Medically reviewed by Megan Soliman, MD — By Laura Goldman
Kidneys perform vital functions like removing waste products from your blood and producing hormones that regulate your blood pressure. Maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle may help prevent kidney problems.
Your kidneys are fist-sized organs located at the bottom of your rib cage, on both sides of your spine. They perform several functions.
Most importantly, they filter waste products, excess water, and other impurities from your blood. These waste products are stored in your bladder and later expelled through urine.
In addition, your kidneys regulate pH, salt, and potassium levels in your body. They also produce hormones that regulate blood pressure and control the production of red blood cells.
Your kidneys are also responsible for activating a form of vitamin D that helps your body absorb calcium for building bones and regulating muscle function.
Maintaining kidney health is important to your overall health and general well-being. By keeping your kidneys healthy, your body will filter and expel waste properly and produce hormones to help your body function properly.
When things go wrong
More than 1 in 7 adults in the United States show evidence of chronic kidney disease. Some forms of kidney disease are progressive, meaning the disease gets worse over time. When your kidneys can no longer remove waste from blood, they fail.
Waste buildup in your body can cause serious problems and lead to death. To remedy this, your blood would have to be filtered artificially through dialysis, or you would need a kidney transplant.
Types of kidney disease
Chronic kidney disease - The most common form of kidney disease is chronic kidney disease. A major cause of chronic kidney disease is high blood pressure.
Your kidneys are constantly processing your body’s blood. They remove toxins, wastes, and extra water from about half a cup of blood each minute.
High blood pressure is dangerous for your kidneys because it can lead to increased pressure on the glomeruli, the functional units of your kidney. In time, this high pressure compromises the filtering apparatus of your kidneys and their functioning declines.
Eventually, kidney function will deteriorate to the point where they can no longer properly perform their job, and you’ll have to go on dialysis.
Dialysis filters fluid and wastes out of your blood. Depending on the situation, dialysis, especially peritoneal dialysis, may be effective long term. Although the average life expectancy for people on dialysis is 5 to 10 years, many people have lived for 20 to 30 years.
Eventually, you may need a kidney transplant, but it depends on your particular circumstance.
Diabetes is another major cause of chronic kidney disease. Over time, uncontrolled blood sugar levels will damage the functional units of your kidney, also leading to kidney failure.
Kidney stones - Another common kidney problem is kidney stones. Minerals and other substances in your blood may crystallize in the kidneys, forming solid particles, or stones, that usually pass out of your body in urine.
Passing kidney stones can be extremely painful, but rarely causes significant problems.
While kidney stones as a risk factor for chronic kidney disease is minimal, they may frequently lead to acute kidney injury (AKI), also known as acute kidney failure, especially if kidney stones are accompanied by dehydration or infection.
Glomerulonephritis - Glomerulonephritis is an inflammation of the glomeruli, microscopic structures inside your kidneys that perform the filtration of blood. Glomerulonephritis can be caused by infections, drugs, congenital abnormalities, and autoimmune diseases.
This condition may get better on its own or require immunosuppressive medications.
Polycystic kidney disease - Individual kidney cysts are fairly common and usually harmless, but polycystic kidney disease is a separate, more serious condition.
Polycystic kidney disease is a genetic disorder that causes many cysts, round sacs of fluid, to grow inside and on the surfaces of your kidneys, interfering with kidney function.
Urinary tract infections - Urinary tract infections are bacterial infections of any of the parts of your urinary system. Infections in the bladder and urethra are most common. They’re generally easily treatable and have few, if any, long-term consequences.
However, if left untreated, these infections can spread to the kidneys and lead to kidney failure.
What you can do to improve kidney health
Your kidneys are vital to your overall health. These organs are responsible for many functions, from processing body waste to making hormones. That’s why taking care of your kidneys should be a top health priority.
Here are some tips to help keep your kidneys healthy.
1. Keep active and fit
Regular exercise is good for more than just your waistline. It can lower the risk of chronic kidney disease. It can also reduce your blood pressure and boost your heart health, which are both important for preventing kidney damage.
You don’t have to run marathons to reap the reward of exercise. Walking, running, cycling, and even dancing are great for your health. Find an activity that keeps you busy and have fun. It’ll be easier to stick to it and have great results.
2. Manage your blood sugar
People with diabetes, or a condition that causes high blood sugar, may develop kidney damage. When your body’s cells can’t use the glucose (sugar) in your blood, your kidneys are forced to work extra hard to filter your blood. Over years of exertion, this can lead to life threatening damage.
3. Monitor blood pressure
High blood pressure can cause kidney damage. If high blood pressure occurs with other health issues like diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol, the impact on your body can be significant.
A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80. Prehypertension is between that point and 139/89. Lifestyle and dietary changes may help lower your blood pressure at this point.
If your blood pressure readings are consistently above 140/90, you may have high blood pressure. You should talk with a doctor about monitoring your blood pressure regularly, making changes to your lifestyle, and possibly taking medication.
4. Monitor weight and eat a balanced diet
People who are overweight or have obesity are at risk for a number of health conditions that can damage the kidneys. These include diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.
A balanced diet that’s low in sodium, processed meats, and other kidney-damaging foods may help reduce the risk of kidney damage. Focus on eating fresh ingredients that are naturally low in sodium, such as cauliflower, blueberries, fish, whole grains, and more.
5. Drink plenty of fluids
There’s no magic behind the cliché advice to drink eight glasses of water a day, but it’s a good goal precisely because it encourages you to stay hydrated. Regular, consistent water intake is healthy for your kidneys.
Water helps clear sodium and toxins from your kidneys. It also lowers your risk of chronic kidney disease.
Aim for at least 1.5 to 2 liters in a day. Exactly how much water you need depends largely on your health and lifestyle. Factors like climate, exercise, gender, overall health, and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding are important to consider when planning your daily water intake.
6. Don’t smoke
Smoking damages your body’s blood vessels. This leads to slower blood flow throughout your body and to your kidneys.
Smoking also puts your kidneys at an increased risk for cancer. If you smoke and stop smoking, your risk will drop. However, it’ll take many years to return to the risk level of a person who’s never smoked.
7. Be aware of the amount of OTC pills you take
If you regularly take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, you may be causing kidney damage. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and naproxen, can damage your kidneys if you take them regularly for chronic pain, headaches, or arthritis.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, these medications should not be taken for more than ten days for pain, or more than three days for fever. Regularly taking more than eight aspirin tablets each day may reduce your kidney function temporarily or permanently.
People with no kidney issues who take the medicine occasionally are likely in the clear. However, if you use these medicines daily, you could be risking your kidneys’ health. Talk with a doctor about kidney-safe treatments if you’re coping with pain.
8. Have your kidney function tested if you’re at high risk
If you’re at high risk of kidney damage or kidney disease, it’s a good idea to have regular kidney function tests. The following people may benefit from regular screening:
- • Who are over 60 years old
- • Who were born at a low birth weight
- • Who have cardiovascular disease or have family members with it
- • Who have or have a family history of high blood pressure
- • Who have obesity
- • Who believe they may have kidney damage
A regular kidney function test is a great way to know your kidney’s health and to check for possible changes. Getting ahead of any damage can help slow or prevent future damage.