Many people think diabetes means simply controlling blood glucose levels and avoiding sugar. If only it were that easy! Living with diabetes demands that your blood sugar levels, your blood pressure and your kidney health are top of mind always.
An estimated 20 – 30% of people with diabetes go on to develop kidney disease, and while the determining factor for this is largely down to the length of time you’ve had diabetes, and how well it has been managed, there are some actions you can take to delay the progression of kidney damage.
How does diabetes affect the kidneys?
The kidneys’ main role is to remove waste from your blood as well as helping to maintain your correct blood pressure by regulating the levels of salts and fluids in the blood.
Each kidney has about a million little nephrons, units that consist of a small filter (a glomerulus) attached to a tube. The blood passes through these filters, water and waste is filtered out, with the water going back into the blood and the waste matter being stored as urine and passed out and onward to the bladder.
Diabetes impacts the kidneys over a long period of time because the high levels of sugar in the blood damages these nephrons and filters, impacting the kidneys’ ability to remove waste matter. In turn, too much water and salts are kept back leading to fluid retention (often seen in swollen puffy ankles, legs, hands and eyes) and raised blood pressure.
When kidneys are damaged by diabetes, it’s called diabetic nephropathy. It’s still not clear exactly why or how high blood sugar levels damage the kidneys, but it’s thought to be due to years of uncontrolled, high blood glucose or high blood pressure which is a known cause of kidney damage. Diabetics are prone to high blood pressure (hypertension).
The bottom line is kidney damage is irreversible and while it does not always progress to full kidney failure where you would require either dialysis or a kidney transplant, a person with reduced kidney function will still require lifelong treatment to manage the symptoms and slow the illness progression.
How would you know if your diabetes is affecting your kidneys?
That’s the problem, this condition can go undetected for a long time because deteriorations in kidney function don’t show up until significant damage is done. That could be ten years. But by the time its detected, the damage is irreversible.
Kidney function can only be assessed by urine and blood tests, but some of the common signs and symptoms of deteriorating or reduced kidney function that will alert your doctor to the need to test your kidney function are: •
- High blood pressure
- Fluid retention (puffy or swollen legs, ankles, face or fingers)
- Frequent fatigue and feeling weak
- Frequent dark, smelly urine
Does kidney failure or reduced function cause any other problems?
In a word, yes.
Aside from fluid retention in your arms and legs and high blood pressure, kidneys that are damaged can have other knock-on health impacts, such as:
- Erectile dysfunction in men
- Damaged blood vessels in the retina of the eyes and vision loss
- Cardiovascular disease and increased risk of stroke
- Foot sores
By now you’re starting to get the picture aren’t you? One illness (diabetes) can damage your kidneys which in turn can create other health problems and illnesses which will require more treatments. All medicines have side effects and many of them increase the workload on the kidneys, potentially impairing their function even more.
Which is why, as a diabetic, the importance of being aware of, and supporting your kidney health cannot be understated.
What can you do to help your kidneys?
Go for a ‘protection’ strategy. As we said, it’s not entirely possible to avoid some degree of kidney failure from diabetes, but you can certainly reduce your risk and aim to delay the onset of kidney failure by:
- Ensuring your blood glucose levels are well-controlled. Always. Not just on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays or when you remember, but every day. Learn what you can eat, when and how much, and take your medications exactly as your doctor or pharmacist tells you too.
- Monitoring and maintaining your correct blood pressure and having regular blood pressure checks.
- If you’re overweight, aim to lose weight and get into a healthy range.
- Exercise regularly.
- If you experience urinary tract infections, treat them quickly because these can become kidney infections, again putting more pressure on these organs and creating the potential for additional and unnecessary damage.
- Eat a low salt diet. Avoid processed foods, tinned foods, and ready-made meals and soups, which are often very high in salt (sodium). Reduce the amount of salt you add during cooking and to your plate, and if possible, switch to a lower salt seasoning (Herbamare’s a popular option for diabetics or people with high blood pressure. It’s not salt-free but because it’s made with herbs, it’s more flavoursome and people find they use less of it than normal table salt).
- Don’t overload the kidneys with excessively high protein diets which are known to worsen kidney function, make sure you balance your diet with plenty fresh low GI vegetables and fruits, whole foods.
- Drink at least 2 litres of water a day. Staying hydrated helps your kidneys flush out wastes more efficiently and also helps to maintain healthy blood pressure. On that note, watch...
- Spoil your kidneys regularly with the foods they love, celery and cucumber! Cucumber is also regarded as beneficial to diabetics, helping to control blood glucose levels.
- Take a daily supportive kidney tonic like A.Vogel’s Nephrosolid. This herbal medicine contains four herbs known in natural medicine to offer effective support for the function and maintenance of kidney and bladder health. It’s one of the only kidney tonics available, and you can take it with your other medications. (However it’s not advised during pregnancy)
- Nephrosolid can also help address signs and symptoms of kidney and urinary tract infections (UTIs) and inflammation, so if you’re prone to urinary tract infections, Nephrosolid can also be used long term to assist in this regard.
Living with diabetes can be challenging at times, but thanks to modern treatments and by empowering themselves with the necessary information and taking good care of themselves, diabetics can manage their condition well and live as long and healthily as the next person.