“That’s horrible. There’s no getting away from it. It’s warm and pretty salty.”
-Bear Grylls, survivorman
Eating yellow snow is something your mom told you never to do. But what would happen if you did? What if you were stuck in a survival situation? Is urine bad for you? Is it toxic? Is it fattening?
Why is urine yellow?
In the Middle Ages, some European alchemists thought urine was yellow because it contained gold. This led to fruitless, and probably disgusting, efforts to extract the precious mineral. The yellow color in urine is actually the same yellow you see on bruises, and what also makes your feces brown. Bilirubin is a product of old red blood cells that is partly broken down in the liver and stored in the gall bladder. Most of it is released into our intestines and broken down further, causing our poo to have its hue. Some remains in the bloodstream and is converted to urobilin by the kidneys, and this is what gives our flush its blush.
What’s in your pee?
Urine is composed of about 95% water and 5% nitrogenous waste from protein breakdown. Nitrogen from protein degradation forms ammonia, a compound so toxic that only a tiny bit can be tolerated. So our livers quickly convert any ammonia in our bloodstream to urea, which in turn is removed by the kidneys and concentrated in our urine. Urea makes up only 2% of our urine, and the nitrogen it contains can be used to fertilize plants. Industrial urea is produced by the millions of tons, but if sources become scarce one day, your urine will literally be worth gold.
And if you need to protect your liquid wealth, you can always make gunpowder out of your pee. Urea can be broken back down into ammonia, producing that rank pee smell of back-alley dumpsters, and further oxidized by bacteria to make urea nitrate, an essential ingredient in high explosives. Urine also contains a bit of creatinine, a breakdown product of creatine phosphate found in muscles that is used by urologists -- professional pee doctors -- to assess proper kidney function. The rest of your urine is made up of mineral salts, enzymes, fatty acids, carbohydrates, and hormones -- basically the stuff primordial soups are made of.
The art of drinking Urine
According to the official Xinhua news agency, more than three million Chinese drink their own urine in the belief that it is good for their health. Some modern Japanese women admit to engaging in urine bathing, and the truly daring use their own urine as an enema. Drinking one’s morning urine is a traditional practice of the yogic religion that is still widely performed today. In the West, the practice is called urine therapy, and a growing number of naturopaths and other advocates of alternative medicine are promoting it as a miracle cure-all. Madonna once told David Letterman that she pees on her own feet to treat her athlete’s foot problem. Mixed Martial Arts fighters Lyoto Machida and Luke Cummo admitted to drinking their own pee, as did boxer Juan Manuel Márquez, believing that it improved their health.
Can You Drink Your Own Pee?
Does drinking urine really promote good health? Find out next...
According to urine therapy websites, there is nothing urine won’t cure: birth marks, broken bones, AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and a bunch of other ailments that have plagued humans over the years. Some enthusiasts see urine as the “water of life” and a divine manifestation of cosmic intelligence, causing instant enlightenment upon ingestion. With such wondrous properties, it’s baffling that science hasn’t spent more time and effort considering it as a medicine.
Urinophiles claim that the medical community has been fully aware of urine’s wondrous efficacy for decades but have conspired to keep it a secret since there wasn’t any monetary gain in it. In reality, constructing any type of double-blind clinical study to validate pee’s effects would be an obviously difficult and unethical project. Researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australia, proposed that one possible explanation for urine’s perceived health benefits might be its melatonin content.
Morning pee has a high concentration of melatonin, a pineal hormone that has numerous health benefits. Melatonin in pee is not physiologically active, but it is proposed that the low pH of stomach acid might revert it back into its active form and restore and increase plasma melatonin levels. Melatonin is known as the darkness hormone and is produced naturally while you sleep. If you want to reap the benefits of melatonin, get more sleep. As a nutritional supplement, pee is never a good idea. As a recreational drug, however, drinking pee does have some legitimacy. As evidence, consider Santa Claus and his flying reindeer.
Santa flies high
Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign in the 1930s may have solidified Santa’s image as the jolly rotund guy we know today, but Santa’s true origins stem from the traditions of the pee-drinking reindeer herders of Northern Europe. Reindeers are fond of eating fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), the red-and-white toadstools often associated with Christmas, because they contain compounds that are hallucinogenic and euphoric. Reindeer digestive systems are able to metabolize the more poisonous components of the toadstool, leaving urine with the psychoactive elements of the mushroom intact.
The Sami people of Northern Europe would regularly feed fly agaric to reindeers and collect their urine to get a high similar to LSD. Under the hallucinogenic effects of reindeer piss, the Sami thought their reindeer were flying through space, looking down on the world. When the first missionaries reached Lapland, they heard stories of flying reindeer and integrated them in the existing Christmas folklore of Western cultures. The practice of drinking reindeer urine was reserved for those who had the time to collect the mushroom, which meant that the poorer class would drink the urine of the better off, which was collected in bowls or skin bags. Evidence suggests that the drug’s hallucinogens remained active even after having passed though five or six people. Some scholars maintain that this is the true origin of the expression “to get pissed.”
The Koryak shaman (holy men) who collected fly agaric in Siberia wore special attire consisting of red-and-white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots. They would gather the mushrooms from under sacred evergreen trees and collect them in large sacks. They would then enter their tepee-like homes called “yurts” through the smoke hole at the top, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric. Once inside, they would share their gift with those gathered inside, and then leave back through the smoke hole. Sound familiar? From climbing into chimneys and gift giving to dressing in red and white, and flying through the air with reindeers, storytellers and travelers fused the ancient customs of shamanistic pee-drinking rituals with other pagan traditions, and these were integrated by early Christians into our modern Christmas traditions. Santa does exist, and he’s a pusher.
Is urine poisonous?
In a nutshell, no, urine is not poisonous. But just because something isn’t toxic doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Toenail clippings aren’t toxic either, but no one wants them in their food. Bacteria that lines the urethra can contaminate urine and pose a health risk, which is why doctors and urine therapy practitioners use mid-stream urine. The first few seconds of urination flushes out the bacteria. Urine can also contain harmful substances in those who have taken medication or drugs, as we just learned from flying reindeer. Salts and minerals in urine may pose a hazard as well, especially if the urine is from someone who is dehydrated.
If you’re stuck in a survival situation and are dying of thirst, drinking your pee might make the situation worse. Re-ingesting the salts your kidneys were trying to get rid of will only exacerbate your dehydration. This is why several survival guides, including the U.S. Army Field Manual FM 21-76, advises against drinking your own urine -- even when there is no other fluid around. Nevertheless, urine drinking was documented as saving the life of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber best known for having survived several days with his arm trapped under a boulder. His story was the subject of the 2010 movie 127 Hours.
Your kidneys know what they’re doing. You can trust them to eliminate stuff your body doesn’t need or can’t store, and retain what is useful and necessary. Drinking pee is like telling your kidneys that they need to double-check their work. No medical evidence supports urine as an effective treatment for any illness, so follow your mom’s advice and use your stream to write your initials in the snow. If reindeers appear, call the police.