Your Guide to Healthy Kidneys
Most people are born with healthy kidney function, that help to keep our internal system balanced and us fit and healthy. The kidneys are located in the lower back beneath the ribs, they are only small, especially when compared to the much larger lungs above them.
The role of the kidneys is to clean the blood and filter out toxins, waste, and excess vitamins and minerals, flushing them out of the body in the form of urine.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Kidneys
When the kidneys are working properly, they’ll be cleaning around 90ml of blood per minute (1) on average — usually a little more. The amount of blood filtered per minute is known at the glomerular filtration rate, or GFR. When the GFR rate drops, and the kidneys are cleaning less blood per minute than normal, this is an early warning sign of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), which can greatly affect quality of life.
If the kidneys are cleaning between 60-89ml of blood per minute, this is considered to be Stage 2 renal failure. Stage 3 is considered to be between 30-59ml per minute, and stage 4 is 15-29ml per minute. Anything less than 15ml per minute is categorised as being established renal failure, requiring dialysis. Kidney failure is actually much more common than many people realise. In fact, it’s estimated that there are around 3 million people in the UK in the stages of renal failure (2), although many may not realise it.
Symptoms of Renal Failure
In the very early stages of kidney failure, GFR can often still be as high as 90ml per minute, which makes it quite a difficult condition to diagnose. That’s why doctors often look for other symptoms of kidney failure (3), such as swelling, shortness of breath, and itching, and may conduct a blood or urine test, too.
In many cases, renal failure is caused by problems with the blood vessels that can put strain on the kidneys, such as high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, for example. Other times, the condition can be caused by blockages (4), such as kidney stones, or cysts and growths that may develop in the organs.
The good news is that less than 1 in 10 people require dialysis (5), and that’s because there are a wide range of treatment options that can help to improve kidney function. Although there are currently no specific medications that target kidney disease, there has been proven success with diet and lifestyle changes.
If your doctor suspects that there is a problem with your kidneys, you may be advised to follow a low salt (sodium), and low potassium diet. High levels of salt can increase the amount of protein in the blood, making the kidneys work harder and speeding up organ deterioration (6). Similarly, if the kidneys aren’t working properly, they’ll be unable to filter out excess potassium that the body doesn’t need, causing potassium levels to spike. If potassium levels rise to more than 3.5-5.0 mmol/litre, this is known as hyperkalemia (7), and may lead to a number of adverse effects, including generalised muscle weakness.
As well as cutting down on salt and potassium, there may also be a few other natural treatment options to manage the symptoms of kidney failure, and reduce the risk of developing the disease. One of these treatment options is dietary supplements, many of which have shown to be hugely beneficial.
While magnesium doesn’t specifically target kidney failure, what it can do is help to reduce the risk of one of the most dangerous side effects of CKD; heart disease. Magnesium is an essential mineral for preventing calcification of the arteries (8), but kidney failure can actually cause a significant decline in magnesium levels in the body. When the kidneys aren’t able to filter out excess magnesium, the body compensates by minimising magnesium absorption. Sometimes, this results in CKD patients actually having lower magnesium levels (9) than their healthier counterparts, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Vitamin B6, also known as Pyridoxine, could hold the key to reducing the risk of developing kidney disease by minimising blockages that could put extra pressure on the organs. What it all comes down to is oxalates, which are natural substances that, in some cases, may cause crystal-like masses to form in the body, called ‘kidney stones’. Research shows that Vitamin B6 may decrease production of oxalates in the body, reducing the risk of kidney stones (10). The NHS recommends that women should be aiming for around 1.2mg of Vitamin B6 per day (11) and men should be aiming for slightly more; around 1.4mg per day.
Another potential method for preventing the formation of kidney stones is to take aloe vera supplements. Research shows that, like Vitamin B6, aloe vera extract (taken from the leaves of the plant) can help to reduce oxalate production (12), minimising the risk of developing kidney stones. While aloe vera is somewhat of a new, ‘alternative’ form of treatment here in the UK, it’s actually been used to treat kidney disease, and other kidney-related conditions, for many years in Tanzania, Eastern Africa. In fact, it’s one of five major plant-based medicines (13) used to treat non-communicable diseases in the nation.
People suffering from renal failure often also display high levels of oxidative stress; harmful reactions caused by ‘free radicals’ that can damage the body. Antioxidants are one of the most efficient and effective ways to counterbalance these free radicals, and while fresh fruits and vegetables are often recommended, studies actually show that the antioxidant effect of chlorella is much stronger than various vegetables (14). Chlorella is a form of green algae, high in protein, fibre, and carbohydrates. Antioxidants have shown to be particularly beneficial in those suffering from late stage renal failure (15).
Natural Ways to Boost Kidney Function
As there are no safe and effective medicines for treating renal failure, more and more effort is being put into educating people about natural ways to help lower the risk of developing the disease, minimise side effects of early stage CKD, and slow down progression, with the aim of preventing patients from entering Stage 5 of the disease. Although more research needs to be carried about about the effects of dietary changes on kidney status, what we do know is that there are a number of vitamins and minerals that have the potential to reduce the need for dialysis, and help people to live longer, happier, and fuller lives.
- Stages of Kidney Disease, Kidney Research UK https://www.kidneyresearchuk.org/health-information/stages-of-kidney-disease
- Kidney Health Check, Kidney Research UK https://www.kidneyresearchuk.org/health-information/kidney-health-check
- Symptoms of Chronic Kidney Disease, NHS Choices
- Causes of CKD, NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Kidney-disease-chronic/Pages/Introduction.aspx#causes
- Medical Information from the NKF - Chronic Kidney Disease, Kidney Patients UK
- Salt and the Kidneys, World Action on Salt and Health http://www.worldactiononsalt.com/salthealth/factsheets/kidney/
- Factsheet: Potassium, Kidney Patients UK http://www.kidney.org.uk/help-and-info/medical-information-from-the-nkf-/medical-info-factsheets-potassium/
- Hruby, A et al., Magnesium intake is inversely associated with coronary artery calcification: the Framingham Heart Study, JACC. Cardiovascular Imaging, Jan 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24290571
- Mountokalakis, TD, Magnesium metabolism in chronic renal failure, Magnesium Research, June 1990
- Curhan, GC et al., Intake of vitamins B6 and C and the risk of kidney stones in women, Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, April 1999
- Vitamins and Minerals: B Vitamins and Folic Acid, NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-B.aspx#B6
- Kirdpon, S et al., Effect of aloe (Aloe vera Linn.) on healthy adult volunteers: changes in urinary composition, Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, August 2006 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17044448
- Stanifer, JW et al., Traditional medicine practices among community members with chronic kidney disease in northern Tanzania: an ethnomedical survey, BMC Nephrology, October 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26499070
- Shibata, S et al., Antioxidant and anti-cataract effects of Chlorella on rats with streptozotocin-induced diabetes, Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, October 2003 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14703308
- Jun, M et al., Antioxidants for chronic kidney disease, The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, October 2012