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  • Natalia. Integrative and Functional Medicine Nutritionist

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING KIND TO YOUR KIDNEYS

Why taking care of your kidneys through food and lifestyle

The kidneys’ role in our health is easy to overlook, but make no mistake. The kidneys are the filter that cleans our body from toxins and waste, while returning all the beneficial substances like amino acids, glucose and hormones into the bloodstream. They not only cleanse the body and maintain the balance of salts, minerals and water, they are also a powerful chemical factory, producing hormones that play a vital role in our health. That’s why having healthy kidneys is key for a good quality of life.


When does kidney disease occur?

Kidney health declines when they lose their ability to filter out the waste and excess fluid from the blood. This can lead to accumulation of fluids, minerals, salts and waste to dangerous levels. Kidney disease involves a gradual loss of kidney function and might not be detected until it is in the advanced stages.


Around 37 millions of Americans live with Chronic Kidney Disease, meaning that the damage to the kidneys gets worse with time, and might lead to kidney failure or end-stage renal disease. These conditions require a transplant or dialysis to keep the patient’s body working. Luckily it doesn’t have to come to this! Some of the highest risk factors for kidney disease such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can be managed or treated with changes in food and lifestyle, and with the help of your health professional.


Risk factors for kidney disease:

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Smoking

  • Obesity

  • Abnormal kidney structure

  • Older age

  • Frequent use of medications


In this article, I will go over some of the most common kidney conditions and factors that impact kidney health. Please be sure to get your blood work done periodically as your doctor might be able to spot kidney problems from your lab test results. As a nutritionist I will focus on how to treat these issues with food and lifestyle changes but always consult a professional if you are feeling symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, weakness, nausea, inflammation, irregular urine patterns, muscle cramps, high blood pressure or fluid retention.


These factors and conditions include:


Kidney Stones

They are present in approximately 13% of the population but there is evidence that the incidence in the USA is increasing. Research suggests that diet and lifestyle factors (along with some hereditary components) are the main or sole contributors for kidney stones. The main culprits seem to be the excessive intake of non-dairy animal products, high sodium intake, low calcium intake, low hydration, food high in oxalates, bowel disease, sedentary lifestyle, history of urinary tract infections, obesity and gout.


How to treat it with food and lifestyle? Some studies suggest that a diet with moderate levels of calcium, low salt and low in animal protein provide the best protection against kidney stones.


Oxalates

Oxalates are organic acids derived from diet, fungal overgrowth and human metabolism. It’s the most organic acid in body fluids and is used commercially to remove rust from car radiators.

Foods especially high in oxalates are often foods thought of as healthy, such as spinach, arugula, kale, beets, chocolate, peanuts, wheat bran, tea, cashews, pecans, almonds, berries, soy products and many others. When these foods are combined with a diet high in calcium, they combine into a form of oxalate crystals that can’t be absorbed into the body and must be filtered by the kidneys where they might block urine flow and cause severe pain and damage the tissue due to their sharp structure.


Oxalates can be especially harmful to people with previous episodes of kidney stones or kidney disease, and individuals with genetic conditions that cause the presence of high amounts of oxalates in their body. An Organic Acids Test can evaluate the levels of oxalates in urine to confirm their presence in the body.


How to treat it with food and lifestyle? Take into account that a daily adult oxalate intake is usually 80-120 mg/d, so a green smoothie loaded with leafy greens and berries might contain up to 1,500mg of oxalates. So the first step is to implement an oxalate-low diet and test for possible fungal overgrowth, such as Candidiasis, that might be causing high oxalates. After a careful evaluation, a professional might also recommend supplements such as magnesium.


Acidic Diet

The body produces acids naturally from processes such as digestion and metabolism. But some diet patterns create extra acid, which must be dealt with by the kidneys. While some nutrients produce acid, others produce base - the opposite of acid - therefore what we eat can determine the load of acid the kidney must filter out.


The amount of acid coming from diet is important because with Chronic Kidney Disease, the kidneys can’t get rid of this extra acid causing it to build up in the bloodstream with several side effects, a condition called “acidosis”. Acidiosis can cause weak bones leading to osteoporosis, muscle loss, exacerbate heart disease, fatigue, headache, taste changes and lack of appetite, and can aggravate and accelerate kidney disease.


How to treat it with food and lifestyle? Some foods can increase the acid levels while others can get rid of extra acid. Therefore it’s important to reduce the acid producing kind, such as animal proteins, while including more base foods, such as vegetables and plant-based proteins. It’s important to point out that foods that are acidic are not the same as acid producing foods! For example, an orange or a tomato are acidic and might not be good for people with heartburn, but these acids are neutralized during digestion and do not produce acids during metabolism.


High acid foods include beef, chicken, lamb, fish, seafood, and cheddar cheese. Base producing foods include black beans, lentils, walnuts, low-fat yogurt, and all fruits and vegetables. So it is important to eat the right kind of proteins in the proper amount, while including as many base producing foods into the diet.


High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

It’s a condition where the pressure of the blood flowing through the blood vessels is consistently high. This increases the workload of the heart and blood vessels, which makes them work more and be less efficient. With time, the pressure might also damage the artery tissues, raising blood pressure even more and leading to conditions like a heart attack and stroke. Almost half of American adults have high blood pressure, and many don’t even know they have it.


How to treat it with food and lifestyle? There are specific meal plans aimed at treating hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Managing blood pressure is a life-long commitment, so the best prevention are periodical check ups and impactful lifestyle changes such as limiting the amount of salt and alcohol intake, and eating foods high in potassium and magnesium - such as salmon, carrots and citrus fruits - that can reduce blood pressure levels.


What can you do to keep your kidneys healthy?


1. Eat the right foods

Eat clean and whole foods. A kidney health diet includes a lot of fruits and vegetables as the kidneys require at least 5 servings per day. Studies show that the best diets for kidney health are plant-based diets, modified Mediterranean diets and DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension)


These dietary approaches work because they aid mineral balance, as they are naturally Low in sodium unless one adds a bunch of it, so keep salt to a minimum both when cooking and at the table. They also contain a high level of vitamins and minerals, and are low in fat.

2. Drink enough water

Another key factor is hydration, kidneys need plenty of water to work properly. It’s better to drink filtered water to eliminate excessive minerals. Hydrate throughout the day to avoid triggering your peeing mechanism. Your urine should be straw-coloured, if the color is darker it might be a sign of dehydration.


3. Avoid alcohol and cigarettes

Try not to smoke and limit the amount of alcohol you drink a week. Smoking and drinking can elevate blood pressure, which is one of the main causes of kidney disease. That is why it’s also key to check your blood pressure periodically, as high blood pressure presents no symptoms.


4. Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight increases blood pressure which impacts the kidneys. A healthy lifestyle and a sustainable meal plan will help to achieve a long term healthy weight, and make sure to incorporate some exercise into your weekly routine.


Remember that prevention is key! Kidney disease advances gradually and it is important to prevent it from appearing in the first place, or control it once it has settled in. Making the right food and lifestyle choices such as the right diet, routine physical activity, stress management, limiting alcohol intake and treating diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, are your best allies against chronic kidney disease.


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