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Preventive Maintenance: Taking care of your kidneys

Every year, over four million people in North America are diagnosed with kidney disease, sometimes requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Karen Bowen

Karen Bowen

Every year, over four million people in North America are diagnosed with kidney disease, sometimes requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Symptoms of serious kidney disease are quite diverse and can include: Frequent headaches and urination; burning bladder; itching; poor appetite; fatigue; anemia; baggy eyes; nausea and vomiting; swollen/numb hands or feet; poor concentration; darkened skin; and muscle cramps.

All these different symptoms make it obvious that our kidneys do more than just make urine.

Even though they are small organs (about the size of our fist), they do a lot. Every four minutes they filter the total volume of our body’s blood. Every day their one million tiny filters purify our blood 240 times, Surprisingly, even though we have two, only one kidney is necessary to perform their tasks.

Mainly, our kidneys regulate liquid levels and processes in our bodies. They regulate the composition of our blood, keeping the concentrations of ions and other important substances balanced and constant, maintaining an acid/base balance. They manage the volume of water in the body by controlling the amount of liquids excreted, which also helps regulate blood pressure. They remove wastes and poisons from the body, like urea, ammonia, drugs, and toxins. They stimulate our body to make new red blood cells. They maintain appropriate calcium levels in the body.

As you can imagine, when we don’t keep our kidneys working well, our health suffers. Some major risk factors for kidney disease are diabetes, high blood pressure, a family history of chronic kidney disease, and simply getting older. As well, chronic kidney disease is more common in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.

Obviously we cannot change our ethnic heritage, but we can manage the two leading contributors to kidney disease: diabetes and high blood pressure.

If you already have diabetes, manage your sugar levels to reduce kidney damage. Keep control of your blood sugar levels. Ask your doctor about regular urine and blood tests to monitor your kidney function. Eat a healthy diet. Quit smoking. Exercise regularly. (Some doctors may also recommend that you take a medication called an ACE inhibitor). If you already have high blood pressure, keep your blood pressure at a healthy level. To start off, ask your doctor for your “target” blood pressure, then monitor your own regularly. Buy a blood pressure cuff to use at home, or just use the ones that are available in the pharmacy section of many department or drug stores. If your blood pressure is too high, visit your doctor – you may need to start taking medication. And, change your lifestyle. Follow a low-fat/low-salt diet. Exercise regularly. Maintain a healthy body weight. Cut down on the amount of alcohol that you drink. Quit smoking. Another painful kidney condition is kidney stones. About 10% of Canadians will have a kidney stone during their lifetime. Although kidney stones vary widely in size from a grain of sand to the size of a pearl, or even to the size of a golf ball, most are quite small. No matter what size, kidney stones hurt!

The symptoms of a kidney stone attack include: sudden, extreme pain in the lower back, side, or groin; blood in the urine; fever and chills; vomiting; a bad odour or cloudy appearance to the urine; and a burning sensation during urination. If you have any of these symptoms, go to the doctor immediately. Pain in the lower back, side, or groin, may mean that a kidney stone is moving, but it could also be a sign of a serious urinary tract blockage, requiring immediate medical care.

If you’re prone to kidney stones, there are certain foods that you may want to avoid or restrict in your diet (foods high in oxalate, such as organ meats or chocolate). Even with diet changes, your doctor may need to prescribe medications. It would also be a good idea to ask your doctor or pharmacist whether any of your current medications may increase your risk of kidney stones.

Also, watch what analgesics (aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and naproxen) you use. They rarely cause a problem when taken according to the label. However, if you have chronic kidney disease or take them for a long period of time or in combination with other analgesics they may be dangerous. No matter what, for your kidney’s sake, consult your doctor if you take analgesics regularly.

Healthy kidneys also need lots of water to stay healthy. At least eight glasses a day to keep your urine diluted and your kidneys’ filters open and free of debris.

Pay attention to your health, drink lots of water and help your kidneys flush your system every time you flush.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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