The kidneys are vital organs in the human body, yet we rarely focus on them until something goes wrong, such as a painful urinary infection or the passing of kidney stones. The kidneys play a role in controlling blood pressure, acid-base balance, electrolyte concentrations and the removal of toxins. They participate in converting vitamin D to its active form and produce the hormone erythropoietin, which stimulates red blood cell production in bone marrow. These functions affect whole body health and homeostasis, not just urinary tract issues.

 Your annual blood tests usually include some information about kidney function. The metabolic panel includes electrolyte levels (sodium, potassium, chloride and carbon dioxide), and a measure called eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate). Electrolytes rarely get out of balance in a generally healthy individual, but if you had your blood drawn while in the hospital for an emergency situation, there could be abnormalities. eGFR estimates how many milliliters per minute of fluid your kidneys filter and the result should be greater than 60. This number decreases with age and illness and can be affected by your level of hydration. Blood urea nitrogen (BUN) is included in the test panel and is elevated in people with kidney disease, although it also can be high if you consume excessive protein in your diet.

 The most important thing you can do to keep your kidneys healthy is to drink adequate water. Dehydration is the main cause of kidney stones and it contributes to urinary tract infections. Strive to drink 80 ounces of water per day. Many people restrict their fluid consumption in order to urinate less often, but this can lead to problems. Frequent urination flushes bacteria and waste from the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra so there are fewer solids that can precipitate to form stones. Avoid coffee, as it makes urine too acidic and irritates the bladder. Also avoid sugary drinks such as soda. High sugar consumption increases kidney stone risk while natural citrus (fresh-squeezed lemon, lime or orange) offers protection. 

 Recurrent infections and stones create scar tissue that diminishes kidney function; diabetes, lupus nephritis and polycystic kidney disease have the same result. The kidneys have limited ability to regenerate themselves, so prevention and maintenance are key. 

Natural supplements can offer help. Cordyceps, a mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine, lowers BUN, creatinine (a byproduct of muscle breakdown) and protein in the urine. Resveratrol, an extract from grapes, preserves kidney function and increases nitric oxide, which keeps blood vessels open. Rutin is a bioflavonoid found in apple skins, figs and rooibos tea; in animal research, it protected kidney tubules from damage and hardening. Curcumin has antioxidant properties that reduce stress on the kidneys and lower blood pressure. These supplements can prevent a patient with advanced kidney disease from needing dialysis.

 Other health-promoting behaviors are good for your kidneys, as well. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, quit smoking, reduce or eliminate medications, when possible, and seek medical care immediately if you suspect a problem.

Dr. Needle is a licensed naturopathic doctor with Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598.

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