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Kidney Function and Care Print E-mail
by Ron Kennedy, M.D., Santa Rosa, CA

Dr. Kennedy The kidneys are twin organs with one on either side of the spine in the region of the mid-back (when reclining) to lower mid-back (when upright). They are bean shaped, and each one is about the size of your two fists together. Each is supplied with a renal artery and renal vein for delivery and removal of blood which is filtered and returned to the body. Each kidney is supplied with about one million glomeruli — microscopic tangles of capillaries — each surrounded by a capsule draining through the renal tubular system to the ureter and thence to the bladder.

Please consult an encyclopedia for a diagram of the kidneys. Locate the structures on the diagram mentioned in this discussion.

You can simulate the relationship between a glomerulus and its Bowman's capsule by making a fist with your left hand and holding it in your right hand. Your left hand represents the glomerulus and your right hand represents Bowman's capsule. In this model, blood is delivered and removed through the structure represented by your left hand and waste products are carried away by the structure represented by your right hand.

Each glomerulus contains a tiny network of capillaries through which blood flows and is cleansed. The healthy kidney very precisely removes exactly what needs to be removed for the body to stay in a vital state. The kidneys are miraculous, and their functions are only crudely duplicated by dialysis machines.

The job of the kidneys is to filter the blood and remove toxins and waste products. As with most other organs, nature has given you much more than you need to survive. You can donate or lose one of your kidneys and never miss it as long as the other kidney stays healthy. When the kidneys are diseased, it is possible to destroy up to 75% of the functioning glomeruli and still be healthy.

Nevertheless, the kidneys are a common source of illness due to mistreatment from negligence or ignorance. Infection is the most common form of disease to affect the kidneys. Usually bacteria reach the kidneys by ascending the urinary tract. Due to the obvious anatomical differences between men and women, kidney infections are more common in women. For a bacterium, the trip from outside of the body to the bladder is much shorter and easier to negotiate in a woman than in a man. Therefore, urethritis (infection of the ureters, the tiny tubes which bring urine into the bladder) may be followed by cystitis (cyst = bladder in Latin). Infection of the kidney tissue itself is called "nephritis." Infection of the large collection system (the pelvis) leading to the ureter is called "Phyllitis." A combined infection of the kidney and its pelvis is called "pyelonephritis."

If the infection ascends through the drainage structure, you will usually be aware of pain and burning on urination. If it appears first in the kidneys, you may become aware of pain in the back and tenderness over the area of the kidneys. When you bend forward you may experience pain up and down the back from stretching the inflamed tissues. You also may experience burning on urination (dysuria), the desire to urinate when you cannot (urgency), and you may note cloudy or foul urine (pyuria). On the other hand, there may be no symptoms at all, a so-called "silent" infection.

"Glomerulonephritis" is a primary inflammation of the kidney tissues, which does not involve the drainage structures (the glomeruli). It usually follows a streptococcal infection in the kidneys or in another part of the body, most commonly the throat, by three to six weeks. It is thought to be an autoimmune disease involving antibodies made in response to the streptococcal infection, which then attack the glomeruli of the kidneys. Usually a course of antibiotics handles this illness, although it makes no sense that it should, and no one knows why it does. A few people do progress to an asymptomatic condition known as "chronic nephritis" which progresses on to kidney failure within a few years.

Artery disease caused by a poor diet and low exercise level also can affect the arterial system supplying the kidneys. This illness is known as "nephrosclerosis" (literally kidney hardening), as the kidneys are noted to be hardened when examined at surgery or at autopsy. The kidneys feel hard because the arterioles are hardened and the kidney is made up in large part by the arteriolar system. (Arterioles are the small branches of arteries before they branch into tiny capillaries.)

Kidney stones ("renal calculi") may develop when the level of calcium and oxalate is abnormally high, as when the parathyroid gland becomes diseased or when there is excessive intake of dairy products. When the level of uric acid becomes abnormally high due to excessive intake of meat, gout can develop and cause the development of uric acid crystals in the drainage system of the kidneys. (Gout also can cause severe arthritis in the big toes, which is the classic picture of gout.) The most excruciating pain known to man is the movement of kidney stones down the ureter. If the stones are too large to pass, surgery may be required or lithotripsy may be employed, which uses focused shock waves originating from outside the body to break up the stones, so they are small enough to pass.

The purpose of giving you this information is to make you aware of your kidneys. The awareness of the individual has more to do with the prevention and early treatment of disease than any other factor. The astuteness of a good physician is useless unless you know when to make an appointment and show up in the office. Awareness of the structure and function of the kidney, along with the possibility of the various disease states, can go a long way toward preventing disease altogether.

Here are measures you can take to help prevent kidney disease:

  • Bathe each day, and use soap in the groin region, as this is the origin of ascending urinary tract infections. Women with UTI (urinary tract infection) problems should take only showers, because reflux of bath water up the urethra plays an important role in beginning UTIs in women.
  • In the case of streptococcal infections, the sooner they are treated the less is the possibility of progression into glomerulonephritis, which can turn into chronic glomerulitis and finally renal failure, a deadly condition requiring dialysis and/or kidney transplant. Prompt treatment of infection applies especially to sore throats, because this area of the body is more frequently infected with streptococcus than other areas.
  • Stay totally away from pasteurized, homogenized dairy products and excessively high protein diets. Eat complex carbohydrate foods (veggies) to balance protein intake on a ratio of ten grams carbs to each seven grams protein. This will tend to prevent kidney stones and, over the long term, will prevent or perhaps reverse hardening of the arteries and thus prevent or reverse nephrosclerosis.
  • Drink plenty of steam distilled or double-filtered/reverse osmosis water each day, at least six 8 oz. glasses, preferably eight. A plentiful supply of water makes transport of cellular waste products from the cells to the kidneys easier, as well as filtration of same much more efficient for your kidneys. Do not, for God's sake, drink tap water!


  • The information in this article is not meant to be medical advice.�Treatment for a medical condition should come at the recommendation of your personal physician.

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