Your kidneys might be small but they are mighty when it comes to the number of functions they carry out on a daily basis.

In honour of National Kidney Month, LetsGetChecked want to give you the most insightful kidney facts.

In this article, we will cover kidney function, why it’s important to be aware of family history and some interesting kidney facts.

In particular, we want to focus on kidney disease, which is also known as chronic kidney disease (CKD). CKD is a condition that doesn't receive much press and is often misunderstood due to the fact that the symptoms are so subtle.

In most cases, kidney disease is known as chronic kidney disease because of the very slow and chronic nature of the signs and symptoms.


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Kidney Facts: Where Are Your Kidneys?


Let's start by talking about where the kidneys are to get a sense of how they fit into the urinary system. Your kidneys sit in the upper abdominal area, just below the ribs. The kidneys are two bean shaped glands, your left and right kidney are pressed against the back muscle.

Both kidney glands are about the size of a clenched fist. The kidneys make up part of the urinary/renal system alongside the ureters and bladder.

Urine flows from the kidneys to the bladder through two thin tubes called the ureters, one of which exists on each side of the bladder. Your bladder stores urine following the filtration processes of the kidneys.

The kidneys produce urine by filtering waste and extra water from the blood.

where-are-your-kidneys-located-illustration-kidney-facts


Kidney Facts: What Do Your Kidneys Do?


You might think that the kidneys are simply in charge of functions related to urination, but there's more! The kidneys play a vital role in a number of functions.

The reason that people who are living with kidney disease often don't realize is because the kidneys are always working overtime to ensure that they are carrying out their functions quickly and efficiently. You can donate one kidney and still be perfectly healthy in most cases.

You may be living with kidney damage however the glands will continue to do enough work to keep you feeling well until further down the line, when symptoms become apparent.

For the majority of people, the only way to know if they have kidney disease is to take a kidney function test.


So, What Do Your Kidneys Do?


Removes waste products from the blood

After the body uses food for energy and self-repair, waste is sent to the blood to be processed by the kidneys. The most common by-products of the metabolism include urea and creatinine. The kidneys filter half a cup of blood per minute.

To simplify the above, waste and toxins enter the kidneys and the kidneys then excrete vitamins, amino acids, glucose and hormones back into the bloodstream.

Balances the body's water-salt balance
Your kidneys maintain a healthy balance of water, salts and minerals such as sodium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium in the blood. Each and every cell in the body is surrounded by a fluid called extracellular fluid that needs to be stable for cells to carry out their functions correctly.

The salt-water balance is maintained by a number of hormones and signals that are sent to the brain to stimulate a feeling of thirst in humans.

Excess salts and minerals are excreted through a concentrated and smaller volume of urine. During periods of dehydration, the body also soaks up as much water as it can from surrounding tissues to maintain a balance in extracellular fluids. At this point, humans are compelled to drink more water and this cycle will ultimately bring back a healthy salt-water balance.

Controls the production of red blood cells

The kidneys produce a hormone called erythropoietin which is released in response to a decreasing number of red blood cells. Erythropoietin acts on bone marrow to increase the production of red blood cells through heightening the capacity of oxygen to carry red blood cells in the blood.

Regulates blood pressure

The kidneys excrete a hormone called renin which is used to maintain healthy blood pressure. Renin works to maintain normal blood pressure by constricting blood vessels when the kidneys receive a signal that blood pressure is dropping. This leads to an increase in blood pressure.

If the body is producing too much renin, this can lead to high blood pressure. Conversely, if the you have high blood pressure, you are more likely to live with kidney disease.

For more insight into the functions of the kidney, read "Should You Take A Kidney Function Test?"


Kidney Facts: What Are The Causes Of Kidney Disease?


Kidney disease or CKD is described as a condition in which your kidneys cannot filter the blood the way they should.

This prevents your kidneys from filtering wastes and excess fluids from your blood, which are then normally excreted in your urine. At an advanced stage of kidney disease, dangerous levels of fluid, electrolytes and wastes can build up in your body. High levels of urea, creatinine and a low eGFR (Glomerular filtration rate) can indicate acute or chronic kidney disease.

As mentioned, kidney disease is often known as CKD because developing kidney disease is such a slow and subtle process.

Some of the most common causes of kidney disease include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Glomerulonephritis
  • Acute kidney disease
  • Lupus
  • Kidney stones
  • Kidney infections
  • Abusing anabolic steroids
  • Following a high protein diet

Kidney Facts: What Are The Symptoms Of Kidney Disease?


It is very unlikely that you will experience any symptoms of kidney disease until the condition has advanced, so it is recommended that those who have diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history begin screening from the age of 18.

For those who have a less considerable risk of kidney disease, it is recommended that you evaluate your risk factors with your physician to come up with a comprehensive screening plan.

If you do begin to experience symptoms, they will most likely become apparent further down the line of your condition. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Changes in urination (in how often you urinate and the volume of urine produced)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irregular heartbeat or shortness of breath
  • Fluid retention
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles and feet
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures

Kidney Facts: What Are The Risk Factors Associated With Kidney Disease?


Risk factors that may increase your likelihood of kidney disease include:

Age

If you are over the age of 60, you are at an increased risk of developing kidney disease. As we age, it is normal to experience changes in regular organ function.

According to a study carried out by John Hopkins University, more than 50% of those over the age of 75 live with kidney disease.



Race/Ethnicity

African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans are more likely to develop kidney disease than other races and ethnicities. It is believed that the reasoning behind this fact is that these groups have a higher prevalence rate of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Family history

Family history plays a role in determining what health barriers you might come across as you age.

If one family member has had kidney disease, it is recommended that you begin the screening process for kidney disease starting at the age of 18.

A family history in this instance would refer to a blood relative who has had or has kidney disease or a family member who has had conditions related to kidney disease including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney infections, kidney stones or prostate problems.


Kidney Facts: What Is The Treatment For Kidney Disease?


The treatment for kidney disease is related to how kidney disease has been developed. In most instances kidney disease cannot be cured but measures can be taken to control and improve symptoms, reduce the chances of the condition progressing and improving the chances of the condition not developing to kidney failure.

Mayo Clinic says that the most common methods of treatment include:

High blood pressure medications:
People with kidney disease may experience worsening high blood pressure. Medications to lower blood pressure such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers are commonly used and to preserve kidney function. High blood pressure medications can initially decrease kidney function and change electrolyte levels, so frequent blood tests are necessary to monitor progress using this treatment. Your doctor will likely also recommend a water pill (diuretic) and a low-salt diet.

Medications to lower cholesterol levels:
People with chronic kidney disease often experience high levels of bad cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease. Medications called statins are often used to lower your cholesterol and in that way improve kidney function.

Medications to treat anemia:
In certain situations, your doctor may recommend supplements of the hormone erythropoietin alongside iron supplements. Erythropoietin supplements stimulate the production of more red blood cells, which may relieve fatigue and weakness associated with anemia.

Medications to relieve swelling:
As mentioned, those with kidney disease are prone to fluid retention. People with chronic kidney disease may retain fluids. This can lead to swelling in the legs, as well as high blood pressure. Medications called diuretics can help maintain the balance of fluids in your body.

Medications to protect your bones:
Calcium and vitamin D supplements are sometimes used to to prevent weak bones and lower your risk of fracture. You may also take medication known as a phosphate binder to lower the amount of phosphate in your blood, and protect your blood vessels from damage by calcium deposits, which is also commonly known as calcification.

A lower protein diet to minimize waste products in your blood:
As your body processes protein from foods, it creates waste products that your kidneys must filter from your blood. To reduce the amount of work your kidneys must do, your doctor may recommend eating less protein. Your doctor may also ask you to meet with a dietitian who can suggest ways to lower your protein intake while still eating a healthy diet.


In instances where a patient has lost upto 90% of kidney function, they are said to be experiencing kidney failure. Treatments for kidney failure include dialysis and kidney transplant.

Kidney transplants taken from a living donor have a success rate of up to 95%, while non-living transplants have a success rate of up to 85%. The best source of a kidney donor is a close relative like a parent or sibling, as your genetic makeup is a closer match.


How to Test Your Kidney Function


At LetsGetChecked, we offer an at home kidney function test, which indicates how your kidneys are performing by measuring levels of urea, creatinine and eGFR (Glomerular Filtration Rate).

Let's take a quick look at the biomarkers that the kidney function test cover:

Urea
Urea is a waste product formed from the breakdown of proteins and is passed out in your urine. A high level of urea ('uremia') indicates that the kidneys may not function optimally or that you are dehydrated.

Creatinine
Creatinine is a waste product made by your muscles and dietary protein. Creatinine passes into the bloodstream and is usually passed out in urine. A high blood level of creatinine indicates that the kidneys may not be working properly.

eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate)
eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate) is a calculation which determines how well your kidneys are filtering blood.


Kidney damage or chronic disease can be symptomless and early detection is critical to avoiding long term consequences. These can include dialysis, surgery or the onset of cardiovascular disease as a result.

This National Kidney Awareness Month, make it your mission to better understand your kidneys for better overall health.


Read Should You Take A Kidney Test?


Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley