Did you know kidney beans are named after our kidneys? That’s an easy way to help visualize how these organs look. At just the size of a fist, the kidneys are two of the most important organs in your body. They sit on either side of your spine, below your ribs and behind your stomach.
Your kidneys do many things to help keep you functioning properly. They remove waste and extra fluid from the body, and help maintain a healthy balance of water, salts and minerals in your blood. Plus, they release hormones that help control blood pressure, make red blood cells and keep bones strong. That’s a lot of work for two small organs! And, they work so efficiently that most of us are totally oblivious to their function — taking their efforts for granted. It's good to learn how our kidneys work and understand all they do for us and our overall health.1
You can think of your kidneys as the body’s natural filtration system. Each kidney is made up of about a million filtering units called nephrons, and each nephron has a two-step filtering process. First, nephrons filter your blood and then they return needed substances (like nutrients) back to your blood while removing excess acid and waste. That extra acid and waste turns into urine. Your ureter carries that urine from the kidney to your bladder.1
Blood circulates through your kidneys all the time. In fact, your kidneys filter just under 38 gallons of blood every single day. That’s some filtration system. And, in order to keep it functioning well, your kidneys need to stay healthy and strong.
Kidney health is one of those things that we may not think about on a daily basis. After all, if things are running smoothly, it may seem there’s nothing to worry about. But that's not exactly true. It’s still important to help make sure your kidneys are working at their best. There are a few things you can do to make their job easier and keep them healthy long-term.2
- Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated gives your kidneys enough fluid to filter your blood properly. If you notice your urine is a dark yellow, that could mean you need to up your water game. If there’s not enough fluid for your kidneys to filter, dehydration could lead to an imbalance inside your kidneys and eventually cause kidney stones.
- Eat nutritious foods. Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits, veggies and grains gives your body a good mix of healthy nutrients. So, when your kidneys filter your blood and replenish it with the substances it needs, you can feel good knowing your blood is bringing all those nutrients back into your bones and muscles. Consider looking into eating foods that focus on heart health and help control diabetes.
- Keep an eye on your blood pressure. Having high blood pressure can damage your arteries, making it hard for your kidneys to use those arteries to filter your blood. In fact, high blood pressure is the second leading cause of kidney failure.3
- Stay away from harmful substances. Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Plus, too much alcohol makes your kidneys work extra hard to filter large amounts of alcohol out of your blood. Consider quitting tobacco and limiting how much alcohol you drink.
- Watch your weight. Being overweight is another factor that can cause high blood pressure and damage your arteries. Keeping your body at a healthy weight supports your kidney and overall health.
If your kidneys are unhealthy or get damaged, they’re not able to function the way they should. Unhealthy lifestyle habits can hinder your kidney function and put you at risk for conditions that affect your kidneys, like kidney disease, kidney stones and diabetes.
- Kidney disease: If your kidneys get damaged, suddenly stop working or stop working for longer than 3 months, you might have (acute or chronic) kidney disease.4 Kidney disease interferes with all the good work your kidneys do for your body. If there’s an issue with your natural filtration system, waste can build up in your body and lead to serious or life-threatening problems.
- Kidney stones: Without enough fluid, your kidneys aren’t able to make urine. So, waste substances inside your kidneys have time to bind together and crystalize into tiny (or not so tiny) stones.
- Diabetes: Did you know diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease?5 That’s because high blood glucose (blood sugar) can damage the blood vessels in your kidneys.
Sometimes, the only way to treat a kidney condition is with a kidney transplant. That’s when a damaged kidney is surgically removed from a patient and replaced with a healthy kidney from a donor. That’s right, our kidneys are so powerful that some people can live a healthy life with just one.
If you have two healthy kidneys, you might be able to donate one of your kidneys to enhance or save someone else’s life. Whether you’re considering donating one of your kidneys to someone you know or a complete stranger, there’s a lot to think through. If you’re ready to talk to an expert about next steps, ask your doctor for a list of transplant centers you can visit. You can also do a quick online search to see which clinic might be the best fit for you.6
Who should I see if I have concerns about my kidneys?
If you have family or personal history with kidney conditions or you’re noticing symptoms related to kidney health, visit your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly physical). They’ll likely order lab tests to check markers in your blood that help measure kidney function. Depending on your lab results, you may then be referred to a nephrologist (kidney specialist) for a closer look at your kidney health.7
- Your Kidneys & How They Work niddk.nih.gov, 2018.
- Keeping your kidneys healthy nhs.uk, 2021.
- How High Blood Pressure Can Lead to Kidney Damage or Failure heart.org, 2016.
- Kidney Disease webmd.com, 2020.
- Diabetic Kidney Disease niddk.nih.gov, 2017.
- What Should I Know Before I Donate a Kidney? webmd.com, 2020.
- Chronic kidney disease mayoclinic.org, 2019.