Keys to Kidney Health

Understand and appreciate your kidneys
July 23, 2020 Updated: July 23, 2020

Our kidneys are hard workers and we should treat them nicely. These fist-sized organs shaped like a kidney bean (got their name?) are real powerhouses. Kidneys help the body process and retain necessary nutrients, maintain fluid levels, and eliminate unnecessary substances.

Without well-running kidneys, your body lacks the mechanism to handle products from digestion, keep fluid levels where they should be, or maintain the right amount of potassium, sodium, and other important minerals.

Kidney Disease and Infections

Kidneys perform three functions: filtration, reabsorption, and secretion. When there is damage to the kidneys, these functions decrease in efficiency. As kidney disease progresses, kidneys are unable to properly handle the body’s protein, fluid, or mineral needs.

Urinary tract infections can cause kidney problems, but these can usually be resolved with medical care, and plenty of rest and fluids. Physical injury can also impair kidney function, so wear your seatbelt in the car and protective equipment when playing sports or working.

Since the 19th century, the medical community has noted a link between tobacco use and kidney disease. Even smokers without diagnosed kidney disease were seen to have reduced kidney function. The good news is that several studies have shown that tobacco-related kidney damage may be reversed when tobacco use is stopped.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the biggest culprits related to kidney disease.

High blood pressure affects the way blood circulates through your body. Since the kidneys rely on adequate circulation to remove waste products from the body, high blood pressure can cause damage to the kidneys and the circulatory system. In an otherwise healthy person, blood pressure control is helped by maintaining proper weight, avoiding tobacco, keeping fat and salt intake moderate and, of course, minimizing stress—easier said than done.

Diabetes also affects the circulatory system, sometimes damaging the blood vessels. When blood vessels are damaged, the kidneys cannot effectively eliminate fluid, potassium, and sodium from the body. This may result in fluid and mineral retention, with symptoms including weight gain (from fluid), swollen ankles, and wrists. Diabetic renal disease is a very critical disease, and must be treated on an everyday basis.

According to the Greater Kidney Foundation of Cincinnati, early signs of kidney disease for people with diabetes may be high blood pressure, ankle and leg swelling, leg cramps, weakness, paleness and anemia, excessive itching (not caused by medication or dry skin), frequent nocturnal urination, and protein in the urine. People with diabetes must be particularly vigilant about these symptoms.

What Hurts or Helps

So, what about people without diabetes or high blood pressure? Should we think about kidney disease? Well, worry leads to stress, and stress can lead to high blood pressure, so let’s forget about the worrying. Being conscientious about your health is a better way to keep kidneys working at the peak of perfection.

Most healthy people don’t give their kidneys a lot of thought. Possibly an occasional urinary tract infection may remind them that they are there. Bacteria grow quickly in the bladder. With a fast-paced life, we may walk around with a full bladder more often than we like. The longer the bladder is full, the more time the bacteria have to grow, possibly resulting in infection. Some of these bacteria may infect the kidneys; a full bladder can put a lot of pressure on the kidneys, causing some damage.

The moral to this story is to avoid having a full bladder for a prolonged amount of time and to drink plenty of fluids, assisting the bladder and kidneys to rinse themselves out.

E. coli bacteria are responsible for the majority of urinary tract infections (UTIs), with an estimated 8 million to 10 million UTIs per year. A few studies have found cranberries have the potential to combat UTIs and prevent this bacteria from taking hold. Available as juice and cranberry extract pills, dried fruit, and even health bars, cranberry has become a popular ingredient for its purported health properties and for the color and tang it adds to foods. Cranberry juice is also high in Vitamin C, a proven antioxidant.

Just about any kind of fluid will make your kidneys smile—except those with excessive sugar, salt, or caffeine. Sugar can encourage the growth of bacteria in the bladder. Salt must be filtered by the kidneys, so excessive amounts of salt can tax the kidneys and possibly interfere with their efficiency. Caffeine, in moderation, is thought to be okay for healthy adults, but may have a diuretic, or fluid-releasing effect, providing an “error” message to the kidneys in terms of fluid balance.

So, go easy on the coffee, tea, soft drinks, and “sports drinks” and focus on drinking fresh, refreshing fruit and water combinations. Some delicious and healthy beverages are blueberry ginger lemonade; iced passion fruit herbal tea; sparkling water with some frozen berries or a slice of cucumber; water with a twist of lemon, lime, orange or tangerine; lemonade or fruit nectars blended with fresh watermelon; or herbal and decaffeinated teas with a twist of ginger, lemon, and mint, or mixed with clove and nutmeg.

Mother Nature’s Plan B

Fortunately, kidneys were designed to have a lot of reserve. Many people can function well with just one healthy kidney. Some people are born with only one functioning kidney, some lose a kidney to disease or injury and some people chose to donate a kidney to help someone in need. People with one kidney, of course, will want to pay attention to their kidney health.

Some forms of kidney disease can be controlled with a carefully planned diet. This is a diet with defined amounts of protein, sodium, potassium, and fluids, substances processed by the kidneys. Limiting selected nutrients and fluid amounts decrease the work for the diseased kidney.

Healthy people do not benefit from limiting these nutrients, so don’t consider this as a “preventative.” Watch your health, have regular check-ups, get lots of rest and exercise, don’t smoke, stay well-hydrated, and help your kidneys to be good to you.

Dr. Nancy Berkoff is a registered dietitian, food technologist, and culinary professional. She divides her time between health care and culinary consulting, food writing, and healthy living.