Written by Timothy Okooboh
Do you know someone who has a kidney problem? Well, I do and I think you probably do too. If you have wondered how to care for your kidneys, read this article.
Understanding Your kidneys.
Many people know that the kidneys form urine, but they do more than that. Knowing the functions of our kidneys will reinforce the need to keep them healthy. Two kidneys are in your body. They are bean-shaped and located at the back below the rib cage. Healthy kidneys are 9 to 11cm in size with a smooth surface. Unhealthy kidneys are usually smaller in size with a granular surface (rough, appearing to consist of grains) and producing high urine protein.
NB: In general, the kidneys tend to shrink in size when damaged except in a condition known as polycystic kidney disease where the kidneys become larger than normal.
The kidneys are important part of the urinary system. Other parts of the urinary system are the ureters, bladder, and urethra. The kidneys perform important functions such as:
- Filter or purify blood by getting rid of waste products and excess water in the process of forming urine.
- Fluid/electrolytes and acid/base balance. When your kidneys are healthy they help to ensure there are no too much or too little fluid in the body; no too much or too little electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc., and no too much or too little acid and base in the body. Serious health problems can occur when these important substances are not well regulated.
- Hormonal functions such as production of erythropoetin involved in red blood cell production. Hence, anaemia can be one of the complications of kidney failure.
- Drug clearance. Some drugs are cleared from the body by the kidneys after sometime. When the kidneys are not healthy, these drugs may not be effectively cleared from the body and can build up to cause toxicity or harm.
- Blood pressure regulation. The kidneys help to regulate blood pressure in several ways such as production of a hormone called renin and regulation of fluid/electrolyte balance.
Common Signs/Symptoms of Kidney Problems
Common signs and symptoms associated with kidney problems include:
- Flank pain (persistent pain at the sides of the back).
- Swelling of the body such as legs and face.
- Blood in the urine (hematuria).
- Decreased urine output.
- Frothiness of urine, usually a sign of proteinuria (proteins in urine).
- Excessive fatigue
Those symptoms usually arise from accumulation of nitrogenous waste substances and fluid in the body. Also, excretion of important substances such as proteins and blood due to damaged kidney filter and cells can produce those symptoms.
Sometimes, usually at the early stages, kidney problems may be asymptomatic (without symptoms).
What can damage the kidneys
Knowing what can cause harm to the kidneys is the first step in keeping your kidneys healthy. They include:
- High blood pressure.
- Overweight or obesity.
- Long term use of pain killers such as NSAIDs (e.g. aspirin, diclofenac, etc.) and herbal supplements containing unknown substances and contaminants.
- Heart problems.
- Urinary Tract Infections.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
- Unhealthy diets such as diet high in animal protein, refined sugars, sodium and oxalate and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Increased frequency of dehydration.
Tips for healthy kidneys
The following tips for having healthy kidneys can help to reduce your risk of developing kidney problems, and if you already have issues with your kidneys, they can help to restore healthy kidney function.
- Have a good control of your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
High blood pressure and diabetes are the two major risk factors for developing kidney problems. If you suffer from hypertension and/or diabetes, without any issue with your kidneys yet, then you must ensure your blood pressure and blood sugar levels are well controlled to prevent development of kidney problems. If you have issues with your kidneys, ensuring your blood sugar levels and blood pressure are well controlled can help to prevent progression of kidney failure.
This can be done by taking your medications always as prescribed by your doctor, checking your blood pressure and blood sugar levels regularly, exercising regularly, eating diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and fibers while limiting intake of red meat, sodium (salt), saturated fats (butter, margarines), and trans fats ( found in fried foods, canned foods, cakes, etc.)
If you are a curious learner like me and probably wonder how hypertension or diabetes cause kidney problems, you could ask that in the comment section below.
- Eat kidney friendly diets.
If you already have issues with your kidneys or you are at a high risk of developing kidney disease then eating kidney friendly diets is a necessity! Researches have shown that plant based diets are kidney friendly as they slow progression of chronic kidney disease and reduce risk of developing kidney problems.
A plant based kidney friendly diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, cereals, nuts and fish and low in red meat, salt and refined sugars. Also, kidney disease patients are prone to developing inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, but plant based diets are good sources of anti-inflammatory components that combat inflammation. These diets are high in fiber as well as mono and poly unsaturated fats that are cardio protective. It is important to know that over consumption of animal proteins such as red meats raises acid load in the blood which increases the risk of developing uric acid kidney stones, hence animal proteins should be restricted. Although plant proteins have higher phosphorus content (phosphorus intake should be restricted by kidney disease patients) compared to animal proteins, but plant proteins are rich in phytate which binds phosphorus and reduce its absorption.
Plant based diets are also rich in magnesium and citrates which are inhibitors of kidney stones. Therefore, plant based diets should constitute the eating pattern of renal patients and individuals at a high risk for developing kidney disease.
- Avoid long term use of NSAIDs
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of medicines used to treat pain, fever and inflammation. They include ibuprofen, diclofenac, aspirin, naproxen etc. These drugs are Over The Counter medications, thus are generally regarded as safe. However, NSAIDs are potentially bad for your kidneys especially when taken for long periods and can cause acute kidney injury in high risk individuals and deterioration of kidney failure in patients with kidney disease. Therefore, these drugs should be used with caution and should be taken for short periods (usually not exceeding 10 days) even by healthy individuals.
NSAIDs inhibit production of a substance called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins increase blood flow to the kidneys (vasodilation). Therefore, inhibition of this substance by NSAIDs can reduce blood flow to the kidneys which can cause damage to the organ. Long term use of NSAIDs also cause retention of fluids in the body which brings about swelling (edema). Long term use of NSAIDs can stimulate an immune reaction which leads to a kidney problem called acute interstitial nephritis.
So in general, NSAIDs are potentially bad for your kidneys and should be used with caution.
- Maintain a healthy heart
What is good for your heart is good for your kidneys. 25% of blood the heart pumps goes to the kidneys. Therefore, a problem with the heart can reduce blood flow (with oxygen and nutrients) to the kidneys which can result in poor kidney function. Learn all the tips you need to keep your heart healthy which will also protect your kidneys too.
- Avoid recurrent dehydration
Dehydration is excessive loss of body water as a result of sweating, diarrhoea, vomiting, hot/dry climate, strenuous exercise and frequent urination. It is important to stay hydrated and prevent recurrent dehydration as dehydration is not good for your kidneys.
Dehydration can reduce blood volume and stimulate secretion of a hormone called vasopressin which can make the kidneys produce concentrated urine (urine with very little water) and this increases the risk of developing kidney stones and acute kidney injury. You can stay hydrated by drinking good fluids especially water, sufficient enough to quench your thirst. Daily consumption of soft drinks and sugar sweetened beverages is not good for your kidneys because of the fructose they contain.
- Stop smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are bad for your kidneys just as they are bad for your heart, liver, lungs and health in general.
- Prevent and treat urinary tract infection promptly
The urinary tract consists of the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Untreated urinary tract infection can make bacteria travel up to the kidneys and cause kidney infection or pyelonephritis.
Therefore, see your doctor immediately you notice any symptom of urinary tract infections such as painful urination, frequent urge to urinate, decreased quantity of urine, pain in the abdomen or pelvis.
So that’s it! Simple tips to keep your kidneys healthy or restore a healthy kidney function. Our kidneys are very important and must be protected!
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