Take a load off your hard-working kidneys – Organs do a lot more than remove toxins from the body

DOVER — March is National Kidney Month, a time to focus on a couple of the most important organs in the body, organs often overshadowed by the heart and brain.

“The kidneys do a lot more than people think,” Dr. Jeff Milan, a nephrologist at Nephrology Associates of Delaware said. “And personally, I think the kidneys are just as important as the organs that get all the attention.”

The main function of the kidneys are removing toxins and extra fluid from the body, but Dr. Milan said their importance extends even further.

“The kidneys actually regulate bone health by producing vitamin D, a process that begins with the skin, and they also tell the body when it’s time to make more red blood cells.”

According to the National Kidney Foundation, the kidneys also play a critical role in the regulation of the body’s salt, potassium and acid content and produce hormones that affect the function of other organs.

Dr. Milan’s best advice to protect your kidneys is to exercise regularly.

“Put simply, the more you weigh, the harder your kidneys have to work,” he said. “I have overweight and obese patients with no other medical problems.”

Those also at risk are individuals with high blood pressure or diabetes. The NKF reports that about one-third of people with diabetes develop kidney disease and diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure. Both diabetes and high blood pressure affect blood vessels and if the blood vessels in the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, they are unable to remove toxins efficiently.

Another factor that can place individuals at risk of kidney problems are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, frequently used by people with arthritis or chronic pain. Common over the counter NSAIDs are drugs like Advil, Aleve and Motrin.

“If you need to use medications like this long term to help with pain, they can do severe damage to your kidneys so you should discuss with your doctor alternative medications that are safe for long-term use,” Dr. Milan said.

Regardless of the cause, kidney problems are not usually evident in the early stages.

“Many patients don’t see signs or symptoms until kidney function is down to 50 or even 40 percent,” Dr. Milan said. “The best way to find problems early is to go to your annual check up with your primary care doctor who will do a urine test.”

A urine sample will be tested for both blood and protein, the presence of either is an indicator of a problem.

The National Kidney Foundation also recommends testing patients’ albumin to creatinine ratio and blood creatinine. Doctors also should calculate the glomerular filtration rate which indicates how well the kidneys are functioning.

The symptoms that will arise with decreased kidney function are broad, ranging from fatigue to nausea to swelling in the legs.

“With most other illnesses these symptoms could be attributed to, they should go away in a couple days or weeks, but if they are persistent, you need to visit the doctor, because they could be kidney -related,” Dr. Milan said.

Once kidney function gets down to 10 percent or 15 percent, living a normal life becomes impossible. Patients with such low kidney function must be on dialysis to remove toxins and extra fluid from their bodies since the kidneys are no longer capable of doing the process alone.

Dialysis usually is needed three times a week with each session lasting about four hours. Dialysis isn’t only time consuming, it’s expensive.

Dr. Milan said about 8 percent of all Medicare dollars are spent on dialysis.

“The number of individuals on dialysis is fairly small, so when you see what a large sum of money is being used by such a small population, it’s pretty shocking,” he said.

Even though dialysis is necessary for patients with kidney function below 15 percent there is another option.

“The best option for patients with such low kidney function is a transplant,” Dr. Milan said. “It’s the most natural solution and the only way these patients can get back to a normal life.”

The major problem with transplants is that the waiting lists are long and the procedure can’t be done at any hospital. Currently, Christiana Hospital is the only health-care provider in the state that performs kidney transplants.

To reduce your risk of kidney problems including kidney disease, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and eliminate the use of tobacco products.

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