Kidney Health 101
The kidneys play a vital role in the overall health of the body. While these two small organs perform a variety of functions, one of their primary duties is to remove wastes by filtering the blood. Because 37 million Americans suffer from chronic kidney disease (CKD), it’s important to know how to keep these organs healthy as well as ways to minimize the risks of developing CKD.
How The Kidneys Work
Located on either side of the spine and just below the rib cage, the kidneys are small but mighty. At just the size of an adult fist, these organs filter and clean blood that flows through them from one of the heart’s arteries. Passing through filtering units called nephrons--of which each kidney contains about 1 million--toxins, waste, and excess fluid are removed from the blood. Astonishingly, the kidneys filter about ½ cup of blood every minute.
The excess wastes and fluid leave the body in the form of urine, flowing from two tubes called ureters and into the bladder. The freshly filtered blood, on the other hand, returns to the bloodstream. In a 24-hour period, the kidneys will filter about 50 gallons of blood, only sending about ½ gallon of waste fluid to the bladder.
As if this wasn’t a full-time job in itself, the kidneys perform other essential functions. The removal of waste helps to maintain the right balance of salts, minerals, and water in the body. The kidneys also make hormones that regulate blood pressure, create red blood cells, and make vitamins that control growth. (1, 2)
Common Kidney Conditions
There are a variety of diseases and conditions that can develop when the kidneys are not functioning normally. Some of these--such as glomerulonephritis and polycystic kidney disease--are genetic disorders or are caused by drugs or infection. The most common conditions, however, are chronic kidney disease and kidney stones.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) can be especially dangerous, as diminishing kidney function can cause a build-up of toxins in the blood. CKD can be caused by a few factors, though the most common causes are diabetes and high blood pressure. Because these two conditions affect the blood and blood vessels, they directly impact the kidneys. If left untreated, CKD could lead to kidney failure. While kidney disease is dangerous, it often comes on gradually and, if detected early enough, can often be managed successfully.
Common symptoms of CKD include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Need to urinate more often--especially at night
- Puffiness around the eyes--especially in the morning
- Swollen feet and ankles
- Trouble sleeping
- Poor appetite
- Muscle cramping at night
- Tiredness and low energy
- Trouble concentrating
Risk factors in developing kidney disease include:
- High blood pressure
- Family history of kidney failure
- Old age
- Of African, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American descent (3)
Another common condition affecting the kidneys is the development of kidney stones. Kidney stones are hard, crystallized objects created by chemicals in the urine. If not passed through the urine, these stones continue to grow and then cause pain, either from passing through the urethra or backing-up urine in the urinary tract system.
Common kidney stone symptoms include:
- Severe pain on either side of the lower back
- Stomach ache that doesn’t get better
- Fever and chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blood in the urine
- Bad-smelling or cloudy urine
Kidney stones are usually caused by:
- Not drinking enough water
- Weight loss surgery
- Eating too much salt or sugar (especially fructose)
- Too little or too much exercise
- Family history of kidney stones or problems (4)
How To Keep The Kidneys Healthy
Most people who develop kidney disease aren’t aware of it until it’s advanced. Because 33% of adults in the U.S. are at risk for kidney disease, it’s important to take preventative measures to keep these organs healthy. While at-risk groups should especially take note, everyone can benefit from being informed about kidney health.
A few simple tests can tell a person how well their kidneys are functioning. Asking a primary-care doctor to perform these tests--especially for those in higher-risk categories--can identify any issues before more serious problems occur. These 3 tests consist of:
- Glomerular Filtration Rate (GFR) (blood test): Measures blood creatine levels to assess how well the kidneys are filtering the blood. A good score is 90 or above; 60-89 should be monitored, and less than 60 (for a period of 3 months) indicates kidney disease.
- Blood Pressure (BP test):High blood pressure can both cause kidney disease and be a symptom of it. For most people, a score below 140/90 is good, though below 120/80 is considered best.
- Protein In Urine (test): A protein called albumin, when detected in urine, may be an early indicator of kidney disease and kidney damage. Less than 30mg of albumin per gram of urinary creatinine is ideal.
Depending on the outcome of these tests, a doctor can help patients manage any symptoms and assess whether they need to be treated. Whether kidney disease is absent, likely, or present, it’s important to do whatever possible to maintain good health. This can help prevent the development of kidney disease as well as assist the body in its reaction to any medications or lifestyle changes prescribed.
Maintain Overall Good Kidney Health
Whether kidney disease is present or not, maintaining simple lifestyle habits will help the kidneys function. For those without any kidney disease, these preventative steps include:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Drink alcohol only in moderation
- Quit smoking
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly
- Get an annual physical to assess overall health--including kidneys
If kidney disease is diagnosed, additional steps include:
- Reducing salt and fructose intake
- Lowering high blood pressure
- Keep blood sugar levels managed
- Avoid eating too much protein (5)
Screenings And Free Resources
For those in the at-risk categories, it’s important to learn as much as possible about kidney disease and know how to prevent and treat it. Talking to a doctor to assess risk and get tested is an easy first step. Additionally, the National Kidney Foundation offers free resources through its KEEP Healthy program that includes free screening and testing events.
- How Your Kidneys Work. (2020, August 31). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/howkidneyswork
- Your Kidneys & How They Work. (2018, June 01). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/kidney-disease/kidneys-how-they-work
- Facts About Chronic Kidney Disease. (2020, September 01). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/about-chronic-kidney-disease
- Kidney Stones. (2020, September 22). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/kidneystones
- 6-Step Guide to Protecting Kidney Health. (2020, September 17). Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/sixstepshealthprimer