Our bodies’ filtering system—the part that clears out the bad and holds onto the good—consists of two bean-shaped organs the size of human fists: the kidneys. Though blood cells and some proteins are too large, the kidneys do filter out sodium, potassium, electrolytes, water, urea and more.
“The kidneys are responsible for keeping things in balance,” said Dr. Neil Soifer, nephrologist. “They act like a big filter for the blood, and once they filter, they try to figure out what the body still needs.”
Excess vitamins, hormones and other materials dubbed “waste” drains down two tubes called the ureters and into the bladder. If this system develops any sort of blockage due to prostate problems, cancers or clots, it can lead to kidney problems.
Yet kidney disease—whatever the cause—does not necessarily mean kidney failure. According to Dr. Soifer, kidney disease occurs at different levels, ranging from mild to severe. A range of factors contributes to deteriorated kidney function including:
- Diabetes—#1 cause
- Hypertension—#2 cause
- Proteinuria—leaking extra protein into the urine
- High cholesterol
- Obesity—leads to stretching and scarring in kidneys
- Dietary salt intake—drives up blood pressure and directly scars kidneys
- Dietary protein intake—Common with high-protein diets
- Medications—i.e. Advil, Aleve, Motrin, Celebrex
When the kidneys fail to function properly, salt and water accumulate throughout the body, leading to swollen ankles and putting more pressure on the veins and arteries leading to and from the heart. People also develop electrolyte abnormalities and muscle waste accumulation.
Dr. Soifer calls kidney disease a “silent killer,” because “usually people don’t get sick from waste levels.” Common symptoms include a bad taste in the mouth and itching. Protein in the urine is the earliest measurable indicator of a problem, and a marker that reflects abnormal vascular function.
Other side effects include anemia, bone disease and a very strong link to cardiovascular disease, which puts people at higher risk for strokes and heart attacks.
In patients with advanced kidney disease (stages 4 and 5), Dr. Soifer says cardiovascular disease occurs in 63 percent. Eighty-four percent have hypertension. The condition ate up $23.9 billion in Medicare spending in 2007, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the Medicare budget.
To avoid kidney disease, Dr. Soifer recommends the following:
- Get your blood pressure under control above all else. To find your ideal level, which depends on age and health history, consult your physician.
- Stop smoking.
- Gain control of your blood sugar.
- Lower your cholesterol.
- Limit the amount of salt in your diet. Aim for less than 2 tsps. daily.
- Eat a moderate amount of protein, avoiding red meat and excessive protein shakes.
- Try a Vitamin D supplement.
Water, he says, does not necessarily make the kidneys any healthier. “In certain situations, such as with kidney stones or medications that make you lose water, it could be helpful. Your body will tell you the amount of water you need.”
With more than 16 percent of the U.S. population suffering from kidney disease, Dr. Soifer says unfortunately, no cure exists. “However, it can be successfully controlled and the disease progression slowed.”
For more information, visit the American Academy of Kidney Patients online at http://AAKP.org.