By: Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.
If you’re like most of my patients, kidneys aren’t much of a concern – until something goes wrong. But these hard-working little organs deserve better! The kidneys are responsible for so many important functions, including filtering toxins from your blood.
Here’s a remarkable fact: Every 30 minutes, all the blood in your body travels through the kidneys. Every single day – thanks to your kidneys – more than two quarts of waste are cleared from your bloodstream and removed from the body as urine. Without this vital kidney function, waste would accumulate and serious damage to the organs throughout your body would occur.
The kidney also oversee distribution of important minerals, regulates the body’s acid-alkaline balance to keep you from becoming too acidic, manages the body’s fluid levels, releases three essential hormones involved in blood pressure, bone building, and maintaining healthy red blood cells, among their other duties.
Kidneys go wrong largely because we live in a world filled with chemicals, toxins, and corrosive materials, things that overload our kidneys and force them to work harder than they should. In addition, dehydration remains a problem for the majority of people. If you’re not taking advantage of my detoxification suggestions and drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water every day, you could be putting your own kidneys at risk.
Some symptoms of possible kidney problems include: Back pain, especially when it’s sudden and intense, an urgent need to urinate, fatigue, swollen legs, hands, feet, or ankles, blood in the urine or difficulty urinating, bloating, puffy eyes, ridges in fingernails, skin problems, nausea and/or vomiting, metallic taste in the mouth.
Infections and kidney stones are two of the most common kidney problems. Generally, infections are due to the bacteria E. coli gaining access to the urinary tract where they can connect with the kidneys. Technically, kidney infection is a form of urinary tract infection (UTI) and is treated with antibiotics.
Kidney stones, on the other hand, are solid, chemical deposits that form inside the kidney. Dehydration is one of the most common causes of kidney stones. A kidney stone can be nearly invisible to the naked eye, as large as a marble, or even bigger.
Tiny kidney stones pass out of the body in the urine, so you’re never aware of those. Larger kidney stones, however, can become lodged in the ureter, a thin tube connecting the kidneys and the bladder. When they become stuck, these stones can cause severe pain in the side or back, blood in the urine, and difficulty urinating. It can take days or even weeks for a kidney stone to pass on its own, so if you’re experiencing kidney stone symptoms, see a health care professional as soon as possible.
In addition, there are three types of serious kidney disease – acute renal failure, chronic kidney disease, and end stage renal disease. (Note: The word “renal” is simply a medical term for kidneys.)
Acute renal failure (ARF) could be due to an injury or ingesting toxic substances. ARF generally responds well to treatment, especially if the kidneys are not severely damaged.
When kidneys gradually lose the ability to function, it is typically due to chronic kidney disease or CKD, the most common type of kidney ailment. Often, there are no symptoms of CKD until the condition has advanced. Then patients could experience numbness and/or swelling in the hands and feet, frequent urination, nausea, anemia, and poor appetite.
Finally, end stage renal disease (ESRD) is a serious condition in which there is no or very little kidney function remaining, and the damage to the kidney is permanent. At this point, a patient is looking at daily dialysis sessions or a kidney transplant.
Kidney cancer, while not common, does seem to be increasing. In the early stages, there are few symptoms. As the cancer advances, symptoms may include blood in the urine, fever that comes and goes, fatigue, back pain, and weight loss. Kidney cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation, and assorted drugs, depending on its location, size, type, and the overall health of the patient.
Ten Steps to Keeping Kidneys Healthy
Now that we’ve looked at the bad news, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s a good side here, too, and it is this: For the most part, the conditions that lead to kidney compromise are avoidable.
Start by asking your health-care professional for blood panel readings of three key measures of kidney health – the BUN (blood urea nitrogen) and creatinine levels and your eGFR (Estimated Glomerular Filtration Rate) numbers.
The BUN test results measure kidney and liver functions. The healthy range is considered 10 to 20 mg/dL; anything higher may indicate kidney problems.
Similarly, the BUN/creatinine ratio tells your doctor if your kidneys are eliminating waste efficiently. If creatinine levels are elevated, there could be a problem with the kidneys. A healthy BUN/creatinine ratio is between 10:1 and 20:1, although men and older people can be higher and still be healthy.
The eGFR test looks for signs of kidney damage. This is an especially useful test for patients with diabetes and/or high blood pressure, both of which can cause kidney problems. Reading the test scores correctly is very important, though. It’s perfectly normal, for example, for a 16-year-old to have an eGFR of 300 ml/min, while a 60-year-old may score 100 ml/min – yet in both cases the kidneys are fine. A score lower than 60 ml/min, however, indicates that kidney function is impaired.
Scores from these tests tell you how strong your kidneys are now, and there are other kidney function tests available. Unfortunately, as many as half of all people with kidney problems don’t know they are at risk. Knowing your numbers can help you stay on top of the situation so you can alter any behavior that may be harmful.
Here are additional steps that can help keep kidneys healthy:
Staying thoroughly hydrated is the most important thing you can do to prevent kidney stones and keep kidneys strong. Water dilutes the urine, and that prevents minerals and salts from clustering together and forming stones. I often recommend that patients who are at risk for kidney stones start the day by drinking fresh lemon juice in a glass of room temperature water.
Make certain you have healthy populations of friendly bacteria known as probiotics in your intestines. Studies have shown that these microorganisms are linked to better overall and digestive health, as well as a long list of other benefits. One of those involves assisting kidneys in processing waste materials, as well as reducing the likelihood of developing kidney stones.
A recent clinical trial involving patients with chronic kidney disease found that the group taking probiotics improved kidney function test scores as well as overall quality of life.
3) Eat Less Meat
Go easy on animal protein. Kidney stones are most common in populations that consume a great deal of meat. I suggest aiming for less than 65 grams of animal protein per day, which is just a little more than two ounces.
4) Avoid Phosphorous
Watch your phosphorous intake. You rarely hear about the mineral phosphorous, probably because deficiencies are so rare, especially for anyone eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). And that’s why phosphorous is becoming a problem, particularly for kidneys. The mineral is found in most foods, but carbonated soft drinks and prepared, processed foods are especially high in phosphorus. You only need 800 mg to 1,200 mg of phosphorus each day; higher amounts are flushed from the body by healthy kidneys. When kidneys don’t work well, phosphorus accumulates in the body, causing potentially serious conditions, such as bone and heart disorders, as well as calcification (hardening) of tissues. The easiest way to make sure you’re not getting too much phosphorus is to eat a nutritious, whole foods diet and totally avoid any fast and convenience foods.
5) Quit Smoking
Smoking hurts the kidneys, so if that is one of your vices you have to stop.
6) Drink Juice
One of the best ways to support good kidney health is with daily juicing. My favorite is to juice one entire bunch of cilantro or parsley, two herbs that are kidney friendly and help remove heavy metals from the body, mixed with water, lemon juice, and raw, organic honey to taste. If you have not discovered juicing yet, you can also use a greens product that provides a healthy serving of these essential nutrients.
7) Eat These Foods
Eat kidney-supportive foods. These may include watermelon, berries (cranberries, blueberries, and strawberries), peppers, apples, garlic, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, and olive oil. While you’re at it, please review my earlier recommendations for healthy eating and reducing inflammation, because those suggestions benefit kidneys, too.
8) Lose Some Weight
If you’re carrying around extra pounds, do your kidneys a favor and shed a few pounds. Obesity has been linked to an increased likelihood of developing kidney cancer.
9) Ditch the Pain Relievers
Slash your risk of kidney cancer even further by minimizing your use of pain relievers, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Products like these are very hard on the kidneys. Even worse, researchers have found that these drugs increase the risk of developing kidney cancer.
10) Epsom Salt
Treat yourself to a detox bath in Epsom salts. Removing waste and toxins gives kidney a boost while improving your overall health.
Making the changes I’ve listed above will benefit your kidneys, along with your overall health. But, in addition, there are three significant threats that really require action on your part. If you’re suffering from high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, or diabetes, your kidneys could be suffering, too. These conditions can be improved with natural remedies and lifestyle changes, but those will require some commitment on your part. I hope you’ll agree that taking care of your kidneys is a worthwhile goal and make the necessary changes to protect these vital organs.