Smorgasbord Health Column – Family Health – 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 – 2021

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-three years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. 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, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines, radio programmes and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here::Sally’s books and reviews


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