The human body has dozens of vital organs, and the kidneys are among the most important. They regulate water intake and outtake, they balance the amount of minerals in the body, and they produce vital hormones, according to the Kidney Foundation of Canada. Threats to the normal functioning of the kidneys are serious medical problems, and alcoholism is a contributing factor to kidney disease.
The Function of the Kidneys
There’s nothing unhealthy about the moderate consumption of alcohol, says the National Kidney Foundation, and there are even health benefits to “one or two drinks now and then.” Drinking too much, however, causes a swath of medical problems and can trigger the development of kidney disease.
One of the main responsibilities of the kidneys is to sift out harmful substances from the blood, and alcohol is one such substance. Small amounts of alcohol can be easily filtered and disposed of, but too much alcohol affects how the kidneys work, impairing them to the point of not being able to properly purify the blood of the alcohol content. Alcohol is capable of undoing the kidneys’ ability to filter out toxins, and while this is not usually a problem with normal drinking, it becomes a serious problem when the drinking is abusive or excessive.
Additionally, since the kidneys are responsible for keeping the right amount of water in the body, compromised kidneys cannot stop alcohol from drying out the body beyond safe levels, affecting not only the kidneys themselves, but even basic cells and organs in other systems of the body.
Kidney disease can also be brought about by high blood pressure and liver disease, both of which are possible effects of alcoholism. In order to do their job properly, the kidneys need a certain rate of blood flowing into them; a liver that is damaged by alcohol abuse cannot properly regulate the blood that the kidneys receive. The National Kidney Foundation notes that most patients who have both liver disease and problems with their kidneys struggle with alcohol dependence as well.
Does Alcohol Affect the Kidneys?
The kidneys are hard at work on any given day in a healthy person, but the kidneys of a heavy drinker work overtime. A heavy drinker is defined as a woman who drinks more than seven times a week or a man who drinks more than 14 times a week. People who maintain this kind of drinking habit are at double the risk for developing kidney disease compared to the general population, including moderate drinkers.
One form of alcohol abuse that contributes to kidney disease is binge drinking, usually defined as consuming four or five drinks within two hours. Binge drinking causes a person’s blood alcohol content to rise to dangerous levels, which in turn causes the kidneys to lose their function so much, the term for this is acute kidney injury. Japan’s Internal Medicine journal noted that binge drinking can be a risk factor for such an emergency, including acute kidney injury (also known as acute kidney failure), a condition whereby the kidneys are unable to stop “dangerous levels of waste” from accumulating in the blood, according to Mayo Clinic.
The clinic notes that acute kidney failure as the result of alcoholism can develop in a matter of days or even hours. If untreated or if alcohol consumption continues, it can be fatal. Full recovery is possible, but there is the risk that the kidneys will be damaged beyond normal functioning.
As an example of the kind of health complications that can arise from alcohol damage to the kidneys, the Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation journal reported in 2009 that “moderate-heavy alcohol consumption may be an important risk factor for albuminuria,” a condition that describes the presence of a type of protein that is normally found in the blood becoming present in urine. The name is derived from albumin, a protein that is used in building muscle, fighting infection and repairing tissue.
Healthy kidneys ensure that such proteins stay out of a normal urine flow; kidneys suffering from chronic alcohol abuse, on the other hand, cannot stop proteins (like albumin) from “leaking” into urine. The National Kidney Foundation warns that albuminuria can be an early sign of kidney disease, which will require nephrology treatment.
Kidney disease has many causes that are not related to alcohol, but alcoholism is an undeniable factor in the development of kidney disease, especially because people who drink too much often have unhealthy lifestyles (e.g., not getting enough exercise, eating too much or too little, abusing other substances, etc.) that significantly increase the risk of kidney disease or failure. Other issues, like a family history of related conditions (not limited to kidney problems, such as obesity, heart and/or cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, or genetics) make some people more inclined toward the development of kidney failure than others. Alcohol, whether in moderation or excess, exacerbates kidney problems to the point of actual kidney disease.
If chronic kidney disease is left unchecked, it can affect almost every part of the body. Such complications can include:
- Bone weakness, resulting in bones breaking easily
- Anemia (insufficient red blood cells in the blood, causing chronic fatigue)
- Damage to the central nervous system, causing difficulty breathing and seizures
- Decrease in immune response, increasing vulnerability to infectious diseases
- Fluid retention, causing swelling in the feet, legs, and arms
- Complications with pregnancy
- Loss of sexual interest, reduced fertility in women, and erectile dysfunction in men
How Can Kidney Disease Be Prevented?
Preventing the risk of kidney disease entails taking care of your heart and weight. This might mean eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, exercising, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption. For most people, simply scaling back drinks to one or two a week is enough to dodge this particular bullet. For many others, especially those who are struggling with alcoholism or who have a history of alcoholism in the family, a complete ban on alcohol might be the safest option.
WebMD also recommends getting tested regularly, especially if you have a higher chance of developing kidney disease than the general population. If you have a history of kidney problems in your family, if you have other kidney-related problems like diabetes or high blood pressure, or if you are dealing with alcohol abuse, regular testing can uncover the warning signs of kidney disease, opening the door to preventative treatment.
Testing can include urine tests to check the chemical composition of urine, an imbalance of which would suggest that the kidneys are in trouble; blood pressure readings; and glucose tests to measure blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C, which shows the average blood sugar level in the last three months.
None of these tests prevent kidney disease, but they can give enough information for a doctor to recommend immediate treatment and lifestyle changes, which can mean cutting back on alcohol consumption or outright eliminating it. This is not an easy change to make; drinking can be habit-forming, especially if there is a family history of alcoholism or mental health elements, such as stress or depression, that make dependence on alcohol likely.
Alcoholism and Kidney Disease
Addressing kidney failure and disease as a result of excessive drinking can also mean receiving alcoholism treatment and counseling. This involves breaking the physical hold of alcohol on the individual and then providing psychological and social care to ensure that alcohol no longer presents a medical or mental health risk. This can cover receiving psychological therapy to address the causes and effects of alcohol on the mind, learning how to control the temptation to use alcohol again, and finding support from other people who have overcome their alcoholism or who have survived kidney disease or related problems as a result of their drinking.
These processes can take years, with many ups and downs in the journey. Abstaining from alcohol is a difficult challenge on its own, but for a person who is struggling with kidney problems, there are additional health considerations to take into account. Therapy is an effective treatment method for alcoholism, and the reinforcement and accountability of support groups can help individuals control their urges and lifestyles, such that the kidneys and other biological systems are no longer threatened by chronic alcohol use. With the passage of time and positive changes, the kidneys can return to normal, optimal functioning.
The Joslin Diabetes Center notes that kidney problems, whether as the result of failure or disease, are serious threats to health and wellbeing. The kidneys have such a vital role in cleaning the body and ensuring that the many other systems within the body function properly, that any impairment to their tasks can be the start of many severe problems, some lifelong and some fatal. The reality of alcoholism being a significant and serious contributor to the risk of kidney disease means that people who struggle with alcohol use disorders must make kidney care part of their long-term treatment.