How Important are the Kidneys?

How Important are the Kidneys? | Dr. Ali Ghahary

The kidneys – two bean-shaped organs that are located in the renal system – come with a wide range of important responsibilities and vital functions, including removing waste products from the body by passing urine, balancing the body’s fluids, releasing hormones that help regulate blood pressure, control the production of red blood cells, as well as promote strong and healthy bones through the production of vitamin D. However, when the kidneys don’t function as they should, this can cause them to develop significant damage could and lead to kidney disease.

Diagnosing kidney disease can sometimes be difficult as it is often silent – meaning that much of your kidney function will be destroyed before symptoms are even noticed, and by this stage your kidneys may already be failing. Symptoms that are commonly associated with kidney failure can include everything from swelling of the legs and ankles (due to fluid retention), decreased urination, and even things like pain or pressure in the chest, shortness of breath, drowsiness and confusion. There are also many risk factors associated with kidney failure. For example, certain diseases and conditions can limit blood flow to the kidneys, including heart disease, heart attack, severe burns, dehydration, and liver failure. You are also at an increased risk of developing kidney failure if you have urinary elimination problems (sometimes caused by cancers that block the urine passageways, such as prostate cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer and bladder cancer), kidney stones, blood clots in or around the kidneys, lupus, and even chemotherapy drugs. Of course these are just some of a long list of things that have been known to be linked to kidney failure.

When it comes to diagnosing kidney disease, early detection is key, and there are two main types of tests that can be done: A blood test or urinalysis. A blood test will be administered to measure your serum creatinine level. Creatine is a waste product that is made from the use of your muscles and the breakdown of the protein you consume, and your levels will indicate how well your kidneys are able to filter your blood. If your levels are not where they need to be, this means that your kidneys are not able to remove that waste from your blood as well as they would be if they were functioning normally. During a urinalysis, your urine will be tested to look for both blood as well as a protein known as albumin. Normally, the kidneys do not allow this protein into the urine. This means that if albumin is detected in the urine, it is an indicator that your kidneys are damaged – and the higher the level of albumin that is detected in your urine, the greater your risk is of losing kidney function. In some cases, your doctor may also order other tests such as x-rays or a kidney biopsy, which is usually done to help diagnose the type of kidney disease the patient has and to determine the appropriate course of treatment.

It is also important that we take steps to prevent kidney disease, and there are many simple ways to do this. For example, have your blood pressure checked regularly. If your blood pressure is high and uncontrolled, this could speed up the process of underlying kidney disease. You don’t necessarily need to see your physician to check your blood pressure, either. Many pharmacies have blood pressure machines that customers can use while in-store, or you can purchase a blood pressure machine for your own personal use. It’s also not uncommon for individuals with diabetes to develop kidney disease, so you should make sure that your diabetes is under control. Certain medications, especially painkillers, are also linked to kidney disease, so always speak with your physician about what you are taking and weight the risks vs. the benefits.

When it comes to treating kidney disease, there are many different options available. In the early stages, you may be able to manage kidney disease through making some fairly minor changes with your diet. For example, you should increase your protein intake as well as your intake of high-energy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Other high-energy foods include things like starches, sugar and carbs – though if you are a diabetic or have other underlying health conditions, then these are foods that you should typically avoid – or, at the very least, seek guidance from a dietitian or nutritionist. While potassium is required for our muscle and nerve function, too much of it can be dangerous to the kidneys, so you may need to adjust your intake, as well as control your intake of sodium (i.e. salt.) Phosphorus is another mineral that you should limit. While is it great for keeping our bones strong and healthy, your phosphate level will rise when your kidneys start to fail, and too much can cause everything from itchy skin to painful joints. Dialysis is also another common treatment method as the kidneys begin to lose their ability to function and cause things like fluid, electrolytes and waste products to build-up in the blood – and, finally, kidney transplantation, which is considered to be one of the best ways to treat chronic kidney disease and give you the best chance of being able to return to a normal life. Of course, kidney transplants are not meant for everyone, and whether or not you would make a good candidate is determined on several factors, such as your general health, weight, if there is any history of heart disease, blood circulation problems or cancer, if you are able to follow post-operative treatment, as well as if there are any emotional or psychological factors.

To learn more about how the kidneys work and what you can do if you have been diagnosed with kidney disease, visit the Kidney Foundation of Canada website at kidney.ca.