The would-be health drink that's hard to swallow

Anna Maxted on the curious practice of urine-drinking
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHO'S for a wee dram? Not many people, apparently. Although the health claims for drinking urine are considerable, most of us prefer to take vitamin pills. The orthodox medical profession in Britain also remains sceptical, though the case for urine therapy, which has been relatively common in India for centuries, has been keenly argued by naturopaths and pee-quaffing individuals alike.

Bethan Howerd, 28, of Tonbridge, has been drinking her own urine for nearly a year and, though some might call it bragging, can't praise it highly enough. She says: "Last autumn I was extremely run down. My skin was bad and I felt very lethargic. A sensible diet and eight hours' sleep didn't help. Then a friend suggested meditative yoga, and a woman I met at the class told me about amaroli [urine drinking].

"I thought, 'On no account'. But she looked well on it. It took me a while to steel myself, and I can't say that it's delicious, but it's not as bad as you might think. My skin has cleared up and I feel great; the difference it has made to my health is amazing. I recommend it."

She isn't the only one. While some people swear that five shots of whisky do the same trick, research in Australia has shown that urine can act as a mild painkiller or sedative, as it contains the hormone melatonin. And though many skin complaints yield to E45 cream and sunlight, advocates of urine therapy say it works wonders for eczema or psoriasis.

But taking your own waters isn't recommended unless you are a vegetarian or vegan who abstains from drugs; carnivores produce urine that contains high levels of potentially harmful urea, which allegedly tastes disgusting.

However, stay off the beefburgers and narcotics, say advocates, and you've got your own personal medicine supply on tap, as it were. Jennifer Stead, a social historian specialising in food, believes drinking urine can boost the immune system, cure migraines and stave off cold. And, although this may be stating the obvious, she writes in Here's Health magazine: "To stop cravings for food or alcohol drink a glass of fresh urine - it really works."

Naturopath Harald Gaier, at London's Hale Clinic, is dubious about the healing powers of piddle, although he tentatively admits that there may be a certain validity in drinking watered-down urine to combat certain afflictions. He says: "If you dilute it and have it in a homeopathic dose, the agent of the illness might be there and you've got an auto-nosode. This is where the patient uses a part of themselves to trigger the body into fighting illness."

This theory is more widely accepted in France, where urine is popular as a remedy for cystitis. The doctor sends a sample of the woman's urine to the pharmacy with a prescription - available on the national health service, naturally - usually about 15 drops in water to be drunk half an hour before breakfast.

If you find the idea of such an aperitif distasteful, you are more squeamish than your ancestors. In the early 18th century, many physicians practiced urine divining: the diagnosis of the patient's urine was believed to reveal a wealth of information, including whether he or she was married, pregnant or a virgin. For a second opinion, some practitioners would taste it - sweetness indicated the patient had a sugar problem.

It may have been standard practice then, but going on the opinion of Oliver Wrong, professor of medicine at University College Hospital, this particular drinking habit gets short shrift from today's medical fraternity. Professor Wrong doesn't mince words when asked why some people drink their own urine: "Because they're soft in the head. It's an excretion product which the body is getting rid of, so to drink it is absurd."

He says: "The practice has no place in established therapy. Of course, drinking a little bit won't do you any harm. It's just going give the kidneys more work, because they have to excrete the waste all over again. It's completely pointless."

Consequently, the professor warns: "If you're rowing across the Atlantic and run out of drinking water, there's no point in recycling your own urine because it will be at its highest concentration and you won't be able to extract anything further if it were to go round again."

John Wiseman, author of the SAS Survival Guide, takes this caution a step further. He puts "Urine and Seawater" in a danger-alert pink box next to an illustration of a skull and crossbones. The text reads: "Never drink either - never."