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They’re the bean shaped organs that are as critical to your health as your heart and lungs, but don’t get half as much love. Aleney de Winter takes a deep dive into why our kidneys are so important and how we can better care for them.

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he urge to pee was frequent and relentless. I immediately chalked it up to a little cystitis and started sipping unsweetened cranberry juice, my mother’s UTI (urinary tract infection) go to remedy. It didn’t help. Instead, a painful, stinging sensation joined the party. So, I upped my game and began guzzling sachets of Ural. The symptoms swiftly disappeared, and I thought nothing of it again. That is until a day or so later when I started to get a constant, dull ache under my rib cage, which I put down to a combo of stress and muscular pain from some hefty lifting I'd been doing. Being young and metaphorically bullet proof, I decided to self-medicate, cracking open a bottle of red, and enjoying a few muscle-melting glasses.

The chills and sweat that started pouring off me soon after were harder to dismiss. Nor was the inexorable vomiting. The thermometer that clocked my 39- degree fever concurred: something wasn’t right and finally, around three days too late, I decided a trip to the GP was in order.  

My delay in seeing treatment meant that my little UTI had progressed to a full-blown kidney infection and left to fester much longer could have led to life threatening sepsis and permanent damage to my kidneys. Instead, it led me to a several day vacay in the local hospital and a steady flow of lovely antibiotic cocktails via an IV.  

Lesson learned. UTIs are not to be taken lightly. I wasn’t bullet proof. And I needed to take better care of my kidneys instead of marinating them in wine… unless I planned to serve them with steak in a pie. 

What do our kidneys do? 

In ancient times our kidneys took on a mythological role. To the Ancient Egypt they were the only organs, other than the heart (which was believed by the Ancient Egyptians to be the person’s centre of thought and memory) preserved with the body during mummification. In Ancient Greece the kidneys held such religious significance they were used as a sacrificial offering to their gods. Similarly, in the Old Testament, the kidneys were a metaphorical seat of feelings and conscience and are mentioned on numerous occasions in the Bible as the organs by which God would judge an individual’s morals and ethics.  Fascinating though it is that these separate cultures placed such value on the bean shaped organ, there was minimal recognition of their true function and importance. 

Flash forward to 2022 and 2000 years of advances in medicine means we have science-backed knowledge of how just how vital healthy kidneys are to our overall wellbeing, and how little they have to do with our ethics and personality. Which is a relief, given how poorly I’ve treated my own. 

As important to our survival as the heart and liver, the kidneys are your body’s filtration system. The twin bean-shaped organs, each around the size of a fist, are located below your ribs on either side of your spine. But their job is not only to clean and remove waste, impurities and extra water from the blood (which turns into urine and collects in the bladder until we need to pee), but also to aid in keeping the whole body in balance, which is known as renal function. 

Why are the kidneys so important? 

Healthy kidneys are extremely hard workers, filtering around 120ml of blood every minute, to remove toxic waste and water. The waste is stored in your bladder and later expelled when we pee. The cleansed blood flows back into the body through the renal arteries. Your kidneys also are responsible for your regulating pH, potassium and salt and produce the hormone erythropoietin, a hormone that is vital for the production of red blood cells. They also activate vitamin D, which is required to help your body absorb calcium and maintaining strong bones as we age.  

When the kidneys do not function correctly, wastes and fluids build up inside the body. Simply put, we can’t live without them, though the body can function normally with just one. 

Kidney infection 

Kidney infections can be sudden or chronic. They usually occur due to bacteria getting into the urethra – the tube that carries urine out of your body – and travel up to your bladder and into your kidney. Other less common causes of kidney infection are bladder or kidney surgery, a kidney stone or tumour in your urinary tract or a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body that spreads through to the kidneys via the bloodstream. 

Though a kidney infection can make you feel very unwell, treated quickly with antibiotics it won’t lead to serious harm. However, left untreated it can cause permanent kidney damage.  

Signs and symptoms of a kidney infection can include fever, chills, abdominal side and groin pain, frequent urination, a persistent urge to urinate, pain when urinating, nausea and vomiting. 

Kidney disease  

An estimated 1.7 million Australian adults show biomedical signs of chronic kidney disease (CKD) but as many as 1.5 million are not even aware they have the condition as you can lose as much as 90 per cent of kidney function without experiencing visible symptoms. 63 people on average dying with kidney disease per day. CKD is the term for a gradual loss of kidney function, which left untreated can cause it to stop effectively filtering your blood and allow fluid, electrolyte and waste to build up to dangerous levels.  

A third of Australians have conditions that increase the risk of kidney disease. These conditions include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, previous stroke and a family history of kidney disease or kidney failure. Smoking, increasing age and obesity are also risk factors. Ensuring the disease is detected early is the best way for patients to receive adequate treatment. The best path to early detection, especially if you have any associated conditions, is to have a Kidney Health Check with your GP. 

Signs and symptoms of kidney disease include fatigue, itchy and dry skin, frequent urination, blood in the urine, frothy urine, puffy eyes, swollen extremities, and frequent muscle cramps.  

Kidney Stone 

Kidney stones are hard deposits of minerals and acid that develop in the urine. Between four and eight per cent of Australians will experience kidney stones during their lifetime.  The stones can vary in size from a millimetre to the size of a golf ball. Though they are extremely painful as they pass through the urinary tract, kidney stones rarely cause permanent damage. Treatment for kidney stones ranges from drinking lots of water to help pass the stone to medical intervention to remove or break up large stones. 

Signs and symptoms of kidney stones include severe abdominal pain, fever, chills nausea, vomiting, cloudy or foul-smelling urine, and blood in the urine. 

Your kidneys & COVID-19 

As well as affecting the lungs, COVID-19 can also cause serious, long-term harm to other organs, including the kidneys. The virus has led to signs of kidney damage, even in patients with no underlying kidney problems before infection. A study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology indicated that people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, even with mild and moderate cases, are at greater risk of developing kidney disease. 

So how do we keep our kidneys healthy? 

  1. Stay hydrated but don’t overdo it as it won’t help your kidneys do their job any better.
  2. Maintain a healthy body weight as this can assist in reducing blood pressure, preventing diabetes and heart disease as well as other conditions associated with CKD.
  3. Eat less salt. Stick to the recommended intake of 5-6 grams of salt per day by limiting the amount of processed food and don’t add salt to your meals.
  4. Be active. Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight. Just ensure you build your fitness gradually and don’t overdo it.
  5. Don’t smoke. Period.
  6. Limit your alcohol intake.
  7. Have your blood pressure checked regularly as High blood pressure can increase your risk of kidney and heart problems.
  8. Don’t overuse over the counter medications like ibuprofen. While they don’t pose a risk for occasional pain management, sustained usage can lead to kidney damage.
  9. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease it is sensible to undertake regular kidney function screening.

This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.

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