The kidneys act like your body’s personal garbage collectors. Every day, these two bean-shaped organs, which sit just below your rib cage on either side of your spine, filter about 55 gallons of blood daily to sift out about two quarts of waste products and excess water.
Anita Patel, M.D., a kidney disease specialist at Henry Ford Health, knows the importance of these critical organs. The kidneys prevent the buildup of wastes and excess fluid in the body, keep electrolyte levels stable, produce hormones that make red blood cells, regulate blood pressure and build strong bones.
People who have high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of kidney failure are at increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease, which the National Kidney Foundation says affects more than 26 million Americans. But even if you don’t fall into one of those high-risk categories, it’s important to keep your kidneys healthy. Kidney disease can happen to anyone.
Dr. Patel offers five strategies to preserve kidney health:
- Stay hydrated. Your kidneys need sufficient fluid to clear sodium and flush out toxins. And while there’s no clear-cut guideline regarding the exact amount of water and other fluids you should drink daily to maintain good health, most experts recommend sipping 1.5 to 2 liters daily. Just keep in mind that your fluid needs depend on various factors including gender, fitness level, climate, health conditions and whether you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have previously suffered from kidney stones or kidney disease.
- Adopt a healthy diet. The vast majority of kidney problems stem from other medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. So it makes sense to reduce your risk of those chronic conditions by eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Not only will this style of eating help control weight and blood pressure, it may also stave off other diseases, such as cancer.
- Exercise. Engaging in regular physical activity is just as important as developing healthy eating habits. Both help prevent weight gain and keep blood pressure levels in check. “Keeping trim and fit helps the kidneys continue to function as long as possible,” Patel says. Just don’t go overboard. Extreme activity, particularly when you’re not already fit and healthy, can put undue stress on the kidneys.
- Stop cigarette smoking. Smoking wreaks havoc on your blood vessels, decreasing the flow of blood not only to the kidneys but to all of your vital organs. And when the kidneys don’t have adequate blood flow, they won’t work as well as they should. To make matters worse, smoking raises blood pressure levels and increases your risk of heart disease.
- Keep medications in check. Many medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription, filter through the kidneys to be cleared from the human body. Even seemingly “healthy” supplements can harm your kidneys. “Herbs and supplements may increase toxins in the body and affect the kidney cells directly,” Dr. Patel says. Before buying supplements, visit authoritative health care websites, such as the United States National Library of Medicine Drug Information Portal, to read up on potential risks.
The bottom line: The best way to maintain your kidney health is to take care of yourself. Eat sensible food, stick to a regular fitness regimen and avoid unnecessary medications. Most important, if you smoke, stop. People who have diabetes or high blood pressure should also receive regular screenings for kidney dysfunction or spilling protein in the urine.
“Kidney disease is often silent, but if you notice symptoms, such as swelling in the legs, fatigue, urinating frequently or at night, bubbly looking urine or suffer from unrelenting headaches, contact your primary care physician,” Patel says. Spotting kidney disease early – and treating it – can help you sidestep complications ranging from bone disease to premature death.
Dr. Anita Patel is a nephrologist and the medical director of the Henry Ford Transplant’s kidney and pancreas transplant program. She sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and other locations across southeast Michigan.