When you think about kidneys, what comes to mind? Hopefully, you’re not one of the approximately 800,000 U.S. adults with end-stage renal disease (kidney failure) or the 37 million American adults with kidney disease. Even if you are, the tips below on boosting kidney health may help (at least a little) improve kidney function. This isn’t to say that eating a healthy diet removes the need for dialysis (it won’t). However, while dialysis is necessary for managing advanced kidney failure, there are still ways to support your kidneys and, by extension, your overall health and well-being. 

If you don’t have kidney problems (at least not a diagnosed one), you probably associate kidneys with only two things: disgusting kidney beans and the role of the kidneys (organs, not the food) in filtering waste. But there are many more superhero actions the kidneys perform for our health. 

What Do The Kidneys Do? An Eastern Perspective

Most people don’t realize how important the kidneys are for enjoying a healthy lifespan (the amount of healthy years you will live). They are often overlooked (until it’s too late) yet they are one of the body’s most essential organs. 

I’m a full-time Nurse Practitioner, and I also run a functional medicine practice where I see clients at the Diabetes & Wellness Clinic in Norfolk, NE. (Diabetes is a major contributor to kidney disease and end-stage renal failure.) 

Now, this isn’t something I tell patients in the ER where I work. And what I’m about to say is something I rarely mention, even to my more holistic-minded clients. You see, I’m continuously learning about other fields of healing and therapy. I’ve learned that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is over 5,000 years old, the kidney organ system—the kidneys plus acupressure points along the kidney energetic pathway (meridian) that runs from head to toe—is considered the seat of vitality. 

In Chinese medicine theory, the kidney system is like your energy bank account. If you eat unhealthy food, don’t exercise, or easily get stressed out, your energy bank account can quickly deplete. When you deplete your kidney’s energy stores, you’ll be charged an overdraft fee in the form of premature aging. 

Before a person develops kidney disease, the signs of weak kidney function are already present. And the symptoms seem like they have nothing to do with the kidneys. I’m talking about hair loss, vision problems, hearing loss, weak and brittle nails, low back problems, menstrual irregularities or severe menopausal symptoms, memory problems and more…

This is why Chinese medicine doctors first assess and address kidney function, regardless of a patient’s health problems or symptoms. The kidney system acts like the body’s power source, and it can provide energy to other under-performing organs and glands. But if the kidneys are deficient in energy, the body can suffer a power blackout throughout. 

The Function of the Kidneys

Okay, let’s get back to this side of the globe and talk about the kidneys’ role in Western medicine. Actually, there’s some overlap between Chinese and Western medicine. For instance, Chinese herbs used to improve Kidney function have been shown to improve sex hormone levels. A deficiency of sex hormones is a major contributor to bone loss and bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, says Cancer Research UK

Here’s what the kidneys do in Western physiology:

  • Filter Waste: The kidneys filter waste products, toxins, and excess substances from the blood, excreting them in the form of urine. 
  • Regulation of Fluid Balance: The kidneys regulate the body’s fluid balance by adjusting the excretion of water and electrolytes. They ensure that the concentration of essential substances in the blood remains within a narrow range, optimizing cellular function.
  • Production of Red Blood Cells: The kidneys produce hormones such as erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. 
  • Maintenance of Blood Pressure: The kidneys regulate blood pressure by controlling fluid volume and electrolyte balance. (Fun fact: they adjust blood pressure through the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, which helps maintain blood pressure within a healthy range.)

The Connection Between Kidneys, Aging, and Disease

In Western medicine, just as Chinese medicine theory goes, as we age, the function of the kidneys naturally declines, leading to a gradual decrease in efficiency. This age-related decline in kidney function, known as renal senescence, is associated with various changes in kidney structure and function, including a reduction in the number of functional nephrons (the filtering units of the kidneys) and a decline in renal blood flow.

The fewer nephrons you have, the higher your risk of developing kidney disease, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease you face. 

Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Problems

Outside of the seemingly unrelated signs of poor kidney health recognized by Chinese medicine (graying/thinning hair, hearing loss, etc.), how can you tell if your kidneys need some TLC? 

  • Changes in Urinary Habits: Increased frequency of urination, changes in urine color or odor, difficulty urinating, or foamy urine.
  • Swelling: Edema, or swelling in the hands, feet, ankles, or around the eyes, may indicate impaired kidney function and fluid retention
  • Fatigue and Weakness: Remember I said that the Kidneys are the seat of vitality in Chinese medicine? If you have poor kidney function, you can develop anemia and fatigue due to a decrease in the production of red blood cells and impaired oxygen delivery to tissues.

In addition, poor kidney function can cause high blood pressure, weight fluctuations and loss of appetite. 

Boosting Kidney Health in Functional Medicine

Functional medicine takes a holistic approach to kidney health, identifying and addressing underlying imbalances contributing to kidney dysfunction. If Chinese medicine doctors first look at the Kidney organ system, one of the first things I do to address kidney health is work with my clients on modifying their diets. I also recommend to my clients certain nutritional supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamin D, to support kidney function and reduce inflammation in the body. 

In addition, I coach my clients on ways to incorporate more water because adequate hydration is essential for kidney health and flushing waste from the body. But it’s a challenge to people who have spent decades barely drinking water and hydrating with soda. (If you can relate, I have some tasty hacks to make water taste more palatable.)

Regardless of your health concerns or goals, managing stress and adopting other lifestyle modifications are also important. As a functional medicine practitioner and certified health coach, I’ll be there to help you every step of the way. 

The first step is to schedule an appointment. 

I’m looking forward to helping you reclaim your health and life.

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP

Author

  • Jenna Witt

    Jenna Witt has been a Nurse Practitioner since 2012. After working for five years in primary care at a Federal Qualified Health Center (FQHC), caring for the uninsured and underinsured, in 2016, Jenna began working in the local ER in Northeast Nebraska. Jenna has also earned a Master Certification in Health Coaching through the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. She is also a certified Functional Medicine Practitioner, an integrative form of medicine that seeks to unveil the root causes of health concerns and disorders. In 2020, Jenna founded Fundamental Wellness. Her emphasis is helping those with emotional eating, blood sugar management disorders, chronic pain, and low energy. Through her skills as an integrative health expert, Jenna helps her clients optimize their nutrition and sleep, learn simple stress management techniques, and identify which movement/exercise program is best suited for them. Jenna is currently welcoming new clients, which she sees at the Diabetes & Wellness Clinic in Norfolk, NE.

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