There are multiple health observances celebrated during the month of March. One is National Kidney Month. Our kidneys play an important role in our overall health and well-being, so we should give them a little love and attention once in a while. Learn more about how your kidneys function to keep you feeling your best and how you can help protect them in this blog.
Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs about the size of a computer mouse that sit at the lowest level of your ribcage, one on each side of your spine. The kidneys are responsible for maintaining a healthy balance of water, salt and minerals – including sodium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium – in your blood. If these substances are not in balance, your body’s nerves, muscles and other tissues may not function properly.
The kidneys also remove extra fluid, acid, waste products and drugs from your body. They release hormones that regulate blood pressure; produce a form of Vitamin D that promotes strong, healthy bones; and control the production of red blood cells. Those little organs have a big responsibility.
Each kidney is made up of about 1 million functional units called nephrons. A nephron consists of a filtering apparatus made up of tiny blood vessels called a glomerulus, which is attached to a tubule. Blood enters the glomerulus and is filtered. The remaining fluid passes along the tubule, where chemicals and water are added or removed based on the body’s needs. The fluid that is left becomes urine, which is passed through the ureters to be stored in the bladder.
The kidneys filter about 200 quarts of fluid every 24 hours. About two quarts are removed from the body as urine. The remaining 198 quarts of fluid are recovered and returned to the body.
Diseases of the kidneys, specifically chronic kidney disease (CKD), are a major cause of illness and death in the US. Fifteen percent of adults in the US are estimated to have CKD, which equates to about 37 million people, or one in seven. Because early CKD generally has no signs or symptoms, most of these cases are undiagnosed.
When they are present, warning signs that you may be developing kidney disease include fatigue, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, muscle cramping, swollen feet and ankles, puffiness around your eyes in the morning and frequent urination, particularly at night.
There are also symptoms that may indicate your kidney disease is progressing to kidney failure, which is when your kidneys lose all ability to filter fluid and waste products from your blood. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, changes in urine output, fluid retention, anemia, blood in urine, foamy urine, inability to concentrate, sudden rise in potassium level and inflammation of the fluid-filled sac that covers the heart (pericardium).
Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease. It accounts for about 44 percent of new cases. Consistently high blood sugar associated with diabetes damages the blood vessels in the body, including the blood vessels in the kidneys. As a result, the kidneys cannot filter blood as efficiently as they should, and excess fluid and waste builds up in the body. That can lead to other health problems including heart disease and stroke.
Other risk factors for chronic kidney disease include having high blood pressure; having a family history of kidney disease; being older; having heart disease; smoking; being obese; being African American, Native American or Asian American; and having an abnormal kidney structure.
Controlling your diabetes and blood pressure are essential to maintaining kidney health. Other things you can do to help keep your kidneys healthy and prevent kidney disease include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Quitting smoking
- Exercising regularly — Regular exercise can help you lose weight and reduce your blood pressure.
- Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy
- Avoiding extra salt — Eating a lot of salty food can disrupt the balance of minerals in your body.
- Staying hydrated — Drinking plenty of water helps your kidneys remove toxins from your blood.
- Limiting use of over-the-counter medications — Routinely taking certain OTC medications, such as NSAIDS, can damage your kidneys over time. If you have a condition that involves managing pain, such as arthritis, talk with your doctor about alternatives to taking pain medication every day.