The human kidney, like many internal organs, is vital to health – but many people are a little vague on the details: what do kidneys do for us?
A person normally is born with two fist-sized kidneys, one on each side of the spine at the bottom of the rib cage. The twin organs are – well – kidney-shaped (like a kidney bean).
The main thing kidneys do is remove waste products and excess fluids through the urine. On a daily basis, according to Andrew Weil, M.D., “the kidneys process about 200 quarts of blood to sift out about two quarts of metabolic wastes.”
Urine production is a highly complex process of excretion and re-absorption that stabilizes and balances all the chemicals throughout your body. Salt, potassium and acid contents are all regulated by the kidneys.
The National Kidney Foundation lists these kidney functions:
• remove waste products from the body
• remove drugs from the body
• balance the body’s fluids
• release hormones that regulate blood pressure
• produce an active form of vitamin D that promotes strong, healthy bones
• control the production of red blood cells
Kidneys are so efficient at what they do that it is possible to live a normal, healthy life with only one – whether a person is born that way or donates one of theirs to a suitable recipient who has none and needs one.
However, kidney function can weaken from the following causes:
• High blood pressure
• Diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2)
• Tobacco smoking
• Too much alcohol
• Caffeine or other stimulant drugs
• Uncontrolled high blood sugar
• Jarring motion (from running or horseback riding)
• A high protein diet
Dr. Weil cautions us:
“Serious health problems occur when kidney function falls to 25 percent or less, and only dialysis or a kidney transplant will save people whose kidney function drops below 10 to 15 percent.”
The gradual loss of kidney function is called Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). The Mayo Clinic explains why many people do not know that their kidneys are compromised:
“In the early stages of chronic kidney disease, you may have few signs or symptoms. Chronic kidney disease may not become apparent until your kidney function is significantly impaired.”
Left untreated, CKD can lead to end-stage kidney failure. At that point, a patient needs dialysis until a replacement kidney can be located for an expensive transplant operation.
NEJM Catalyst informs us that:
“The principles of dialysis have changed little since the first American underwent the procedure in 1948: toxins in a patient’s blood are filtered through a permeable membrane. The cleansed blood is returned to the body.”
Dialysis has been so expensive for so long that “Congress expanded the Medicare program in 1973 to include coverage for any patient who needed it.”
Although most health insurance plans cover blood dialysis, those without it may experience some sticker shock:
“For patients not covered by health insurance, a single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more – or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.”
If you think the price of dialysis is steep, the going rate for a new kidney may astonish you. CostHelper Health has done the research for us:
“According to TransplantLiving.org, total costs for a kidney transplant from the month before the transplant through the first six months afterward typically reach almost $260,000, including more than $17,000 for the medications. These costs include pre-surgery medical tests, surgery, hospitalizations for complications, follow-up care and anti-rejection and other drugs.
The good news is that avoiding the pain and expense of kidney failure is possible for most of us. The Cleveland Clinic wants us to keep our kidneys healthy and provides seven tips to achieve that:
1. Hydrate, but don’t overdo it.
2. Eat healthy foods.
3. Exercise regularly.
4. Use caution with supplements and herbal remedies.
5. Quit smoking.
6. Don’t overdo it when taking over-the-counter medications.
7. If you’re at risk, get regular kidney function screening.
There is hope on the horizon for people who need regular dialysis treatments. Although still in development, Shuvo Roy, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences, and William H. Fissell, IV, M.D., University of Vanderbilt associate professor of medicine, are poised to test their breakthrough technology. Their new bionic kidney, designed to replace a damaged kidney, was described by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering:
“The experimental device is designed to accommodate up to a liter of blood per minute, filtering it through an array of silicon membranes. The filtered fluid contains toxins, water, electrolytes, and sugars. The fluid then undergoes a second stage of processing in a bioreactor of lab-grown cells of the type normally lining the tubules of the kidney. These cells reabsorb most of the sugars, salts, and water back into the bloodstream. The remainder becomes urine that is directed to the bladder and out of the body.”
KidneyBuzz revealed that “initial Human Trials are anticipated to begin by early 2018, and they are expected to arrive at the final stage of Clinical Trials by 2020.”
This is good news indeed for anyone suffering from weakened or failing kidneys. However, where your kidneys are concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – so take good care of them.