What Causes Low Kidney Function

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The kidneys filter about 90 ml (milliliters) blood or more per minute. But over time this GFR (glomerular filtration rate) decreases, making chronic kidney failure more likely. A number of factors and conditions can worsen the problem. So what causes low kidney function?

As with most organs in the body, the kidney function decreases in time. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize about this slip and the impact up to the point that the level drops quite a lot.

The symptoms are likely more noticeable when you only have 10 percent of your kidney function. So we may feel fine until the functioning level of the kidney is almost gone.

Actually this bean-shaped organ ranks very highly at its natural ability to repair and heal itself. But this doesn’t mean it always can repair itself. And when the damage has become advanced (beyond its self-natural healing), transplantation may be the only answer [1].

First things first, keep alert on symptoms that may signal a problem to your kidneys. Early treatment will help a lot. Even a few changes of lifestyle measures would help significantly if the damage has not become advanced.

Although signs and symptoms for ‘low function’ level of the kidneys are often nonspecific, some of the most common ones are as follows [2]:

  1. High blood pressure (hypertension). Your blood pressure is relatively easier to increase with low function level.
  2. Changes in urine, especially the appearance of urine. For examples it may become frothy or bubbly, you need to flush the toilet several times to make it go away. Highly bubbly urine may signal more protein in the urine. And change in color – if you have internal bleeding in the urinary tract, urine’s color may turn to become darker, pink, or red.
  3. Changes in the habit on how you pass urine. For example, more frequent passing of urine. The low function level can lead to an increase in the urge for urination, including at night.
  4. Swelling in feet and ankles due to more sodium retention. This may also cause puffiness around the eyes.
  5. Pain in the flank area. See more about pain arising from the kidneys!

More impurities, toxins, and electrolyte imbalance in the blood may also cause the following vogue symptoms; metallic taste (bad breath) in the mouth, muscle cramps, pin-&-needles in the toes or/and fingers, skin itching, dry skin, trouble (difficulty) sleeping, poor appetite, difficulty concentrating, headaches, and shortness of breath.

*What causes kidney failure in U.S (selected years 1980–2010, Graphic credit to CDC 2013).

In the United States, diabetes and high blood pressure are two common causes affecting kidney function and leading to kidney failure [3].

Blame it on diabetes (high blood sugar)

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body loses its ability to make adequate insulin (a hormone to control sugar in the blood) or unable to use normal amounts of hormone insulin properly. As a result, blood sugar level is easy to spike higher than normal.

Kidney problems in diabetics are quite common.

About 10-40 percent of people with type 2 diabetes eventually get kidney failure – and about 30 percent for people with type 1 diabetes experience the same complication [4].

A high concentration level of sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream can lead to serious problems in many parts and organs of the body, including the kidneys. This can hurt blood vessels in the kidneys, making them work harder so their performance tends to decrease in time.

Chronic, uncontrolled high blood sugar can also hurt nerves in the body which some may impair your bladder function. If the bladder emptying mechanism doesn’t work well, this can drive more pressure that pushes and injures the kidneys.

Diabetics are likely to have urine containing high sugar level. If urine stays in the bladder for a long period of time, you’re at high risk of developing infection from harmful bacteria growth in urine. The infection in the urinary tract can spread to the kidneys.

Hypertension, the second leading cause for kidney failure

Blood that flows inside the blood vessel will produce pressure (force) pushing against the wall of blood vessel. This force is what we call as blood pressure.

Healthy blood circulation is a streamlined blood flow through blood vessels with normal pressure.

But a number of factors can provoke hypertension (high blood pressure), increasing the amount of force that blood induces on the wall of blood vessels as it circulates through the body. These factors could be changes in blood properties (elevated blood viscosity or extra fluid in the blood for examples) – or due to changes in blood vessels (such as atherosclerosis, narrowing blood vessels).

Image credit to niddk.nih.gov

Millions of nephrons, super tiny structures in the kidneys, are responsible to filter unnecessary things (including wastes and excess fluid) from the blood. And these nephrons are supplied with a dense system of blood vessels with high amounts of blood circulation through them.

Chronic, uncontrolled high blood pressure in the body can provoke the blood vessels to stretch and work harder in order to boost blood flow more optimally. Over time this extra stretching will weaken and hurt the blood vessels throughout your body, including kidney’s blood vessels.

As a result, arteries in the kidneys may turn to get narrowed, stiff (hard), and weak (more fragile). The damaged renal blood vessels are not able to deliver blood properly to the kidney tissues. This can significantly ruin your kidney function.

The more renal blood vessels stop functioning normally, the more likely for the kidneys to stop working (failure).

Hypertension does carry serious effect on your kidneys health. Even the percentage of kidney failure associated with hypertension increases by about 7.7 % from 2000 to 2010, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

So if you have hypertension, controlling your blood pressure is a must. The good news, high blood pressure is preventable and manageable.

What causes low kidney function (what else)?

Glomerulonephritis is probably the third most common cause for kidney failure. As the name implies, it is a disease affecting the tiny filter structure of the kidney called ‘glomeruli’.

Sometimes the exact cause of glomerulonephritis is not identifiable, but it’s commonly linked to the abnormality of body immune system [5]. In mild cases, it’s treatable. But it also could turn to be serious if not controlled as well. Because it will cause a gradual loss of kidney function in long term!

Other factors and diseases that may lead to low kidney function and (if poorly controlled) would induce kidney failure are as follows:

Polycystic kidney disease!

This is a chronic, inherited condition in which the kidneys get enlarged and decrease in function due to clusters of cysts (non-cancerous growth) that form within the kidneys.

Although the cysts are non-cancerous sacs, they may grow large enough to ruin the kidney function. Even for small sacs, they may also cause damage to the kidneys if they grow too much.

The cysts vary in its severity. The good news, they are treatable and some complications can be prevented. Early treatment before they become advanced would help a lot to deal with [6]

Interstitial nephritis

This is a disorder affecting the tubules of the kidney! It causes inflammation to the spaces between the tubules, resulting low kidney function.  

The inflammation could be acute or chronic. Acute interstitial nephritis usually has to do with side effects of certain medications.

Other things that may cause the disorder include; autoimmune diseases, allergic reaction, infections, and the imbalance of certain substances in your blood (e.g. too much calcium, high uric acid, or too low potassium in the blood) [7].

Chronic obstruction in the urinary tract!

If something goes awry in your urinary system, this may also affect the kidneys. Urinary tract obstruction, especially if it occurs close to the kidneys, would make the kidneys work harder.

Several conditions can lead to this prolonged obstruction. These include kidney stones, abnormality structures (birth defects), strictures (narrowed scar tissue), and enlarged prostate or prostate cancer (in men). Older men are also at risk of getting the obstruction from benign prostatic hyperplasia [8].

Kidney infection!

This bacterial infection may provoke scarring, impairing the kidney function and even a failure (in severe cases). Immediate prompt treatment is usually necessary to get rid of the infection completely.

Mostly, bacteria come from the bladder or urethra which then spread to the kidneys. Sometimes they may come elsewhere in the body and travel to the kidneys through bloodstream. The infection may also occur after surgery in rare cases [9].

Poor diet and lifestyle factors

Your poor diet and lifestyle factors would also make low kidney function more likely.

Your kidneys are responsible to filter blood and keep it in balance. That’s why it makes sense if poor diet and heart-unhealthy lifestyles are also bad the kidneys. Here are a few examples to avoid: