Keeping your kidneys healthy

Dr Jack Galliford Consultant Nephrologist answers the most common questions about kidney health.

What are the best ways to keep my kidneys healthy?

Keep yourself generally healthy. Kidney disease is often a consequence of other medical conditions, and many of these relate to cardiac health and blood pressure. The most common cause of ill-health, and one that is entirely avoidable, is obesity and its consequences; particularly diabetes and high blood pressure. Eating a healthy diet that is rich in vegetables and fruit, but low in salt, limiting alcohol, not smoking and taking regular exercise will help to keep the kidneys healthy.

Are there certain foods that help with kidney function?

Much is written about anti-oxidants and ‘superfoods’ but there is little evidence to support their use and they are often expensive. Since diabetes can cause kidney disease, patients with diabetes (or a predisposition to it) should be especially careful about their diet. Salt and blood pressure are linked, so additional salt should be avoided, and substituting table salt with lo-salt can be dangerous if you are a kidney patient (as it replaces sodium with potassium).

I find it difficult to drink a lot per day as I hardly get thirsty. Is this really bad for my kidneys?

No. There is little evidence that drinking lots helps kidney health. After all, one purpose of the kidneys is to retain fluid (and salts) and to avoid dehydration. Thirst is a very powerful stimulus to consume liquid to ensure we do not cause ourselves harm by dehydration.

Does it matter if I drink only water each day, or does tea/coffee/juice do the same?

They are much the same. Be cautious about sugar containing drinks and the damage they can do to teeth as well as weight. Caffeinated drinks are likely to make you urinate more, as caffeine is a diuretic, so it’s best to avoid them in the evening as they can interfere with your sleep.

If you are exercising hard or for long periods (over 1 hour) then it may be better to drink low sugar isotonic drinks as these contain salts (lost in sweat) as well as water.

I often get lower back pain and am told ‘it’s your kidneys, you don’t drink enough’, is this true or a myth?

The kidneys sit a lot higher in the back than people generally think, so this symptom is likely to be a myth. That said, pain in the flanks at the back and under the ribs (about half way from neck to pelvis) could be the kidneys and may warrant investigation.

I have diabetes, am I more likely to develop kidney disease?

Diabetics do have an increased risk of developing kidney disease. The key to avoiding this complication is good diabetic control.

I have been a smoker for 20 years, can this affect my kidneys at all?

Yes, in several ways. Stopping smoking conveys huge health benefits, not least to the kidneys!

As well as cancer, smoking is associated with cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease, which leads to limb amputation. Kidney disease is often seen in patients with cardiovascular disease, either indirectly because of blood pressure effects, because of the drugs that are used, or the impact on cardiac function which can diminish blood flow from the heart to the kidneys. Smoking also affects the kidneys directly as it is associated with furring up of blood vessels. This can cause disease within the arteries supplying the kidneys.

This article was written by Dr Jack Galliford, Consultant Nephrologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital, and features in Healthetc., Bupa Cromwell Hospital's vibrant and engaging new health and well-being magazine.

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Keeping your kidneys healthy