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Why Protecting the Kidneys is Crucial (& How to Do It)

"Because the kidneys have so many vital functions, it’s very important to preserve their health to avoid some pretty serious issues."

The kidneys are among our most important organs: so important, in fact, that we have two of them so that if one stops working correctly, the other one can step up and do the work. But what happens when both of them stop working slowly over time? That’s what we’re talking about in today’s post with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD. 

Dr. Keller will explain what Chronic Kidney Disease is, why it often goes unnoticed, and of course what we can do to prevent this slow demise of the kidneys.

Video Highlights

  • 01:10: What the Kidneys Do
  • 02:25: Why and How to Get Screened for Chronic Kidney Disease
  • 04:02: Symptoms of Advanced Kidney Disease
  • 05:06: Preventing Chronic Kidney Disease
  • 06:01: Risk Factors for Kidney Disease
  • 08:31: Wrap-up

What the Kidneys Do

Many of us may not even think about our kidneys, unless something happens to them — we get punched or run into something, we get an infection, or we see them harvested on TV. But, the kidneys are very important to our life. 

The kidneys are organs that sit in the upper abdomen, against the back, and they play a multitude of vital roles. The kidneys are responsible for things like: 

  • Monitoring and supporting ourblood pressure by managing fluids and electrolytes within the body.
  • Creating and activatingVitamin D, which is a very important hormone that helps improve our bone strength and get calcium where it needs to go. 
  • Releasing a hormone that helps stimulate the growth of red blood cells from the bone marrow. 
  • Most importantly, filtering all of the blood in our system that passes through them, and removing the toxins, the metabolic breakdown products of everything that we eat, drink, or take as a medicine, and excreting all of that toxic stuff as urine. 

Because the kidneys have so many vital functions, it’s very important to preserve their health to avoid some pretty serious issues. 

Why and How to Get Screened for Chronic Kidney Disease

Chronic Kidney Disease is insidious, which means that it doesn't necessarily manifest with any evident symptoms, at least at first. In fact, you can have a slow deterioration of your kidney function for years, without knowing it, and unfortunately that loss of function can be irreversible. For this reason, it's very important to get screened for CKD. 

When you go see your doctor, your usual routine blood tests that you should be getting every year will check your kidney function. They check your electrolytes, and check to see how well your kidneys are filtering your blood, which is their most important function. Your blood test can help your doctor get a good handle on whether they are performing as they should.

If, as a result of your blood test, the doctor notices that something seems off with your kidney function, then they can further evaluate it by doing some kind of ultrasound, or x-ray, or if the case seems to require it they may even do a biopsy.

 

Symptoms of Advanced Kidney Disease 

As we mentioned above, there are often no symptoms in the beginning but if the kidneys deteriorate too far, then once your kidney function has declined to a certain point, you will start noticing symptoms like: nausea, vomiting,fatigue, and changes in mental status andfocus, because toxins are starting to build up in the blood. Electrolytes start getting out of whack, so you might start to experience muscle cramping, or develop anirregular heart rate because some of the electrolytes are starting to mess with your heart rhythms. You might notice that you're not making as much urine, or that the urine color is getting darker, or changing. Fluid may start to accumulate in different areas, which can lead to things like chest pain, shortness of breath, and swelling. These are all the things that can happen as kidney disease gets more advanced. Obviously it’s much better to catch the problem long before you start experiencing those symptoms. 

Preventing Chronic Kidney Disease

There are two of the main reasons that Chronic Kidney Disease occurs, and both are completely preventable. These two primary causes are:high blood pressure anddiabetes

These two conditions, by far the most common causes of kidney disease, damage the blood vessels in the tiny little filtration packages of the kidneys called the “glomerular.” They basically attack the nerve supply and vascular supply of the kidneys. So, if you can keep your blood pressure andblood sugar under control, you're going to do a lot to preserve your kidney function. In fact, many, though not all, of the risk factors for kidney disease are completely controllable. 

Risk Factors for Kidney Disease

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar/diabetes
  • Vascular disease: this can be from vascular inflammation,high cholesterol,smoking, or obesity
  • Being African-American, or of American-Indian or American-Asian descent 
  • Family history
  • Age 

So, some of those, we don't have control over. You can't pick your race, you can't pick your age, and you can't pick your family history. However, you can control how you manage your blood pressure, your blood sugar, whether or not you smoke, and you can take steps tomaintain a healthy weight

Keeping an eye on these things is very important because preserving your kidney function is a matter of life or death. If your kidney function declines enough, and you're not taking care of it, you're going to start experiencing a host of issues including:

  • The fluid retention we mentioned
  • Higher risk for a heart attack or stroke, because that potassium is increasing in your blood, and your electrolytes are getting out of whack. 
  • Higher risk forfatal arrhythmias, which are like irregular heartbeats that can lead to death. 
  • Bones will become weaker because yourVitamin D levels aren't where they should be. 
  • You may developanemia because you're not getting the red blood cell production that you should be getting. 
  • Decreased sex drive because your vascular system isn't working properly and your hormones are out of balance, causing a libido crash. 
  • Deterioration of the nervous system, resulting inmental fog and cloudiness, or even forms ofdementia
  • Decreased immune function.

As you can see, it’s really important to preserve healthy kidney function by maintaining healthy blood pressure, healthy blood sugar, ahealthy diet,good physical activity, and getting annual screenings so that you aren’t experiencing a silent disease that you don’t notice until it’s too late.

If your kidney function declines significantly, eventually you need to have a machine handle your kidney function for you — a process known as dialysis. This involves being hooked to a machine for hours on end every other day, allowing it to take over the vital role that your kidneys are supposed to play.

Wrap-Up

We hope this has given you a good understanding of how important the kidneys are, and why we need to protect them. Do that by really getting an annual screening every year. Have your doctor check that important blood test, so they can see how well your kidneys are functioning. Additionally, take the vital steps you need to reduce the risk factors that are within your control: keep your blood pressure, blood sugar under, and cholesterol in check, avoid smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, and you're going to help preserve those kidneys throughout your life and help prevent the risk for some of those dangerous effects that low kidney function can have. 

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