Your kidneys are almost certainly underappreciated, and they might be overworked, too. First of all, you should probably know what these small-ish fist-sized organs do for you. They keep you alive by filtering waste and impurities from your blood (the waste is stored in your bladder until you excrete it in your urine). They also regulate the acid-base balance (pH) of your body by balancing sodium and potassium levels in your blood. If that isn’t enough, they even play a critical role in the regulation of your blood pressure and aid in the production of red blood cells. Vitamin D, essential for the absorption of calcium, isn’t activated without your kidneys. Scarily, about one in three people reading this right now are at risk for kidney disease. Kidney disease is brutal – causing heart attacks, strokes, weak bones, nerve damage, and anemia even before it progresses to total kidney failure. So what can you do to help your kidneys health?
- Get moving! If you’re not exercising regularly yet, here’s another reason to get started – by bringing your blood pressure down and making your heart healthier, physical activity will help to protect your kidneys.
- Get your glucose checked. The American Diabetes Association recommends that adults get screened for type 2 diabetes annually, starting at the age of 45. Some people might require even more frequent screening (or at a younger age), including individuals who are overweight or sedentary, have a family history of diabetes, or are African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, or Pacific Islander. You’ll need more frequent or earlier testing if you have a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gestational diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, vascular disease, or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Individuals with diabetes are at a much higher risk of developing kidney disease. When blood glucose is elevated, the kidneys have to work harder to filter the blood, which can eventually cause kidney damage. Remember that half of the people who have diabetes don’t know that they have it.
- Keep a lid on your blood pressure. High blood pressure, often paired with heart disease and diabetes, contributes to kidney damage.
- Fill your cart with unprocessed foods. High-sodium foods and processed meats can damage the kidneys.
- Chug, chug, chug…water. Drinking lots of water makes it easier for your kidneys to do their job by helping to clear toxins from your kidneys. People who are physically active, have had kidney stones, take certain medications, or are pregnant need even more water.
- Talk to your doctor about your pain. We all know someone who takes over the counter drugs, like ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) every day for aches and pains. Overusing these medications is a dangerous habit that can have a very negative impact on your kidneys over time.
- Watch how much alcohol you’re drinking. Excessive drinking, defined as four or more alcoholic beverages a day, is horrible for the kidneys. Remember that one ounce of liquor counts as one drink, even though many people put more than this in a cocktail. Frequent heavy drinking more than doubles your chances of developing kidney disease. If you also smoke, the damage will be even more dramatically increased. In fact, smokers who are heavy drinkers are estimated to be five times more likely to develop chronic kidney disease, compared to people who don’t smoke or drink to excess. How does alcohol cause kidney disease? Oh, let’s count the ways. Alcohol makes the kidneys less able to filter the blood over time, affects fluid and electrolyte balance in the body, causes dehydration, disrupts the hormones involved in kidney function, increases blood pressure, and promotes liver diseases. Many people who are alcohol dependent suffer from both liver disease and kidney dysfunction.
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking damages the vessels in your body and slows blood flow throughout the body, including to your kidneys. Smoking also increases blood pressure, which is hazardous to the kidneys.
- Be careful about what vitamin and herbal supplements you take. Remember that there is absolutely no oversight of supplements in the United States. Many supplements contain ingredients that can be toxic to the kidneys, whether these ingredients are declared on the label or not. Buyer beware! Talk to your doctor about any over-the-counter supplements that you want to take.
- Get screened if your doctor thinks it’s a good idea. Talk to your doctor about if, and how often, you should be screened for kidney disease.
Symptoms of kidney disease warrant immediate attention. In the early stages of kidney disease, most people have no symptoms at all. According to the National Kidney Foundations, problems to watch out for include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Difficulty urinating
- Painful urination
- Foamy urine
- Pink or dark urine
- Increased thirst
- Having to pee frequently at night
- Puffy eyes
- Swollen face, hands, abdomen, ankles, or feet
Having healthy kidneys is an important part of your well-being, so show them some love – they deserve it!