Often overlooked, the kidneys play a crucial role in detoxification. The work done by these bean-shaped organs allows us to kick out waste while balancing electrolyte and water levels. The kidneys also help regulate blood pressure, stimulate the production of red blood cells, and help to convert vitamin D to its active form. These tasks are accomplished by a collection of hormones that the kidneys also release, in addition to all the filtering they’re busy doing day and night.
The kidneys work hard to keep us in a delicate chemical balance, but they are vulnerable to disease under certain circumstances. Conditions that commonly affect the kidneys include infections, stones and kidney failure.
Most often, this is due to a urinary tract infection (UTI). When treated appropriately, UTIs may clear up without much consequence; however, if a UTI is not properly addressed, it can move upward from the bladder and eventually into the kidneys. Once an infection reaches the kidneys, their function begins to decrease, and a person can become ill very quickly. Signs of a UTI having spread to the kidneys include
• Pain or aching in the back, side, and/or groin area
• Change in urine color
• Pain, burning, and urgency when urinating
If any of these symptoms are present, it is important to go to your primary care practitioner immediately. Even if you don’t experience these symptoms but have a UTI that doesn’t seem to be clearing up, follow up with your healthcare practitioner for additional treatment.
According to the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 13% of men and 7% of women will experience kidney stones in their lifetime. These stones are formed when certain metabolic waste products crystallize as they pass through the urinary tract. There are different types of stones depending on what waste product they are derived from, but up to 80% are calcium oxalate stones. Symptoms are usually sudden and may include severe pain in the back, side and/or groin area, with nausea and vomiting, as well as blood in the urine.
In this condition, the kidneys become unable to continue filtering blood properly. Usually gradual in onset, there are few (if any) symptoms until the kidneys lose enough of their function that waste begins to build up in the blood and cause illness.
Fortunately, your healthcare practitioner can perform tests to help detect kidney disease that can lead to failure. Blood and urine tests can provide clues that the kidneys are struggling before disease becomes advanced, and therefore allow for earlier intervention.
Keeping Your Kidneys Healthy
• Get screened: Annual health assessments including blood pressure checks, as well as blood and urine tests, are a key part of keeping your kidneys healthy. Many of the conditions that increase the risk of kidney disease (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease) can be detected earlier and managed more effectively if regular screening takes place.
• Stop smoking: The risk for kidney disease in smokers can be almost three times as high as for nonsmokers. Smoking can harm the kidneys in several ways, including damage to blood vessels and increased exposure to cadmium, a metal that is toxic to the kidneys. Reaching cadmium levels that are associated with increased risk of kidney damage has been shown to be up to 13 times more likely in smokers versus nonsmokers.
• Control blood pressure: High blood pressure is a leading cause of kidney disease. In most cases, high blood pressure has no symptoms. Damage often occurs quietly and gradually over time until the kidneys’ function is compromised enough to cause symptoms. This is one of the reasons that healthcare practitioners monitor blood pressure so closely in those at risk of kidney disease. Help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range through diet and lifestyle choices such as avoiding excess sodium, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly.
• Reduce sodium intake: On average, Americans consume more than twice as much sodium as they need. Excess sodium intake increases the risk for both high blood pressure and kidney stones.
• Manage diabetes: Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes increase the risk for kidney disease. Diabetes is the number one cause of kidney failure in North America, with up to 21% of diabetics eventually showing signs of kidney damage. Chronically high blood sugar, as occurs in diabetes that is not well controlled, gradually damages blood vessels within the kidneys. Without healthy blood vessels, the kidneys begin to lose their ability to filter blood effectively. As more and more filtering ability is lost, these organs will eventually become unable to do their job at all.
• Genetics: If you have family members with a history of kidney disease, your risk may also rise. This increased risk is often associated with a family history of conditions that may damage the kidneys, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
• Eat a kidney-friendly diet: Dietary changes can help reduce kidney stones in those at risk. Depending on the type of stone you have, recommendations may include:
- Avoiding high doses of vitamin C supplements
- Decreasing sodium intake
- Avoiding too many high-oxalate foods (such as chocolate, spinach, and some other greens)
- Avoiding excess animal protein
• Drink plenty of water: Without adequate fluids, filtering your blood becomes much harder for the kidneys. Hydration is especially important for those with a history of kidney stones or UTIs, as keeping a regular flow of fluid through the urinary tract helps reduce the risk of both conditions.
• Try natural supplements: Many herbs and nutrients have a long history of use for supporting urinary tract health, including dandelion leaf, nettle, and uva ursi. Before taking these or other herbs or supplements, always consult a qualified healthcare practitioner to determine if they are appropriate for your health concerns. Two other nutritional supplements that are used for supporting optimal kidney healthy are cranberry and probiotics. Cranberry fruit supports urinary tract health by preventing the adhesion of harmful bacteria in the bladder. Probiotics can also play a role in protecting the kidneys. Some species of lactobacillus may help prevent recurrent UTIs in women. These healthy bacteria may work by helping to rebalance the natural flora of the urinary tract.
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