Avoid painful kidney stones this winter—and year-round

Kidney stone rates have been skyrocketing in recent years. Especially among women.

Many people assume they won’t develop one at this time of year, when the weather’s cooler. But according to some experts, you actually have a greater chance of developing a kidney stone in the winter than in the summer!

Fortunately, there are five steps you can take, starting today, to reduce your risk. I’ll tell you all about them in a moment. But first, let’s back up to cover all the basics about these small, painful stones…

Little stones, big problems

Kidney stones begin as small crystals that form into “stones” when chemicals and minerals collect in the kidneys. Sometimes, people have dormant stones that cause no problems.

But when a stone breaks loose and begins to travel down the urinary tract, it can cause severe, debilitating pain in your back and sides. The pain may also come in cycles and radiate anywhere from the flank of your abdomen to your groin. You may also experience blood in your urine, difficulty urinating, fever, or vomiting.

Typically, you can pass stones smaller than 6 millimeters (one quarter-inch) in the urine. But larger stones can obstruct the urine, leading to potentially deadly infections. Those types of stones need to be broken up with ultrasound or may require surgery.

Furthermore, once you’ve had a stone, you run a 50 percent higher risk of developing another over the next seven years.

Factors that increase your overall risk include:

  • Family history
  • History of intestinal surgery (which causes adhesions, scarring, and strictures in the abdominal cavity)
  • Certain kidney diseases

Now, you can’t do anything about those risk factors. But, fortunately, there are other dietary and lifestyle factors that you can control to help reduce your risk of developing a kidney stone.

Five tips to avoid stones

1.) Stay hydrated—especially in the winter

Dehydration is an obvious problem during the heat of summer when you sweat more. But during the winter, it’s also quite common. In fact, some experts believe kidney stone risk is higher in the winter because the indoor heat bakes the moisture out of the air, and the cold outdoor air cannot hold moisture. As a result, your skin and lungs constantly lose moisture to the air, putting you at risk for dehydration.

So, drink plenty of fluids year-round. They dilute the minerals and salts that can concentrate in the kidneys, contributing to stones. And they help flush out very small crystals through the urine, preventing them from binding together into stones.

As always, I recommend drinking natural spring water—bottled at the source in glass, not plastic—rooibos, and coffee! (Side note: Science shows that drinking three to four cups of coffee a day will not dehydrate you. In fact, drinking that amount actually has many health benefits.)

2.) Eat like a Floridian

I always encourage you to regularly incorporate fresh citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit, into your diet. For one, they help you reach your goal of eating six to eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day. They also contain citric acid, which can prevent stones from forming. You can even add fresh lemon or lime juice to your water (but don’t add sugar).

Of course, citrus fruits may interfere with some common prescription drugs. So make sure you check with your doctor before regularly adding citrus into your diet if you still take prescription drugs.

3.) Eat more full-fat cheese and yogurt

Calcium oxalate stones are the most common type of kidney stone. They form when free calcium in the kidney binds to a chemical called oxalic acid, which is found naturally in beets, chocolate, rhubarb, spinach, sweet potatoes, and some nuts, like almonds.

But instead of eliminating these healthy foods from your diet, just make sure to eat them with calcium rich-foods, such as full-fat dairy, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed, free-range meat. Eating these foods together with the oxalate-rich foods will help the oxalic acid and calcium bind in your intestines…before they can ever reach your kidneys and cause problems.

This biological mechanism may also help explain why people in the Mediterranean often eat cheese and nuts together. (Yet another reason to get your calcium from foods and never from supplements. In fact, I go as far as recommending some full-fat dairy with every meal!)

4.) Avoid green tea
Green tea also contains high amounts of oxalic acid. Not to mention, to obtain the health benefits of green tea, studies show you have to drink six to 12 cups of it each day. Which would expose you to really high levels of oxalic acid…levels that you can counter-balance with calcium-rich foods. (This amount of green tea can cause other problems as well, including gastrointestinal upset.)

So, I suggest you skip the green tea and opt for South African rooibos instead. Rooibos contains many healthy constituents and strong antioxidants—all without oxalic acid. In addition, it hydrates you at the cellular level by supporting the mitochondria that manufacture energy and water for all the cells and tissues in your body. (You can learn more about rooibos in the March 2013 issue of my monthly Insiders’ Cures newsletter [“Are you drinking rooibos yet?”]. If you’re not yet a subscriber, sign up today!)

5.) Maintain a healthy body weight

As I explained last week, researchers estimate that 54 million Americans are perfectly healthy—but mislabeled as obese or overweight. However, if you do have a real weight problem, it can increase your risk of developing kidney stones (and other problems).

So, as always, make sure to avoid processed carbs and sugars. When you do, the excess pounds will naturally melt away. Just make sure you don’t shed the weight too quickly, as rapid weight loss can actually increase your risk of these stones.

At the end of the day, you may not usually spend a lot of time thinking about your kidneys. But they have a big job. So, it’s important to take care of them.