Eat Well to Be Well: Be kind to your kidneys; extra TLC pays off in a lifetime of good health

Let’s face it, countless articles have been written on safeguarding the health of your heart and brain. While heart and brain health are absolutely crucial for overall well-being, what about your kidneys? Kidney health is just as vital and yet is often underappreciated or ignored.

Roughly the size of a large fist, your kidneys are the workhorse of your body’s filtration system, responsible for getting rid of waste products, drugs, and toxins through the urine. Besides the buildup of wastes, extra fluid in the body is also prevented thanks to the kidneys. Each day, healthy kidneys filter about a half cup of blood every minute, removing wastes and extra water to make urine. They also maintain a healthy balance of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and phosphate) in addition to making red blood cells, producing hormones regulating blood pressure, and keeping bones strong.

Are you at risk for chronic kidney disease?

Good kidney functioning is important. But neglect their health and you could develop a condition called chronic kidney disease (CKD). CKD is when kidneys become damaged and struggle to filter blood, leading to wastes building up in your body and causing other health problems. Damaged kidneys may cause swollen ankles, weakness, poor sleep and shortness of breath. If left untreated, kidney health will worsen and can be life-threatening.

CKD is often progressive over time, possibly leading to kidney failure with the only treatment options being dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are the most common causes of CKD. More than 35 percent of people over the age of 20 with diabetes and more than 20 percent of people age 20 and older with hypertension have CKD. Other causes may include a family history of kidney failure, being older than 60, kidney stones, lupus and other autoimmune diseases.

How risk factors harm your kidneys

Many chronic diseases have associated risk factors that often are out of your control, such as genetics or older age. But with CKD, there are many controllable risk factors you can manage to help prevent or reduce kidney damage. These factors and how they damage kidney health include the following:

Poorly managed type 2 diabetes: Chronically high blood sugar levels damage tiny vessels in the filtering units of your kidneys, causing them to become narrow and clogged. Nerves, necessary to relay messages between your brain and bladder, may be damaged due to neuropathy, a common complication of diabetes, leaving you unable to feel when your bladder is full, which is harmful to your kidneys.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure: Hypertension causes arteries around the kidneys to narrow, weaken, or harden, preventing delivery of enough blood to the kidney tissue. Your kidneys may lose their ability to filter blood necessary for regulating fluids and hormones.

Overuse of over-the-counter pain relievers: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), take a toll on your kidneys. High doses may reduce blood flow to the kidneys, damaging kidney tissue and structures. Do not use these pain medications without consulting with your doctor first.

Dehydration: Drinking too little water stresses the kidneys. Dehydration can cause a build-up of wastes and acids in the body, hurting your kidneys. Insufficient water also contributes to the formation of kidney stones and urinary tract infections. When enough water is consumed, it helps prevent stone-forming crystals from sticking together. Sufficient water also helps produce more urine to flush out germs that cause urinary tract infections.

Smoking: Lighting up slows blood flow to the kidneys, worsening CKD.

How to show extra kindness to your kidneys

If you know you have at least one or more of the risk factors for CKD, speak to your doctor about assessing your kidney health. One of the first clues to potential kidney problems is a high level of creatinine, a waste product filtered by your kidneys. Ask about your GFR number obtained from a blood test for creatinine levels, an accurate predictor of kidney functioning.

Working closely with your doctor and a registered dietitian to develop and follow a plan preserving kidney health will literally be a lifesaver. The earlier kidney disease can be found, the sooner lifestyle intervention changes can begin helping avoid or at least forestall late stage CKD.

Are you ready to give your kidneys the time and attention they deserve? Here are doable steps to follow for preserving kidney health:

  • If you have diabetes, work with your doctor and dietitian to keep it under control. Steps include eating on a regular schedule and filling half your plate with fiber-rich vegetables balanced with a small portion of protein and healthy fat. Avoid sweetened beverages such as soda, fruit juices, and energy drinks, along with concentrated sweets like cookies, cake, and candy. Be sure to include movement each day to use up excess blood sugar, and strive to reach a healthier body weight.
  • Keep your blood pressure in a normal range by taking medications as prescribed. Losing excess weight if needed can be helpful for lowering blood pressure. Also consume more fresh vegetables, fruits, and low fat or fat-free dairy. Consume less of salty processed foods such as chips, pork rinds, pretzels, instant pudding, canned soup, pizza, processed cheese, pickles, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, bratwurst, cold cuts, salami, and convenience foods including boxed potatoes, meal helpers, and frozen meals. Use alcohol only moderately or not at all.
  • Be careful if taking high doses of nutritional supplements. These include Chinese herbs and colon cleansers, which have the potential to be toxic to your kidneys and are advisable to avoid altogether.
  • Keep well-hydrated. Avoiding dehydration is important for overall health and functioning of your kidneys. A general guideline for most people is to drink at least eight cups of water each day. During hot weather or when participating in physical activity, you’ll need to consume more.
  • If you smoke, ask your doctor about taking steps to quit.

By being kind to your kidneys and keeping them in good working order, you can improve your chances of avoiding CKD. It’s well worth the effort and rewards good kidney health has to offer.


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain: The Latest Science On Food’s Power For Protecting The Brain From Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook. Visit her website at www.eatwelltobewellrd.com.


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