Your complete guide for conquering it—safely and naturally
A thoughtful reader recently asked about natural approaches to kidney disease. This question is important since a whopping one in three Americans is at risk of chronic kidney disease.1 And that can lead to dialysis, kidney transplants—even death.
Despite these dire statistics, chronic kidney disease and other kidney problems get almost no attention from the natural know-it-alls. And mainstream medicine and big pharma often overlook the kidneys in favor of supposedly more “important” organs.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do about kidney disease. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s what you need to know about this devastating disease, along with simple, easy dietary changes you can make to help keep your kidneys healthy.
Whole body health depends on your kidneys
Our kidneys’ main job is to filter our blood. They remove excess electrolytes and fluids from our bodies in order to carefully maintain sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and other salts and minerals at just the right levels.
Interestingly, paleontologists believe that the levels of salts and minerals in our blood reflect the salinity of seawater from hundreds of millions of years ago, when life first emerged from the oceans onto the land. These levels are about half the salinity of seawater today. So, in essence, our kidneys ensure that an ancient “inner sea” continues to course through our circulatory systems every day.
Because kidneys are designed to remove any excess salt from our bodies, the high-salt hypothesis never made sense to me as the cause of high blood pressure. Now, of course, the right kinds of studies are finally being done, and they show that indeed, salt does not cause high blood pressure, as I wrote in one of my very first reports in the June 23, 2012 Daily Dispatch “The great salt scam.” We all have the basic physiology of the kidney to thank for that. Too bad more government “experts” on blood pressure didn’t pay more attention to their own studies in physiology.
Another function of the kidney is to remove nitrogen-containing waste products from the blood and body. Remember the basic chemical building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Compounds containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are known as carbohydrates. Adding nitrogen gives amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which include enzymes as well as structural components of tissues, like bone and muscle.
The body metabolizes carbohydrate by burning it, combining it with oxygen to generate energy, and forming carbon dioxide and water as “byproducts.” The carbon dioxide is breathed out. And the water produced is the major source of hydration inside our cells, for cellular hydration. (A fact readers are well aware of, but sports and hydration “experts” ignore.)
But what happens to the waste products of nitrogen-containing molecules? These are essentially broken down into urea and uric acid and must be removed by the kidney as well. When urea and uric acid build up in the blood, they can be deposited in the cartilage and joints, causing gout. Gout is an ancient disease and there have been effective herbal remedies. The Autumn crocus was a common treatment and was even grown in medicinal plant gardens in colonial America. However, the plant may be toxic and is better used as the drug colchicine. Of course, the other approach to gout, as with all kidney-related diseases is to manage diet. More on that in just a moment.
Finally, once the blood is filtered by the kidney, urine forms in what is anatomically called the pelvis of the kidney. Then urine travels down the ureters into the bladder where it is stored until elimination through the urethra. The urine is normally a perfectly sterile fluid, free of bacteria and viruses. However, in the pelvis of the kidney, certain salts and minerals can also slowly over time form into kidney stones. (See the sidebar on page X for more on kidney stones.)
Healthy heart leads to healthy kidneys
In order for kidneys to do all their jobs properly, their blood vessels must be strong and healthy. But like any other blood vessels in the body, kidney blood vessels can be damaged by high blood pressure (causing vascular kidney disease) or high blood sugar, known as diabetic kidney disease. In addition, inflammation of the kidney membranes can damage their ability to filter urine.
We now understand that heart disease, metabolic diseases like diabetes, and inflammation are all intricately related—as is kidney disease.
So that means that the best way to prevent kidney disease is to keep your heart healthy, manage your blood sugar, and lower your risk of inflammation.
With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that diet and nutrition are major factors in preventing kidney disease. Just like they are for preventing heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation
But there are also some foods, herbs, and supplements that are particularly important just for your kidneys.
What you should—and shouldn’t—be eating
Foods that have an effect on kidney disease tend to be divided into two categories. First, there are the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables that you should be eating to help your entire body fight disease.
Then there are foods that you should actually avoid if you have kidney disease. Poorly functioning kidneys have difficulty filtering out electrolytes like potassium and phosphorus. Too much phosphorus leads to bone, blood vessel, and thyroid disorders. And too much potassium can damage your heart and interferes with proper hydration. So it’s critical to limit foods that contain large quantities of these minerals.
Some foods that are particularly high in potassium include avocado, artichoke, banana, dates, potato, prunes, and yogurt. High-phosphorus foods include Brazil nuts, salmon, scallops, and yogurt. These are the foods you should limit.
Fortunately, there are some foods that help fight general diseases, including kidney disease, all in one tasty bite.
Bell peppers are low in potassium and high in vitamins A, B, and C, as well as fiber. Numerous studies show that fiber can help keep your kidneys healthy. Red bell peppers also contain some lycopene (which I helped discover in the mid-1980s) that protects against many chronic diseases, including kidney disease.
Cabbage is full of healthy phytochemicals and vitamins B, C, and K—and is low in potassium. Red cabbage has additional beneficial plant pigments.
Cauliflower has a large number of indoles and thiocyanates, which help the liver neutralize toxic substances that can damage kidneys. It also has lots of vitamins B and C and fiber. And mashed cauliflower is a good low-carb substitute for mashed potatoes (which are high in potassium).
Garlic and onions are excellent anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. They are also low in potassium and are good sources of chromium—a key mineral for healthy metabolism.
Apples are low in potassium and high in fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds. They also contain malic acid, which research shows can help protect against kidney stones.2 (See more about kidney stones in the sidebar on page X).
Blueberries are high in fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds— including anthocyanins, which give them their dark blue color. They are also a good source of vitamin C and manganese.
Cherries reduce inflammation when eaten daily. And, as I wrote in the September 2014 issue of Insiders’ Cures, cherry extracts are helpful for prevention and treatment of gout. You will probably not get enough of the beneficial ingredients from eating cherries or drinking cherry juice alone, so you should rely on a concentrated cherry extract.
Grape skins contain several beneficial flavonoids that are also responsible for their colors. These flavonoids may stimulate production of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels throughout the body—including the kidneys—and helps improve blood flow and circulation. These compounds are also found in red wine, and bonus!—the alcohol in wine also relaxes blood vessels. But don’t overdo the grapes (they are relatively high in sugar) or the wine.
Raspberries and strawberries are good sources of fiber, vitamins B and C, and manganese. They’re also powerful antioxidants.
It is not just fruit and vegetables that are important for overall nutrition that supports kidney health. Eggs provide high quality protein with all the essential amino acids, as well as essentially fatty acids and vitamins D and E. Fish also provides high quality protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Try to eat fish at least twice per week. Olive oil is a great source of oleic acid, another anti-inflammatory fatty acid. And of course it is a key ingredient in the heart healthy Mediterranean Diet, which also helps prevent kidney disease—and many other diseases as well.
Unfortunately, when patients with kidney diseases require hospitalization—as they frequently do for treatments—the hospital diets provided do absolutely nothing to support these patients.
You have to wonder what hospital dieticians are doing all day when we know hospital meals are a disaster not only for kidney patients, but for all patients. That’s one reason I never accept the facile “recommendations” of your typical internet dieticians. I honestly can’t believe some of the outdated, unfounded nonsense they continue to spout. (See the article on page X regarding more of this outrageous “advice.”) I sometimes have to wonder their training, knowledge, or understanding of human nutrition.
Supplement your way to healthier kidneys
B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, are important for proper kidney function because they help keep dangerous homocysteine levels from building up in the blood. Homocysteine damages blood vessels and is associated with many diseases of aging, including chronic renal failure. (For more about vitamin B and homocysteine, see page TK).
For optimum kidney health and overall good health, I recommend taking a high-quality vitamin B complex that contains at least the following dosages: : 50 mg each of thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin/niacinamide, B6, and pantothenic acid, plus 400 micrograms of folic acid/folate, 12 mcg of B12, and 100 mcg of biotin.
Dandelion appears to be a powerhouse in terms of protecting the kidneys. It also helps the kidneys stimulate urine production. The name dandelion is originally from the French “dents-de-lion” or lion’s teeth, due to the sharp, serrated edges of the leaves. But the modern French colloquial name for dandelion is actually “pis-en-lit,” which literally means wet-the-bed, in recognition of the plant’s mild diuretic effects.
Recent laboratory and human research has found that a daily combination of 400 mg of dandelion and 400 mg of rooibos not only keeps your cells and kidneys properly hydrated, but also supports overall vitality, physical activity and agility.
Finally, to protect your kidneys (and your muscles), you need to stay off statin drugs. Statins can destroy your muscle tissues, which leads to production of a dangerous substance called myoglobin. Myoglobin can poison your kidneys as they work to filter it out of your blood. To learn more about this problem and how to avoid it, please read my new report The Insiders’ Guide to a Heart Healthy and Statin-Free Life.
By following the right diet and taking a few simple supplements, you can keep your entire body healthy, including your kidneys.
The whole grain controversy
The National Kidney Foundation, the American Kidney Fund, and the National Institutes of Health all recommend that people who have kidney disease avoid eating whole grains. Ironically, whole grains—which are regarded as more nutritious than refined, white grains—have a higher phosphorous content than their paler cousins.
But a recent study questions that recommendation, arguing that the human body lacks an enzyme that allows us to digest the phosphorous in whole grains.3 Plus, the researchers point out, whole grains have a lot of fiber, which is uniformly agreed to be important for healthy kidneys.
If you’re understandably confused about what types of grains you should be eating, let me simplify: I recommend being careful with all of your grain consumption—whole or refined. Both types of grains contain carbohydrates, which are now recognized as the leading contributors to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Which, as I mentioned above, are the two main causes of kidney disease.
So keep it simple and avoid grains, and carbs, for good health all the way around.
Red-flag foods for kidney disease
If you have kidney disease or impaired kidney function, avoid foods high in phosphorus and potassium. Here is a quick list of some of the top food sources to limit:
- Brazil nuts
Natural treatments for kidney stones
Kidney stones are different than kidney disease, and can have several causes. Generally, they occur when salts and minerals, such as calcium, build up in the blood, urine and drainage system of the kidneys, called the ureters, over time. This is one of the reasons I warn against taking calcium supplements. They result in excess calcium in the blood and urine and increase the risk of kidney stones (see the February 3, 2015 Daily Dispatch “Three steps for stronger bones” for more on calcium. I’ll also cover this topic in more detail in a future issue of Insiders’ Cures.) Urinary stones may also be caused by the oxalic acid in green and black tea. Herbal teas, such as South African rooibos, are usually free of oxalic acid and thus are a better choice for kidney health.
And, as I wrote in an August 15, 2014 Daily Dispatch, when there is not enough fluid for adequate urine flow out of the kidneys, stones form more easily. So proper hydration is key. I recommend Red Joe brand rooibos, which I helped develop. It will help hydrate your entire body—including your kidneys—at the cellular level.
If you do get a kidney stone, it can be treated without drugs. Ask your urologist about using ultrasound in a water bath to eliminate kidney stones using only sound waves.
1National Kidney Foundation. https://www.kidney.org/screening. Accessed January 24, 2015.
2Rodgers AL, et al. Malic acid supplementation increases urinary citrate excretion and urinary pH: implications for the potential treatment of calcium oxalate stone disease. J Endourol. 2014 Feb;28(2):229-36. doi: 10.1089/end.2013.0477. Epub 2013 Nov 9.
3Williams, C et al. Whole grains in the renal diet–is it time to reevaluate their role?
Blood Purif. 2013;36(3-4):210-4. doi: 10.1159/000356683. Epub 2013 Dec 20.