Everything You Should Know About Your Urinary System and How It Works
Most of us don’t give much thought to our urinary tracts until there’s a real problem. Sure, we are normally quite aware of the urge to visit the bathroom, but that’s about where it ends.
That is…until you get a painful, burning urinary tract infection. Or you are passing a kidney stone. Or you have a urinary blockage making it difficult to use the bathroom. Then you are hyperaware of your urinary tract.
But do you know exactly how it works? Are you even sure what parts make up this body system? Does it do anything other that get rid of waste?
I’m here to tell you everything you need to know about the parts of the urinary tract. You will know exactly what each part does, how it works, and what can go wrong.
Consider this your “The Urinary System 101.”
Why We Have The Urinary Tract System
Before we get into specifics, let’s talk general big picture: the urinary system (also called the renal system). Why do we need the urinary tract and what does it do as a whole?
We eat food and drink water, but everything we put into our mouths cannot stay in our bodies. We need to take out everything we need like nutrients, calories, hydration, etc. and then get rid of the rest. Some of that waste goes through our gastrointestinal tract. The other waste goes through our urinary tract.
The urinary tract’s waste is called urea.
Our bodies are made up mostly of water. But there needs to be a balance between water and your body’s chemicals, like sodium for instance. To achieve this balance, your urinary system removes urea from your blood.
And as we will learn in just a minute, the urinary tract is also a vital blood filtering system and blood monitoring system – all thanks to the kidneys.
So What’s Urine?
Urine is obviously not a part of the urinary tract, but we are going to talk a lot about it as we discuss this particular body system.
Urine is a mix of that waste product urea, water, uric acid, salt, and other chemicals. The average person makes around 80 to 200 milliliters of urine – which equals somewhere between 3.5 cups and 8.5 cups of urine.
Your urine should be pale yellow or even clear. If it is dark yellow or orange, you are dehydrated and need to drink more water. If it is brown, you should visit your doctor. If it is pink or red, you have blood in the urine and need to see your doctor to find out what is going on.
How Are The Male And Female Urinary Tracts Different?
For the most part, the male and female urinary systems are exactly the same. The largest difference is in the size of the urethra, the final part of the tract.
Men typically have much longer urethras than women. Women’s urethras are normally about 2 inches long and men’s are around 8 inches long. This is the main reason behind women getting far more urinary tract infections than men. The bacteria does not have to travel so far to reach the bladder.
Another slight difference is that women’s urethral sphincters are slightly more “elaborate” than men’s.
Kidneys: Urinary Tract Part #1
The first organs in the urinary tract are your kidneys.
Most of us have two kidneys, though you can survive with only one. These small organs (shaped like – you guessed it – kidney beans) are found just under the ribs and more toward your back than your front.
These kidneys are filled with tons of nephrons. The nephrons are responsible for filtering the urea in the blood. Water will go also through the nephrons and then move on down the line. This is the beginning of urine.
But the kidneys do a whole lot more than just creating urine. They also:
- Filter your blood
- Stabilize your balance of salt in your blood
- Create a hormone called erythropoietin that helps you form red blood cells
- Regulate blood pressure
- Balance acid
Ureters: Urinary Tract Part #2
Next up, we have the ureters.
These are two narrow tubes, approximately 8 to 10 inches long, that connect the kidneys to the bladder. Essentially, they are the passageways for your urine to move out of your kidneys.
But don’t think of these tubes as slides. Ureters have muscles that are always tightening and relaxing to move the urine toward the bladder in a timely, organized manner. In fact, your ureters are allowing a very tiny amount of urine into your bladder somewhere around every 10 to 15 seconds.
Where the ureters can have a problem is if anything gets backed up. This can lead to a kidney infection, which can be dangerous.
Bladder: Urinary Tract Part #3
Now we get to the bladder – perhaps the part of the urinary tract that you are most familiar with.
The bladder is a hollow organ.
As the ureters drop urine into the bladder, the bladder relaxes to expand. Then when it is time to use the bathroom, the bladder contracts to remove the urine. Normally, an adult bladder can have somewhere around 2 cups of urine. After 2 to 5 hours, that amount of urine must be removed.
Our bladders have nerves that clue us whenever it is time to use the bathroom. You have undoubtedly felt the difference between the nerves gently letting you know you may need to find a bathroom in the next 20 minutes or so… and the nerves loudly telling you that you need a bathroom right this second.
RELATED: 9 Major UTI Risk Factors In Adults
Urethra Sphincters: Bonus Muscles
So how does the urine stay in the bladder without leaking? Or if there is urine leakage, what’s not working properly?
It all comes down the sphincter muscles. These are essentially like a rubber band that closes off the bladder.
- The internal sphincter is involuntary.
- The external sphincters are voluntary.
Even if we are not “telling” our sphincters to relax and allow the urine out, our brain gives the cue to the sphincter when we are at the toilet and ready to urinate.
Urethra: Urinary Tract Part #4
Finally, we end up at the urethra.
This is one narrow tube – though not nearly as narrow as the ureters – that brings the urine from the bladder into the toilet.
At the same time, your bladder contracts and the sphincters relax so urine can flow freely. Unlike the ureters that slowly and methodically release urine, the urethra is a tube that essentially allows your urine to slide down more quickly. Its muscle relaxes so this can happen with ease.
In men, the urethra is also used to carry semen.
Some Potential Urinary Tract Problems
Sometimes our urinary system does not work exactly as it should. Since it is made up of so many parts, many different things can go wrong – from small, minor infections all the way to cancer.
This list is not comprehensive, but it should give you an idea of some of the more common problems you can experience with your urinary tract.
- Urinary Tract Infections: When most people say they have a UTI, they are thinking of a bladder infection. But a UTI can occur at any point of the urinary tract – including kidney infections.
- Overactive Bladder: This is when the urge to urinate is strong and more frequent. Sometimes you can accidentally go the bathroom in your pants. An appointment with your doctor can help correct the problem.
- Interstitial Cystitis: This chronic condition causes pain in the bladder. You can develop ulcers and scaring. Normally women have this disease, but it is possible in men.
- Kidney Stones: Kidney stones are formed in the kidneys when there are too many stone-forming substances and not enough water to flush them out. If they are small enough, the stones will pass through the urinary tract (this is normally quite painful). Sometimes they are too big and must be removed through medical intervention treatments.
- Kidney Disease: When our kidneys are not working the way they are supposed to for longer than 3 months (shorter times can be due to things like traumatic injury, dehydration, enlarged prostate, etc.), you have chronic kidney disease and need appropriate medical care.
- Cancer: Around 75,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with bladder cancer each year. Many symptoms are similar to the conditions listed above, so it is always important to visit your doctor if you have any urinary tract issues. Kidney cancer is also a possibility.
Learning More About Your Urinary Tract Parts And Functions
If you want to take a deeper dive into to understanding the more complex aspects of your urinary tract (think of it like “The Urinary Tract 102”), the CrashCourse series on YouTube has two fabulous videos to help you out.
This two-part series is about 20 minutes in all. Check them out here:
Keeping Your Urinary Tract Healthy
Let’s finish up “The Urinary Tract 101” with some tips for keeping this body system healthy and happy for the years to come.
- Drink plenty of water: Water is paramount for the health of your entire urinary tract. Plus adequate hydration can prevent many conditions like UTIs and kidney stones.
- Take a natural supplement: Supplements like D-mannose and Hibiscus extract can help you cleanse your urinary tract naturally – and prevent infection.
- Go when you need to go: Those bladder nerves that let you know when it’s time to use the bathroom are there for a reason; listen to them. Holding it in all the time can lead to urinary tract problems
- Eat healthy foods: A well-balanced diet focused on “real” un-processed foods is just as important for your urinary tract as it is for your other bodily systems
Finally, if you have any changes in your urinary patterns or if you experience any pain or discomfort – always take the initiative to see your doctor. Urinary health is vital not only for waste removal but also for filtering your blood.
Read Next: The Link Between Dehydration and UTIs