Andrew Siegel MD Blog #125
Our kidneys are paired, bean-shaped, fist-sized organs that work diligently and silently behind the scenes 24/7/365, filtering our blood free of toxins and waste products so that we can maintain a healthy existence. When they are working well, they are often taken for granted. The renal arteries bring blood to the kidneys, the kidneys do their magic, and the cleansed and purified blood is returned into the renal veins, with the liquid waste—urine—excreted into the ureters that drain into the urinary bladder.
If the kidneys stop working properly, excessive fluid and toxic wastes build up rapidly, resulting in death within a matter of days to weeks. Death by kidney failure is described as “euphoric” because of the very abnormal blood chemistries and electrolyte disturbances that occur…not that death is something to be “giddy” about, but kidney failure just happens to be an easier, more peaceful way to exit the planet than many others.
Because of their critical importance to our healthy existence, it behooves us to take great care of these prized possessions, which nature gave us in duplicate. This “spare tire” is capable of sustaining life in the event of trauma, cancer requiring surgical removal, donating a kidney or other issues resulting in loss of one kidney.
The kidneys are multifunctional, not only filtering our blood to remove waste products, but also responsible for regulating fluid, electrolyte, acid-base balance and blood pressure. They are in charge of maintaining the proper fluid volume within our blood stream. They regulate the levels of our electrolytes including sodium, potassium, chloride, etc. They keep our blood pH (indicator of acidity) at a precise level to maintain optimal function. They are key players in the regulation of blood pressure. Furthermore—and unbeknownst to many—they are responsible for the production of several important hormones: calcitrol (calcium regulation), erythropoietin (red blood cell production), and renin (blood pressure regulation).
Kidney disease is a very common cause of serious illness with a prevalence of more than 25 million Americans. Each year approximately 110,000 new patients start dialysis treatments in the USA. Kidney disease is responsible for nearly 100,000 American deaths annually. When the kidneys fail (end stage renal disease), the options are peritoneal dialysis, hemodialysis, kidney transplantation, or death. Peritoneal dialysis uses the peritoneal membrane that lines the abdomen as a filter to clear wastes and extra fluid from the body. Hemodialysis involves being hooked up to a machine that mimics the function of the kidneys; it requires three sessions weekly that take about 3-4 hours per session.
The unfortunate thing about kidney disease is that it typically causes few symptoms until it is advanced; however, simple tests are capable of detecting it. Symptoms of kidney disease are non-specific and may include the following: fatigue; decreased energy; poor appetite; difficulty concentrating; insomnia; swollen ankles and feet; nighttime muscle cramping; puffiness around one’s eyes; dry and itchy skin; and the need for frequent urination, particularly at night
A definitive sign of kidney disease is the presence of protein in the urine, which is easily detectable on a urinalysis. Additionally, uncontrolled high blood pressure is highly suggestive of kidney disease, as is an elevated serum creatinine, detectable by a simple blood test. Early detection is critical as it can help prevent kidney disease from progressing to kidney failure. The bottom line is that three simple tests can detect kidney disease: blood pressure; serum creatinine; urine albumin (protein).
Under normal circumstances, the kidneys filter the blood, removing waste products and excessive fluid, returning into circulation the body’s important chemicals and constituents. When the filtration system is not working properly, one’s system is not cleared of the bad (waste products), resulting in electrolyte disturbances and proteinuria, a condition in which what is good for the body (protein) ends up being filtered out into the urine.
Risk factors for kidney disease are the following: African-American race; diabetes; high blood pressure; and family history of kidney disease. The two leading causes of chronic kidney disease are hypertension and diabetes, responsible for about two thirds of cases.
Urologists are the specialists who deal with surgical kidney issues whereas nephrologists are the specialists who deal with medical kidney tissues including hypertension and impaired kidney function. If kidney disease is diagnosed, one will typically be referred to a nephrologist for further evaluation and management. Nephrologists will typically measure the serum creatinine, and do blood and urine tests to assess the glomerular filtration rate, a quantitative test of kidney function. Often a renal ultrasound is performed and in some cases it is necessary to do a renal biopsy to find the root cause of the kidney dysfunction
Treatment for progressive kidney disease includes interventions such as blood pressure control, often with the use of ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers, and control of diabetes. Nutritional interventions include dietary protein restriction that may slow the progression of chronic kidney disease. High-protein intake can worsen the proteinuria and result in the accumulation of various protein breakdown products as a result of decreasing kidney function, which can cause toxic effects.
A truly unfortunate fact of life is that many of us are not responsible caretakers of our kidneys (or any of our other “precious physical valuables”); many seem to take better care of their automobiles than they do of their own health. How many of us change our oil every 3000 miles, bring our cars in for regular service and proudly maintain shiny exteriors while at the same time neglecting our own health by living a harmful lifestyle. This includes a sedentary existence, excessive stress, insufficient sleep and substance abuse—of alcohol, tobacco and food—with diets high in red and processed meats, sodium and fat laden concoctions, sugar-sweetened drinks, etc., and low in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. The result: obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol, which oftentimes leads to diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and premature death. Sadly, the diabetic situation in our nation—often referred to as “diabesity”—has become epidemic and, as mentioned, is one of the leading causes of chronic kidney disease in the United States.
So how do we care for our kidneys? The prescription for healthy kidneys is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and, if you have been neglectful in this department, to do a lifestyle remake through the following: good eating habits; maintaining a healthy weight; engaging in exercise; obtaining adequate sleep; consuming alcohol in moderation; avoiding tobacco; and stress reduction. Additionally, being proactive by seeing a physician on a regular basis for “scheduled maintenance” is of paramount importance in order to detect kidney disease—or any other malady—as early as possible, no matter what the ivory tower pundits say about the ineffectiveness of annual physicals.
Bottom Line: Kidney disease is a debilitating—oftentimes deadly—condition, the risk for which can be greatly reduced by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Never neglect your health, for it is your greatest wealth.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
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Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com
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Author of: Male Pelvic Fitness: Optimizing Sexual and Urinary Health; in press and available in e-book and paperback formats in January 2014.
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Tags: acid-base balance, African-American, blood pressure, calcitrol, creatinine, diabetes, electrolyte balance, erythropoieten, fluid regulation, hemodialysis, hypertension, kidney disease, kidney transplantation, kidneys, nephrologist, peritoneal dialysis, proteinuria, renal, renin, urologist