Our kidneys are amazing hard-working organs that strive to keep our bodies in a delicate chemical balance. Help support them!
Deep in your abdomen, one on either side of your spine and tucked under your ribcage, sit a pair of hard-working organs: your kidneys. We may take them for granted, but kidneys play a pivotal role in maintaining our well-being.
What they do
Kidneys have the enormous task of filtering all of our blood many times a day. Each kidney contains hundreds of thousands of teeny-tiny filters. These filters help remove waste and toxins from the blood while making sure to keep what we don’t want to lose, such as proteins and cells.
The work done by these bean-shaped organs allows us to kick out waste while balancing electrolyte and water levels. Our kidneys have other important matters to attend to as well, including regulating blood pressure, stimulating the production of red blood cells, and helping 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.
When things go wrong
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 colour
- pain, burning, and urgency when urinating
These symptoms are major red flags and warrant an immediate trip to your health care practitioner. Even if you don’t experience these symptoms but have a UTI that doesn’t seem to be clearing up, follow up with your health care practitioner for additional treatment.
About one in 10 Canadians will experience a kidney stone at some point. 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 percent 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 health care 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
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.
Refrain from 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 their 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 health care 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, Canadians eat about twice as much sodium as they need. This overconsumption can have a major impact on the kidneys. Excess sodium intake increases the risk for both high blood pressure and kidney stones. In fact, reducing sodium intake to more reasonable levels could lead to a 30 percent decrease in the number of people with high blood pressure in Canada. So pass on the salt—your kidneys will thank you!
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 percent 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.
Be aware of family factors
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
- In addition, supplementing with vitamin B6 and magnesium may help reduce the risk of developing kidney stones. To support general kidney function, a health care practitioner may suggest traditional cleansing herbs such as dandelion (see sidebar).
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.
Natural products for kidney health
Cranberry: A long-standing part of natural treatment for preventing UTIs, there is evidence that cranberry offers protection for certain individuals, particularly women and those with compromised kidney function.
Probiotics: 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.
Traditional herbal medicines: Many plants have a long history of use for supporting urinary tract health, including dandelion leaf, nettle, and uva ursi. Before taking these or other herbs, always consult a qualified health care practitioner to determine if they are appropriate for your health concerns.