Kidney Disease: A Silent Killer With 7 Early Symptoms

Being mindful of early signs of kidney disease can be the difference between dialysis and recovery

Kidney disease is known as the “silent killer” because it often has no obvious early symptoms. It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of people in the United States with chronic kidney disease are completely unaware that they have the disease until it’s very advanced.

As kidney disease progresses, it can lead to kidney failure, requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant. It can also result in other serious health issues, including a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Jingduan Yang, the founder and medical director of Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine and a Chinese and Western physician, said in the online program “Four Dimensions of Health” that he had recently seen several patients who were not very old yet were experiencing kidney failure.

However, because they waited too long to see a doctor, their treatment options were limited. If they had been treated early, their loss of kidney function may have been prevented.

Some early symptoms of kidney disease may not seem to be related to the kidneys, but they are indeed caused by reduced kidney function.

Here are seven symptoms to watch for:

1. Nausea, Vomiting, and Loss of Appetite

Kidney failure can cause the accumulation of toxins, metabolic acidosis, and electrolyte disorders in the body, leading to gastrointestinal disorders and symptoms of nausea and vomiting, so be aware that digestive problems may be related to the kidneys.

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Kidney failure can cause an accumulation of toxins in the body, leading to gastrointestinal dysfunction and symptoms of nausea and vomiting. (Shutterstock)

2. Anemia and Chronic Fatigue

One of the functions of the kidneys is to synthesize erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. It also protects cardiac muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) and stimulates the regeneration of these cells and blood vessels. Poor kidney function can lead to low levels of red blood cells (anemia), resulting in chronic fatigue symptoms.

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When the kidneys don’t function well, this can lead to anemia. (Shutterstock)

3. Itchy Skin

When the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, toxins aren’t adequately excreted through the kidneys, which can result in dry, itchy skin. Kidney disease may also cause changes in the levels of certain hormones in the body. This can also lead to itching.

If you have itchy skin, “don’t just go to the dermatologist and slather on the medicine, but think about the possibility of kidney failure,” Yang said.

Itchy skin can also be caused by high levels of ammonia in the blood, which can result from poor kidney function. A lack of vitamin B6 or zinc can also cause itchiness.

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When the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, the toxins in the body can’t be excreted through the kidneys, which can result in dry, itchy skin. (Shutterstock)

4. Urine Change

One of the main functions of the kidneys is to produce urine. If there’s a kidney problem, urine may become cloudy or foamy or may have blood in it.

Is foamy urine a symptom of kidney disease? Yang said it’s normal to have bubbles in urine occasionally. Still, proteinuria (the presence of excess protein in urine) can be indicative of kidney damage and can cause urine to become foamy. If there are normally many bubbles in your urine, and the bubbles don’t disappear after 30 seconds, Yang recommends seeking medical attention.

If the urine is dark and yellow, it may contain blood cells, meaning there is hematuria. Also keep in mind that if you take vitamin B complex, your urine may turn yellow or red.

The kidneys are responsible for producing urine; however, urine output may decrease when kidney function is abnormal. This is because the kidneys may not be able to filter blood effectively when damaged.

In addition, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, frequent daytime urination and excessive nighttime urination are symptoms of weak kidney energy, called “kidney qi deficiency.” Although it may not be possible to detect kidney problems at the chemical level, they may already be present at the energetic level.

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Kidney problems may result in cloudy, foamy, or bloody urine. (Shutterstock)

5. Acute and Chronic Lower Back Pain

The kidneys are located in the lower back. If you have severe back pain, you may want to determine if there’s a problem with your kidneys. Chronic lower back pain should also be taken seriously. Kidney disease can cause chronic lower back pain, which radiates from the waist to the back of the legs and ankles along the bladder meridian.

According to TCM, the meridians are the channels of energy in the human body, and the energy of the internal organs will flow through the meridians throughout the body. When a disease occurs in an internal organ, the corresponding meridian feels pain and discomfort. If there’s a problem with the kidneys, it will also affect the area of the bladder meridian.

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Kidney disease can lead to chronic lower back pain. (Shutterstock)

6. Metallic Smell and Taste

When there’s a problem with kidney function, you will often have a metallic taste in your mouth. In severe cases, you will smell a pungent ammonia odor when you breathe. This is caused by a high level of urea in your blood.

7. High Blood Pressure in Younger Patients

Hypertension is usually only seen in the elderly. If a younger person gets hypertension, it may be related to kidney disease.

High blood pressure causes damage to the elastic fibers in the walls of blood vessels. This damages the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys and prevents the kidneys from performing their filtration function. Kidney disease can also lead to hormonal imbalance, which increases the hormones that raise blood pressure, thus creating a vicious cycle.

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Hypertension in young people may be related to kidney disease. (Shutterstock)

Avoiding Factors That Cause Kidney Disease

Yang advises people to avoid behaviors that damage kidney function, including eating too much processed food. He also advised avoiding heavy metals, which can increase the amount of stress on the kidneys. He stressed that smokers are most likely to ingest heavy metals, and nicotine in cigarettes will also raise blood pressure. In addition, melamine in plastic products can cause kidney stones and kidney failure, so avoid using plastic products for hot food.

Regarding nutrition, Yang recommends eating more foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and supplementing with anthocyanins, curcumin, catechins, vitamins C and E, and taking a proper amount of zinc, which helps excrete heavy metals.

In addition, drinking plenty of water is essential for kidney detoxification and will help prevent kidney stones. Yang recommends drinking seven to eight glasses of water daily and more in the summer.

Teresa Zhang is a reporter based in Hong Kong. She has written on health topics for The Epoch Times Hong Kong since 2017, mainly focusing on Traditional Chinese Medicine. She also reports on current affairs related Hong Kong and China. Contact her at
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