The Biomarker Handbook is a curated series that seeks to provide readers with insights on each biomarker we cover in our blood test packages and its relation to our body.
Our kidneys play an important role in ensuring our health as our body’s natural filters. They keep our bodies free of waste and harmful substances while also creating blood-stabilising hormones, monitoring the body’s fluid levels, and balancing electrolyte levels.
Here is all you need to know about your kidneys and how best to take care of them.
What Are Kidneys?
Our kidneys are a pair of fist-sized, bean-shaped organs located against the back muscles of the upper abdomen. Their main function is to filter waste in our blood. On average, they filter about 110 – 140 litres of blood each day and excrete the waste as urine.
Kidneys also balance the amount of fluids in the body, while balancing the body’s supply of electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium.
Additionally, kidneys also produce hormones, which help produce red blood cells while maintaining the body’s pH levels. The hormone mainly produced by the kidney is called Erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. Thus, if our kidneys fail to maintain sufficient levels of erythropoietin, anaemia could be a likely health risk.
Our kidneys also produce active forms of vitamin D, the only vitamin that is also considered a hormone. Thus, our kidneys are critical in maintaining bone health as well as immune function, insulin level management, and cancer prevention.
While we are naturally born with 2 kidneys, it is possible for our bodies to function with only 1 kidney. This is why kidney donations can occur between living donors and someone in need of a new kidney.
The Importance of Tracking Your Kidney’s Health
Kidneys play a vital role in various bodily functions. Thus, tracking them using key biomarkers, such as urea and creatinine concentrations in the blood can mean the difference between averting the consequences of chronic kidney disease, or suffering the long-term effects of it.
Urea is a waste byproduct of protein catabolism. Additionally, creatinine is waste produced by muscle function and/or muscle cell breakdown, and together with lactic acid buildup are believed to be what makes your muscles sore after a workout. It is also a key gauge of the kidney’s filtering capacity.
By keeping our kidneys healthy, diseases such as high blood pressure, anaemia, an imbalanced PH, or imbalanced body fluid control, may all be avoided.
Signs and Symptoms to watch out for
Your kidneys are vital to your everyday wellbeing, and poor kidney performance can lead to many dangerous health conditions, including anaemia and high blood pressure.
To ensure your optimal health, take note of the various signs of kidney disease. Examples of which are:
- Constant fatigue: Diseased kidneys are unable to produce sufficient levels of erythropoietin (EPO), which could lead to insufficient red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs are crucial to energy levels and a lack of them will cause a drop in energy levels. Thus, this sudden fatigue can indicate poor EPO production due to kidney disease.
- Breathlessness: The excess buildup of fluid due to kidney disease can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs. Additionally, anaemia due to low erythropoietin levels leads to poor oxygen uptake. Both can lead to shortness of breath.
- Swollen hands and feet: When the kidneys do not remove excess fluids, they can build up around the hands, feet and ankles and cause swelling.
- Chronic itching: When the kidneys stop removing waste from the blood, waste buildup can cause severe itching.
- Bad breath and metallic taste in mouth: When the kidneys do not excrete urea the way it normally should then a condition called uremia occurs, and this can cause your breath to smell like ammonia. This is in addition to a metallic taste in your mouth, accompanied by a loss of appetite and weight loss.
- Nausea and vomiting: Other symptoms of uremia in the blood is an upset stomach, manifested as vomiting and/or diarrhoea.
- Foamy urine: Damaged kidneys don’t work as well as they should, which could mean an excess of proteins in your urine. The proteins then react with air, causing the urine to turn foamy, which could be a sign of kidney disease.
Consequences of Having Abnormal Creatinine, Bicarbonate and Urea Levels
Key biomarkers such as urea and creatinine are indicators of renal health and should be tracked in regards to kidney health.
When the kidneys are damaged due to an acute or chronic cause, you usually see an elevation in the urea and the creatinine levels in your blood. And the higher the level of each of these two biomarkers generally corresponds to greater damage to the kidneys.
Since your kidneys are responsible for the reabsorption of bicarbonate to maintain the body’s PH balance, abnormal blood levels of bicarbonate as well as an imbalance of the body’s PH, is also considered an indication of poor kidney performance.
Ways to keep your kidneys healthy
Here are several ways for you to ensure the health of your kidneys:
Without getting the doctor involved
- Drink plenty of water—Assuming you are healthy and not a fluid retainer, maintaining body well hydrated means your kidneys won’t have to work as hard to remove urea, creatinine and other waste products from your body.
- Stay active—Cardiovascular fitness is key to optimal blood pressure, which can help you avoid chronic kidney disease.
- Avoid some over the counter medications—Long term use of such anti-inflammatory medications as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can lead to kidney damage, disease, and failure.
- Eat healthy— Avoid salt in your diet. A healthy diet is key in maintaining low blood pressure. Be sure to avoid excess sodium, which will help relieve the kidney’s workload and lower the risk of kidney disease. Certain foods are claimed to be kidney protective, namely cabbage, fish, lemon, onion, kale, red grapes, cherries, blueberries and raspberries, and there are certain foods that are kidney-toxic and their intake can be reduced.
Keeping your kidneys healthy with medical help
- Treat any concurrent diseases, and remove any potential risk factors for kidney disease mentioned above
- Optimize blood pressure control through medication
- Optimize blood oxygenation through anaemia treatment
- Diuretics or other forms of medication to relieve swelling (excessive fluid retention)
When to see the doctor
Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is known as a silent killer and may not present any symptoms until a late stage of the disease. Thus, checkups such as blood tests should be done annually. This ensures that your kidney biomarkers are frequently tracked. Furthermore, take note when experiencing symptoms such as low energy, foamy urine or high blood pressure.
Further Testing to Check for Ailments Related to Abnormal Creatinine, Urea and Bicarbonate Levels
Depending on the person’s signs and symptoms, the following tests may also be ordered by your clinician to verify ailments related to abnormal levels of biomarkers in the blood:
- Urinalysis, including urine protein electrophoresis and testing for bacterial infection
- Kidney stone analyses, including evaluation of risk for developing kidney stones
- Antinuclear Antibody (ANA) test to determine if any autoimmune conditions are affecting the kidneys (such as lupus)
- Myoglobin levels in the urine to determine extent of damaged skeletal muscles
Having healthy kidneys is indispensable to anyone’s well being. Thus, it is undeniable that testing and tracking your kidney biomarkers is critical to your health. Do not wait until the presence of symptoms. People who suffer from chronic kidney failure attest to this, as some of them need lifelong dialysis.
Additionally, why not include a few minor changes to your lifestyle. For example, keep hydrated, eat right, and exercise regularly. This will keep your kidneys healthy while lowering the risk of kidney disease.
Maintaining your kidneys’ health and ensuring their optimal function are vital. Without our kidneys, we would be living with a permanent handicap, relying on dialysis and cramming our mouths full of supplements and medication just to get through the day. Can you imagine living a life without being able to go to the toilet to relieve yourself? Well, if the answer is no, then down that cup of water and remember to stay active- your kidneys will thank you!
If you’re interested in learning more about your kidneys and how to care for them, take a look at our lifestyle article here!
Interested in other biomarkers, check out the rest of The Biomarker Handbook.
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