The Link Between Lifestyle and Kidney Disease

One in three American adults is at risk for kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Some of the risk factors are out of your control, but there are several that you can do something about:

Not Controllable:

  • family history of kidney failure
  • being age 60 or older
  • being African American/Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, or Alaska Native

Controllable (at least to some extent):

  • having poorly controlled diabetes (one in three adults with diabetes has kidney disease) 
    • some studies show that even prediabetes can increase the risk of kidney damage later
  • having high blood pressure (one in five adults with high blood pressure also have chronic kidney disease).

It would be best if you tried to keep your kidneys healthy because they are in charge of: filtering your blood, keeping the right amount of fluids in the body, helping to produce red blood cells, generating the active form of vitamin D, and helping to keep blood pressure under control. You can take a test from the National Kidney Foundation to rate your risk of kidney disease.

So, what can you do to help to prevent kidney disease?

  •  Keep your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control.
  •  Lose weight, if needed.
  • Take all medications as prescribed. For example, medicines like ACE inhibitors that lower blood pressure may keep your kidneys from leaking albumin into your urine. ACE inhibitors are strongly recommended for all adults with diabetes.
  • Get regular exercise. However, doing too intense workouts before your body has been appropriately conditioned can be quite a strain on the kidneys.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking slows blood flow to the kidneys.
  • Limit alcohol to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.
  • Eat a low-sodium diet. This isn’t just to reduce your risk of stroke and heart failure; a high-sodium diet appears to have an independent effect on the kidneys.
  • Learn more about the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes (beans and peas), low-fat dairy products, and whole grains while strictly limiting or avoiding salt, added sugar, and red or processed meats. When researchers tracked 3,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study for 11 years, those who ate a DASH-like diet were 45% less likely to have a rapid drop in kidney function. The DASH diet is low in sodium and high in magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
  • Avoid consuming too many phosphorous-rich foods. Phosphorous occurs naturally in meat, poultry, dairy, and many other foods. However, food manufacturers have begun to add more sodium phosphate and phosphoric acid to processed foods. Nearly 50% of branded grocery items are believed to contain added phosphorous at this time. People with kidney disease often retain phosphorous instead of excreting it and have to be put on a low-phosphorus diet. This retained phosphorous leads to heart disease and worsening kidney function. The naturally occurring phosphate in plants is less well absorbed than the phosphate in animal products – another good reason to try to embrace a plant-based diet. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advocates for the amount of phosphorous listed on Nutrition Facts labels. Additionally, they feel (and I heartily agree) that food manufacturers should have to prove that the levels of phosphorous in our food supply are safe before adding significant quantities to the foods that we eat every day.
  •  Please don’t overdo it on protein. For people with pre-existing kidney damage, too much protein can reduce kidney function further. It is the kidney’s job to filter protein and sodium – getting too much of these nutrients may stress them too much. Some recent research has found an increased risk of kidney failure among adults who ate a lot of red meat (beef, pork, venison, and lamb). No link was found with poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy products. Soy and legumes appeared to be protective against kidney disease.
  • Get enough fluid, but not too much. The average man needs 13 cups of liquid a day, and the average woman needs nine cups a day. This is not just water, but includes any drinks and even the fluid in your foods, like the broth in your (low-sodium) soup or the water in your produce.
  • Avoid overusing certain over-the-counter medications (including aspirin, naproxen, or ibuprofen), because they can harm the kidneys.
  • Avoid megadosing on vitamin supplements and avoid all herbal remedies if you haven’t first discussed taking them with your doctor.

If you would like to know how your kidneys are functioning currently, the best test is a Glomerular Filtration Rate (GFR) test, which can be done by any lab or calculated by your doctor. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure or are at high risk for kidney disease, you should also have the level of albumin (a protein) in your urine measured, as it provides valuable clues to how your kidneys are doing. Time is of the essence when it comes to discovering kidney disease; there are five stages of chronic kidney disease—making lifestyle and medical changes in the early stages of the disease can significantly decrease your chances of developing kidney failure.