What is kidney disease and how can we take care of our kidneys?
Published 11 Mar 2021 • By Courtney Johnson
Though they are small in size, the kidneys perform many crucial functions in the body that help to keep us in good health, including filtering waste and excess fluid from the bloodstream. A number of health conditions can damage the kidneys or inhibit their function, and with time, lead to kidney failure.
For World Kidney Day, we wanted to raise awareness for kidney disease and highlight a few ways we can protect our kidneys!
What types of conditions affect the kidneys? What causes these conditions? How can we take care of our kidneys?
We explain it all in our article!
What role do kidneys play in the body?
Having healthy kidneys is vital to having a healthy body. The kidneys primarily filter waste, excess fluid and other waste products from the bloodstream, but also regulate the body’s salt, potassium, and pH levels. These toxins and excess nutrients are sent from the kidneys to the bladder and then are removed from the body in our urine. The kidneys also have a hand in regulating blood pressure and red blood cell production through the secretion of hormones, and activating vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium to maintain strong bones.
When the kidneys become damaged, they function less efficiently and can even lead to a number of health problems, such as swelling, poor sleep, nerve damage, weak bones, and malnutrition. Over time if the damage continues, the kidneys may cease function entirely (renal failure), calling for dialysis or even kidney transplantation.
Kidney disease affects around 3 million people in the UK, and approximately 90% of patients aren’t even aware that they have it. This is why it is so important that we take care of our kidneys and be aware of the conditions that can affect them.
What are the different types and causes of kidney disease?
Chronic kidney disease (CKD)
The most commonly occurring type of kidney disease is chronic kidney disease (CKD). Also known as chronic kidney failure, CKD describes a state of gradual loss of kidney function over time.
CKD is often caused by high blood pressure, which increases pressure on and damages the glomeruli, the small blood vessels in the kidneys where the blood is filtered. Diabetes can also cause CKD, as the increased sugar levels in the blood also can hurt the glomeruli. In the two cases, prolonged damage deteriorates kidney function to the point where they can no longer clean the blood on their own. At this point, dialysis is required.
Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is a genetic disorder that causes fluid-filled cysts to grow in the kidneys. It is a form of CKD that also harms kidney function and can lead to kidney failure.
It is important to note that PKD is distinct from individual kidney cysts that can develop later in life - PKD cysts are more sever, can change the shape of the kidneys, and can cause other complications, such as cysts in the liver, high blood pressure, and problems with the blood vessels in the brain and heart.
Kidney stones, also called renal calculi, are another of the most common kidney issues. They are small, hard deposits of minerals and acid salts that form in the kidneys. They usually leave the body during urination. Though they rarely cause damage, kidney stones can be painful when passing through the urinary tract.
Urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are bacterial infections that occur in any part of the urinary tract. They most commonly affect the urethra or bladder (cystitis), but if left untreated, they can spread to the kidneys (pyelonephritis) and lead to kidney failure.
Glomerulonephritis (GN) is a term used to describe inflammation of the glomeruli. It can be caused by certain infections, medications, or congenital conditions, and if left untreated it can lead to complete kidney failure.
What are the symptoms or warning signs of kidney disease?
Kidney disease can be difficult to detect, as it often progresses without any significant symptoms until it is already quite advanced. The majority of patients with early stages of kidney disease go undiagnosed. Some of the early warning signs include:
- Poor appetite
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle cramps
- Swelling in the feet and ankles
- Dry or flaky skin
- Persistent itching
- Frequent urination, particularly at night
How can we prevent kidney disease and take care of our kidneys?
To raise awareness for the importance of kidney health, the World Kidney Day committee, a joint initiative of the International Society of Nephrology (ISN) and the International Federation of Kidney Foundations (IFKF), has shared 8 Golden Rules for reducing the risk of kidney disease:
Stay active: By staying fit and engaging in regular physical activity, you can maintain a healthy body weight, lower your blood pressure, and therefore lower your risk for CKD.
Eat healthily: In combination with regular exercise, a healthy diet can help to improve your overall health and prevent health conditions that may contribute to kidney damage, such as diabetes and heart disease. Reducing your intake of salt and processed foods can also contribute to your kidney health.
Monitor and control your blood sugar: It is estimated that around half of people who have diabetes are not aware they have it, and if left untreated, diabetes can lead to kidney damage. It is therefore important to check your blood sugar as part of your regular health check-ups and to do your best to control it.
Monitor and control your blood pressure: Similar to the case for diabetes, many patients with high blood pressure are also unaware of their condition. When untreated, high blood pressure, especially when associated with diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, or high cholesterol, can be particularly damaging to the kidneys. Make sure to check your blood pressure as part of your regular health check-ups and consult your doctor if your blood pressure is persistently elevated above the normal range.
Stay hydrated: Adequate hydration is a key part of maintaining good kidney health. The kidneys need water to remove waste from your blood as urine, so make sure to drink up! The general recommendation is 8 cups (2 litres) daily, but the Institute of Medicine has found that men actually need about 13 cups (3 litres) per day and that women need about 9 cups (2.2 litres) per day.
Quit smoking: Smoking has been proven to slow the flow of blood to the kidneys, and reduced blood flow can inhibit their function. It also increases the risk of developing kidney cancer by around 50%, so it is a habit you definitely want to kick!
Moderate your use of OTC drugs: Regular use of certain commonly-prescribed drugs like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) or painkillers (ibuprofen, acetaminophen) can damage the kidneys. Make sure to follow dosage instructions given to you by your doctor or pharmacist and when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask.
Monitor your kidney function: It is important to check your kidney function as part of your regular health check-ups, especially if you have one of the high risks factors (diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, family history of kidney disease). Make sure to make your doctor aware of your risk, express any concerns you may have, and ask your doctor about getting a blood test for kidney issues.
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- Your Amazing Kidneys, World Kidney Day.org
- Facts and Stats, Kidney Care UK
- Kidney Disease: Causes, National Kidney Foundation
- Causes of Chronic Kidney Disease, NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
- What is Polycystic Kidney Disease?, NIH
- Urinary Tract Infection, CDC
- What is Glomerulonephritis?, National Kidney Foundation
- 8 Golden Rules, World Kidney Day.org
- Kidney Health and Kidney Disease Basics, Healthline
- Take Care of Your Kidneys, World Kidney Day.org