Smorgasbord Health Column – Organs of the body – The Kidneys – Function – Disease – Kidney Stones by Sally Cronin

Organs of the body – The Kidneys – Function – Disease – Kidney Stones

The kidneys are major organs that can have a dramatic effect on our overall health. As they are linked closely, I am also going to take a closer look at urinary tract health for both men and women in upcoming posts.

What is kidney disease?

Kidney disease is a major health problem for both men and women. Kidney and urinary tract diseases together affect hundreds of thousands of people a year. Some may be affected by minor infections while others may suffer kidney failure.

Not only are your kidneys affected if they are infected or damaged. Kidney disease can cause a host of other systemic problems such as high blood pressure, anaemia and unhealthy cholesterol levels. One of the most common problems is kidney stones, which are incredibly painful and usually result in a hospital stay.

Today the prospect is far brighter than it would have been, say, 40 years ago. We now have dialysis and kidney transplants for patients whose disease has progressed too far for dietary or medicinal support. However there is a waiting list, despite the fact that this is one of the rare organs that can come from a live donor. Although there are some congenital or hereditary kidney problems that are beyond our control, many can be prevented by following a healthy diet – and it is never too late to change.

Why are our kidneys so important?

The kidneys are the ‘Ringmasters’ of the body. They keep a varied number of crucial elements in balance. When the kidneys do not function, several other major organs will be compromised.

The kidneys operate like a chemical filter which blood passes through in order to remove waste products and any excess amounts of minerals, sugars and other chemicals. About a quarter of the blood pumped by the heart passes through the kidneys so it is important to note that they play a part in controlling blood pressure.

The balance of minerals and water in the blood is carefully managed and either discarded or saved to maintain blood pressure in the correct range. For example; the balance of salt, potassium and acid is a critical function of the organs.

In addition to this vital role, kidneys also perform other crucial functions. They produce a hormone (erythropoietin) or EPO that stimulates the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells are absolutely crucial to our survival and anything that compromises their healthy production is dangerous. Other hormones that the kidneys produce help regulate our blood pressure and the metabolism of calcium (I will cover this in the piece on kidney stones). They also make hormones that control the growth of tissue within the body.

When kidneys are damaged and unable to get rid of the waste, this builds up resulting in swelling and a condition called Uraemia (an overdose of toxins) can develop, which if undiagnosed and untreated can lead to kidney failure. The difficulty is that other kidney functions, like regulating urine flow, can be unaffected – which means diagnosis is not easy.

Where are the kidneys in our body and how do they work?

Kidney - macroscopic blood vesselsEach kidney is bean-shaped and about the size of an adult’s fist. The kidneys are located below the ribs and toward the back.

They contain nearly 40 miles of tubes, most of them tiny; processing some 100 gallons of blood each day. The kidneys filter and clean the blood, and they produce urine from excess water and dissolved solids.

The ureters carry waste, as urine, from the kidneys to the bladder. The bladder, located in the lower abdomen, is a balloon-like organ that stores urine. A bladder can hold over a pint of urine. During urination, the urethra carries urine from the bottom of the bladder out of the body.

An important thing to remember about the bladder is that it is very elastic. It is not a good idea to go all day without emptying it as it will stretch and sag around the entrance to the urethra. This causes urine to collect and is a breeding ground for bacteria and also an ideal environment for stones to collect. If the problem is not rectified it may result in having to use catheters to empty the bladder, which is both inconvenient and can lead to further infections.

Are there different types of kidney disease?

Kidney diseases, which usually involves both kidneys, fall into three main categories. Hereditary, congenital or acquired.

  • Inherited kidney disorders usually begin producing symptoms during the teen to adult years, and are often serious.
  • Congenital kidney diseases typically involve a malformation of the genitourinary tract that can lead to blockages, which, in turn, can cause infection and/or destruction of kidney tissue. Tissue destruction may then lead to chronic kidney failure.
  • Acquired kidney disorders have numerous causes, including blockages, drugs, and toxins. However, diabetes and high blood pressure are by far the most common culprits.

As I am covering urinary tract and cystitis in a separate article we will concentrate on kidney stones, as they are one of the more common problems we might encounter, particularly as we get older.

What are kidney stones?

Kidney stones are varied in shape and size and form when certain chemicals in the urine crystallise and stick together. Some can grow to the size of a golf ball and others remain absolutely minute and pass through the urinary tract quite easily.

If the stones get too large to pass through, they block the opening to the urinary tract or else they try to pass through and cause intense irritation in the lining of the tract.

Some people never even know that they have kidney stones when the stones are very small, but usually there are some very obvious symptoms.

Who is likely to get kidney stones?

Anyone can get kidney stones, but some people are more likely to develop them than others. Typically, a person with a kidney stone is a man 20 to 60 years old. Although 4 out of 5 sufferers are men, women can also develop the condition.

Often, there is a family history of the condition. Chronic dehydration (lack of body water) can lead to kidney stones. Very hot weather, heavy sweating, or too little fluid intake contributes to the formation of stones. For example, people who work outdoors in hot weather and who do not drink sufficient fluids are in a higher risk category.

There is evidence to suggest that a diet very high in animal proteins and fat can contribute to the formation of stones and kidney problems in general, which is why the Atkins diet or other diets that promote high protein intake is not healthy, in my opinion, for long periods of time if done at all.

People who lead particularly sedentary lifestyles may be more prone to getting stones than someone more active.

Are there different types of kidney stones?

Calcium Oxylate dihydrate Kidney Stone -2There are two main types of stone, Oxalate and Uric Acid. Calcium oxalate and phosphate stones are made up of a hard crystal compound. These stones have become more common in recent years with about 70% to 80% of all kidney stones currently made up of calcium oxalate and phosphate. The problem is too much calcium in the urine. This can be caused by diet, a metabolic disorder that causes build up, or taking certain drugs such as diuretics, antacids and steroids.

There is also a substance called purine that is in meat, fish and poultry – I have covered purine before in reference to arthritis. But it really should only be a concern if you are eating very large amounts of food containing it.

Uric Acid stones are rarer and are caused when the body breaks down certain foods – especially in a diet very high in animal protein – and produces too much uric acid. Gout sufferers – again covered in relation to arthritis – are more prone to getting this type of stone. These are a common problem with animals; particular dogs that have a high protein diet and are prone to kidney disease and stones.

What would someone notice if they have this problem?

Kidney stones - locationWith the larger stones that are trying to force themselves through very narrow openings there is severe pain with nausea, and vomiting; burning and a frequent urge to urinate; fever, chills, and weakness; cloudy or very strong smelling urine; blood in the urine; and a blocked flow of urine. Serious infections can result from a blockage.

It is very important that if you start to suffer any of these problems even in a minor way such as a pain across your lower back then you must go and see your doctor immediately.

Take a look at the samples of kidney stones of various types, (shown left) and you can see why they are painful to pass.

What sort of treatment will a doctor or hospital provide?

That will vary according to the severity of the problem but usually a patient will have an ultrasound to identify where the stones are and how large they are. Luckily, most are small enough to pass through the urinary tract on their own and so lots of water is drunk to flush out the system. Sometimes medication will be prescribed, especially if there is an infection, which is not uncommon. Obviously pain killers too. They commonly use shock waves (sound waves) to break up the larger stones these days. All of this in non-invasive, which is great -as surgery can be avoided.

The most important thing you can do to prevent stones forming again is to change your lifestyle and of course take a very long, hard, look at your diet.

Coming up in the next posts on the Kidneys – Urinary tract infections – one on Cystitis and then a healthy eating approach to avoiding kidney stones and these very painful conditions.

©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998-2018

A little bit about me nutritionally.

A little about me from a nutritional perspective. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago. I qualified as a nutritional therapist and practiced in Ireland and the UK as well as being a consultant for radio. My first centre was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Here are my health books including a men’s health manual and my anti-aging book.

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Comprehensive guide to the body, and the major organs and the nutrients needed to be healthy 360 pages, A4:

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Smorgasbord Health – Mineral of the Week – Sodium.

smorgasbord health

Sodium is an essential macro-mineral that along with potassium helps to regulate the body’s fluid balance. It is an electrolyte (cation), which is a positively electrically charged atom that performs essential tasks within each cell.

Electrolytes control our blood pressure and blood volume. The kidneys will remove any excess fluid in your blood by drawing the fluid across cell walls. Sodium along with potassium is needed to complete this vital function by passing this fluid through the walls of the blood vessels and into the kidneys. Once sufficient fluid has collected in the kidneys it is expressed onwards to the bladder and excreted as urine.

We also need sodium for normal nerve function, without it there would be no electrical impulses travelling along our nerves necessary to enable muscles to contract. This is done by an exchange pumping motion in the membranes of the cells. Sodium out and potassium in.

If the balance of potassium and sodium is thrown out by an excess of either mineral it can result in some common but potentially dangerous health conditions including high blood pressure.

Why we are rarely deficient in sodium.

Unlike other minerals, sodium or sodium chloride (table salt) has a very recognisable and almost addictive taste. It is very widely used in all processed foods and it is very easy to consume unhealthy amounts in our diet.

One of the main medical conditions associated with excessive sodium intake is very high blood pressure and heart disease so keeping a check on our intake is vitally important. This is one of the leading causes of premature death that can easily be prevented by making some small but significant changes to your lifestyle.

If you are trying to lose weight you may find that reducing your sodium intake will allow you to lose a great deal of water that has been retained in the cells due to the high level of salt in the blood.

Sodium deficiency is rare and in fact it is estimated that we are consuming at least 5 times the amount of sodium that we should be.

What are the recommendations for sodium intake.

The current recommendation is under 2,400 mg of sodium per day, which is approximately one level teaspoon of table salt. If I give you some comparisons for processed foods versus fresh foods you will see how quickly you can take in far more than your body needs.

Half a can of baked beans contains 504mg of sodium – fresh contains 5mg of sodium
Half a can of mushrooms contains 400 mg of sodium – fresh contains 1mg of sodium
Half a can of tomatoes with spices is 600mg of sodium- homemade would be 4mg of sodium.
3oz of salty bacon contains 1,197 mg of sodium – fresh pork chop 54mg of sodium
A chicken frozen dinner contains 2,500 mg of sodium – freshly prepared 50mg of sodium.
Packet of dry minestrone soup contains 6,400mg – freshly prepared 100mg.

Some other foods that we might eat on a regular basis have equally horrifying amounts of sodium including baked ham 3oz = 840mg, French salad dressing 2 tablespoons = 438mg, half jar of Alfredo pasta sauce =1080mg, half can of chicken noodle soup = 1160mg.

How can we reduce the salt in our diets.

As you will know having read the articles and diet recommendations on the website and in this magazine, I am not keen on processed foods. Apart from the fact you have little or no idea exactly where the food has come from you certainly do not have full knowledge of the manufacturing processes or the number of people who have been involved in the finished product.

We now have labels on food and for the most part, although they seem to be written in stupidly small print (mainly because there are so many ingredients they have not got room on the jar) we can find out how much of a certain additive there is in any processed foods that we buy.

There are sodium reduced products on the market but be careful about the substitutes that have been use to produce this supposedly safe product. One of the most popular taste additives is MSG (monosodium glutamate) and that can sometimes be slipped in without you recognising it.

  • Only eat canned soups, broths and stock cubes rarely unless you are sure they are sodium reduced or free.
  • Avoid bacon and cured meats on a regular basis.
  • Avoid salty snacks.
  • Use salt free butter or olive oil.
  • Check the sodium contents on any processed foods that you buy and choose the lower sodium brands. This applies to mineral water, which can have as much as 60mg of sodium per 100ml. That is 1200mg per 2 litre bottle which easy to drink on a hot day.
  • Make eating takeaways an exception not the rule.
  • Use fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and chicken products rather than canned or pre-prepared.
  • Instant cereals, breakfast cereals, instant rice, pastas etc usually have high levels of sodium.
  • All sauces like ketchup are very high so only use a bare amount on the side of your plate rather than on your food.
  • Always get sauces on the side when you are in a restaurant and use only the barest to give a taste to your food.
  • If you are cooking for the family use a pot of salt containing 1/2 level teaspoon of salt for each family member. Remember that if you all have had breakfast cereal that you will have already consumed sodium during the day so ½ teaspoon per person for cooking will help to keep the total levels down.
  • Be aware of aliases in the form of monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and sodium benzoate.

©sallycronin Just Food for Health 2009

Thanks for dropping by and hope you have found this of interest.. as always your comments are the icing on the cake…Sally