It is Kidney Awareness week from 1 – 7 September and throughout this week we are going to look at kidneys and its function in our body.

Our kidneys are 2 small bean-shaped organs, located in the upper abdominal area, against the back muscles. The saying: ‘dynamite comes in small packages’ could not be any truer for this small organ. It might be small, but it is lifesaving organs, responsible for various essential processes in the body.

Our kidneys help keep us healthy by playing a role in the following processes:

  • It is responsible to activate vitamin D for use in the body:
    • We get vitamin D from two sources: dietary intake in the form of food and supplements or sunlight. This form of vitamin D cannot be used by the body and needs to be activated by the kidneys first.
  • It filters waste from the body:
    • Our body gets rid of waste products (excessive sodium, potassium and phosphorus) by excreting it through the kidneys. The kidneys can maintain sufficient levels of these nutrients by using various hormones. In people with kidney damage the body cannot successfully get rid of the waste, leading it to build up and ultimately becoming toxic.
  • It regulates fluid levels:
    • Our body can manage our fluid and electrolyte levels really well, and this can be seen in the colour of your urine. If your urine is dark yellow you may be dehydrated and need more oral fluid. Your kidneys concentrate your urine by reabsorbing more water to prevent further dehydration. The opposite can also be said, if your urine is light in colour, your body is excreting more water with waste product.
  • It regulates blood pressure:
    • When a person’s blood pressure is low (due to fluid, sodium or potassium levels in the blood), the body reacts by releasing an enzyme that constricts blood vessels to increase blood pressure and maintain sodium and potassium levels in the blood.
  • It keeps minerals in the blood balanced:
    • Healthy kidneys help to maintain calcium and phosphorus levels that leads to strong and healthy bones. In an individual with kidney disease this process is impaired and can lead to mineral or bone disorders.
  • It plays a role with the production of red blood cells:
    • Healthy kidneys produce a hormone that signals the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. These blood cells are important in carrying oxygen throughout the body. When the kidneys are not functioning properly there can be a decreased release of this particular hormone that may lead to low red blood cells or anemia.

There are various risk factors that can increase a person’s probability of developing kidney disease. Some of these risk factors can be managed by dietary changes, medication or environmental factors, others cannot be managed at all:

  • Poorly controlled diabetes mellitus
  • Poorly controlled high blood pressure
  • Genetics (family history)
  • Age (above 60)

It is important to manage the risk factors that you can manage. This can reduce your risk of developing kidney disease. In individuals that have already been diagnosed with kidney disease, managing these conditions can decrease the progression of the disease.

If you, or anyone you know, suspect that your kidneys are not working properly you might notice the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Puffy eyes
  • Swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, abdomen or face
  • Blood in urine / foamy urine
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Increased thirst

Should you experience any of these symptoms it is important to make an appointment with your medical doctor for immediate treatment. If you are on medication, you need to take it as prescribed and do not stop taking any medication without consulting your medical doctor first.

There are various diseases that can manifest if your kidneys are not working properly. Your medical doctor and dietitian can help you manage these conditions.:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Heart attack
  • Weak bones
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Anemia / low red blood cells

A healthy diet, together with regular check-ups and taking your medication as prescribed by your medical doctor can help decrease your risk of developing these complications and slow down the progression of kidney disease.

Protect your kidneys, you only have the two of them.