Healthy kidneys are essential—not just for the urinary system but for the entire body. They remove waste and help maintain the body’s internal environment (also known as homeostasis). There’s so many reasons to love your kidney and some easy practices to keep them healthy!
Unfortunately, not everyone has healthy kidneys—and very few people are even aware when there’s a problem. In fact, 33% of adults in the U.S. (that’s 1 in 3 people!) are at risk for kidney disease, which often goes undetected until much of the organs are destroyed and function impaired. When the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, a person is at higher risk for other health complications. Advanced kidney disease requires lifelong treatment with dialysis or an organ transplant.
As part of the urinary system, healthy kidneys filter about a half cup of blood every minute, removing waste and extra water, which constitutes the urine that then flows from the kidneys through two ureters and into the bladder to be excreted. Outside the urinary system, the kidneys influence fluid balance and pressures that allow other organ systems and tissues to function properly.
8 Things Healthy Kidneys Do
- Regulate the body’s fluid levels to maintain homeostasis
- Reabsorption of nutrients to maintain homeostasis
- Filter wastes (urea and uric acid) and toxins from the blood
- Release a hormone that regulates blood pressure
- Regulate electrolyte-water balance (sodium, potassium, magnesium, other minerals)
- Maintain acceptable body pH level (7.35- 7.45)
- Activate vitamin D to maintain healthy bones
- Release the hormone that directs production of red blood cells
Types of Kidney Disease
So what does it look like when the kidneys aren’t doing their job?
Kidney infection results from bacteria in the bladder that moves into the kidneys. Symptoms include low back pain, painful urination, and sometimes fever. Changes in the urine may include the presence of blood, cloudiness, and a different odor. Kidney infection is more common in women than in men. Pregnant women are at an increased risk.
Kidney stones can form as a solid build-up of minerals in the kidney, causing intense pain. If the stones block the ureter, there will be other problems with function and potential infection.
Kidney (renal) failure, also known as End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), is when the kidneys become unable to effectively filter out waste products from the blood. This can happen over time (chronic) or suddenly (acute).
In the case of severe kidney damage, dialysis might be an option. It is only used for end-stage kidney failure where 85 to 90 percent of kidney function is lost. Kidney dialysis aims to complete the primary functions of a healthy kidney, including removal of waste, excess salt, and water; maintaining the correct balance of sodium, bicarbonate, potassium, and other substances; and maintaining blood pressure.
Risk Factors for Kidney Disease
Several known risk factors for kidney disease include older age (60+ years ), diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, pharmaceuticals, and obesity. Whether you or immediate family members have these other conditions can increase your risk for kidney disease.
Most people with early kidney disease have no symptoms, which is why early detection is critical. By the time symptoms appear, kidney disease may be advanced, and symptoms can be misleading. Pay attention to these:
- Fatigue, weakness
- Difficult, painful urination or foamy urine
- Pink, dark urine (blood in urine)
- Increased thirst
- Increased need to urinate (especially at night)
- Puffy eyes; swollen face, hands, abdomen, ankles, feet, and shortness of breath
Keeping Kidneys Healthy
Even if you don’t have a family history or other risk factors for kidney disease, follow these tips for keeping kidneys healthy and promoting your overall health:
- Eat the optimal amount of protein for your age and activity level: It’s essential to follow a healthy diet of mostly plants, lean meat, whole grains and fresh produce—organic whenever feasible. Protein is essential to your diet, but contrary to many popular diet gurus, you don’t want to over-consume protein because it stresses the kidneys. While this may need to be individualized for you, a general rule of thumb is 0.8 g of protein per 2.2 lbs (0.8 g per 1 kg).
- Get enough exercise: Exercising for 30 minutes every day can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and obesity, both of which put pressure on kidney health.
- Stay hydrated: Fluid intake is important, especially water. In general, the guidelines are to drink half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water per day to help improve and maintain kidney health. (If you weigh 120 lbs, drink 60 ounces of water.) If you eat a diet high in water, you may need to drink less. Also, some people have medical conditions or are on medications that change this guideline. Discuss this with your doctor.
- Moderate alcohol use: Consuming more than one drink per day can harm the kidneys and impair renal function.
- Quit smoking: Tobacco restricts blood vessels. Without an adequate blood supply, the kidneys will not be able to complete their normal work.
If you have risk factors for kidney disease or are concerned about early warning signs, it is imperative to speak with a physician. They will guide you on proper testing, dietary, and lifestyle changes that could save your life.
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