The kidneys are not organs that we think much about, but they work incredibly hard for us every day. In traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys are said to store our “jing” or “essence”, which is the essential fluid in our body containing the “life force” or “Qi”. As March is national kidney month, it is a good opportunity to slow down and draw our attention to the health of our kidneys, bladder and urinary tract system.
The kidneys are two “fist-sized” organs that sit in our lower backs and are shaped like beans. Kidneys are responsible for filtering waste out of 200 liters of blood every day. They also release hormones that control blood pressure, regulate the body’s water, salt, potassium and acid content, produce the active form of Vitamin D and control the production of red blood cells. The Canadian Kidney Foundation estimates that as many as 26 million Canadians have kidney disease or are at risk. Risk of kidney disease increases with age (over 60), obesity, heavy drinking, chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, over-use of pain medications (aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen), lupus and other autoimmune disorders, chronic urinary tract infections, kidney stones and those with a family history.
What are the signs of kidney disease?
Most people with kidney disease do not have any symptoms until it becomes more advanced. Things to pay attention to are:
- Difficult or painful urination
2. Foamy urine (this can be protein in the urine)
3. Pink or very dark urine (can be blood)
4. Increased thirst, fatigue or weakness
5. Increased urination (especially at night)
6. Swollen legs, hands, ankles, feet or puffy eyes
What can be done?
- Screening for kidney disease
Often kidney disease is found by accident during routine physical exams and labs. However, if you are concerned that you might have impaired kidney function or if you just want to get a baseline of the health of your kidneys, a naturopathic physician can perform a thorough physical exam and screening lab tests. A simple urine test called an albumin creatinine ratio (ACR) as well as a blood test called glomerular filtration rate (GFR) can be run to determine the health of your kidneys. Naturopathic physicians are experts in preventative medicine – addressing declining function or sub-optimal health before it becomes chronic disease.
- Weight loss, controlled blood sugars and blood pressure control
Regular exercise, drinking in moderation, a whole-foods diet and adequate hydration are habits that we could all benefit from, and they reduce our risk of developing kidney disease!
3. Have your medications assessed by a naturopathic physician
A naturopathic physician can assess your medications (over-the-counter + prescription) and supplements to determine if you are on the correct drug and dosage for your condition. Dosage needs change as we age due to changes in the way we break-down and eliminate drugs and supplements. An ND can also see if there are any interactions between your drugs and supplements. There are some drugs, herbs and vitamins that should not be taken at high doses or for long periods of time as they can cause damage to your liver and kidneys. For example, a recent study found that those people on long-term acid blockers (PPIs) for acid reflux were at greater risk of developing chronic kidney disease. A naturopath can work with you and your prescribing physician to use lifestyle changes and natural therapies to reduce the amount of medications you are on when appropriate. If the number of over-the-counter pain medications you are taking each day is increasing, it is time to see a physician to address the root cause of that pain.
- Address chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones
A naturopathic physician has many tools to address chronic kidney infections and kidney stones. Chronic UTIs can be the result of lifestyle habits and practices, deficient estrogen, urinary tract dysbiosis, improper vaginal pH and diet. Lab testing can be done to determine what type of kidney stones you are prone to and then address the cause.
The kidneys and bladder are also associated with the emotion “fear” in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. Often we are fearful of visiting the doctor’s office and going for testing/exams because we start to worry about “what the doctor might find”. Fear of the unknown is a valid emotion, but could fear be stopping you from healthy aging and preventative care?
Focus on the Kidneys During National Kidney Month in March. National Kidney Foundation. Accessed February 24, 2017 from: https://www.kidney.org/news/monthly/Focus_KidneyMonth.
Kidney Disease: Early detection and prevention. The Kidney Foundation of Canada. Accessed February 24, 2017 from: https://www.kidney.ca/detection-and-prevention.
Xie, Y., Bowe, B., Li, T., Hong, X., Yan, Y. and Al-Aly, Z. (2017). Long-term kidney outcomes among users of proton pump inhibitors without intervening kidney injury. Kidney International (article in press).