James LaVelle Dickens, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP
Captain, U.S. Pubic Health Service Commissioned Corps
When asked to rattle off the most important organs in the human body, many people overlook the kidneys. These organs are vital to your health, and what you don’t know about their function and more specifically how to take care of them, can lead to significant health problems.
While lesser known workhorses than, say, the heart, brain and lungs, your kidneys work tirelessly to process 200 quarts of blood every day, separating the good stuff from the bad and extracting roughly two quarts of waste and water. Every 30 minutes, your kidneys filter every drop of blood in your body and in the process, control fluid levels and produce hormones that stimulate red blood cell production and regulate blood pressure. Impressive, right?
Still, even though they perform vital human function, kidneys tend to be overworked and underappreciated. As a result, the prevalence of kidney disease is on the rise, and today, one out of every seven people suffers from the condition. Even more alarmingly, 90 percent of them have no idea they have it.
Better kidney awareness is especially important for African Americans, who face an increased risk of kidney disease, not because our kidneys function any differently, but because we are more inclined to develop diabetes – the leading cause of kidney disease. Other risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even age can also trigger kidney problems.
If you haven’t given your kidneys much thought, it’s not too late to give them some well-deserved attention. Here are six easy steps to boost your kidney health today.
Get tested. A quick blood or urine test can tell you if your kidneys are working properly. If you have one or several risk factors, visit your provider to set up a plan to monitor your kidney health and detect problems early, when they are more treatable.
Stay hydrated. Water helps the kidneys remove waste from your blood, and dehydration makes their job a lot harder. Don’t focus on eight glasses – a better gauge is drinking enough so your urine is light yellow or colorless.
Feed your kidneys well. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and nuts to help control diabetes and high blood pressure, and your kidneys will eat it up.
Move it. Like a good diet, exercise helps to ward off diabetes and high blood pressure, which in turn decreases your risk for kidney disease. Rigorous workouts are good, but activities like gardening and household chores also count, so take your pick.
Butt out. Not only does smoking slow blood flow to the kidneys, potentially making kidney disease worse, but it also can affect medicines used to manage high blood pressure, leaving it uncontrolled and more likely to develop into kidney disease.
Make it a Shirley Temple. Your kidneys filter harmful substances from your blood, including alcohol. Too much can overwork your kidneys and deliver a taxing one-two punch, changing kidney function so it is less efficient and dehydrating your system so your kidneys must work that much harder. Alcohol can also cause high blood pressure and interfere with blood pressure medicines, increasing your chances of developing kidney disease.
Your kidneys may be small, but they are mighty, and they deserve more respect. The National Kidney Foundation calls kidney disease the under-recognized public health crisis, and there is likely more we can all do to prevent life-threatening damage. Following these simple strategies will go a long way in protecting your remarkable kidneys, and keep you healthy in the process.