formula that contains uva-ursi.
This herb is best as a tea or tincture. It's very bitter, so the tea is a bit much for people. It's not recommended to use Uva-ursi for longer than 1-2 weeks, because it can cause stomach irritation. If you have a peptic ulcer, be mindful of the possibility that it might cause a flareup.
Uva-ursi grows in and PNW, and has some look-alikes, so be wary when harvesting. I have found a lot on the east side of the cascades on drier forest service lands of middle elevation. Harvest the leaves and stems.
Pipsissewa (Chimaphila spp.)
Pipsissewa is a personal favorite of mine. It is very similar in action to uva-ursi, but just a little bit less strong (and less strong tasting). It can also be used for acute UTIs. A good indication for this herb is a thick white coating on the back of your tongue and frequent urinary tract infections or inflammation.
I have found this herb can exacerbate peptic ulcers, so combine it with marshmallow to soften it, and take breaks. That said, I have found this herb to be safer for longer term use than uva-ursi, and I think other herbalists can agree. If using this as a preventative, try taking smaller doses of it (think 10-20 drops of tincture 2x/day, versus 30-60 drops 5x/day for acute situations).
Chimaphila umbellata grows natively in Washington. Here's a good resource on it. I've had great luck harvesting it for myself. As always, make sure you get a 120% positive ID.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettle seed has been a favorite of mine recently. It's commonly used as a restorative herb for the kidneys and adrenals, and can be helpful for those dealing with long term stress. However, notable for the topic at hand is that I've read many reports from other herbalists about using nettle seed for chronic kidney failure with success. Here's one helpful article.
I harvest nettle seeds every year in July for myself. Make sure the seeds have developed, because the flowers can look like seeds to an untrained eye. It should look like the picture on the right. I usually make tincture, but you can also make a nettle seed salt (like Gomashio), or consume the dried, ground seeds in whatever fashion you wish. If you don't want to get terribly stung, wear gloves when you harvest these.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is my go-to herb for fluid retention, as it is a fantastic diuretic, and it's high in potassium! You can boil the leaves that you weed out of your garden into a tea and drink it, or you can dry the leaves and store them to make into tea. You can use dandelion leaf and root for premenstrual water retention.
I think of Dandelion when I see edema combined with high blood pressure. Be aware that this condition can be caused by several things, not all of which are appropriate for dandelion. It's a good idea to see a doctor to make sure it's not more serious.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Cleavers is a common weed around the world. If you've ever noticed small burs stuck to your clothing after walking in a field, they may have been cleavers seeds. This plant is harvested in the spring, before flowering, to make a tincture or a juice. It grows all over my weedy garden!
Cleavers gently helps to move lymph (a liquid substance similar to blood that carries waste products to lymph glands for processing), and clears stagnation of tissues. If I were to choose one universal herb for people wanting to prevent things like BPH and UTIs, I would recommend cleavers. It helps keep the tissues clean and moving. Cleavers is not really strong enough for acute or extreme cases, though. You can add Cleavers to your daily tea mix, take a tincture daily, or add it to a gentle detox regimen.
A gentle tea for the UTI prone:
1 part Cleavers
1/2 part Corn silk
1 part Marshmallow root
1 part Tulsi/ holy basil
1 part Dandelion leaf
1 part lemon verbena
Parts are measured by weight. Get all herbs dried and mix them together. Store in a dry, sealed glass jar. Use 1-2 Tablespoons per cup and drink a cup a day.