Living With: Renal Disease

Few diagnoses are more unsettling than finding out one’s kidneys are not working as they ought. From concerns about having a restricted diet to mentally and emotionally processing the potential reality of dialysis or transplant, there is much on one’s mind when the diagnosis is given.

Kidneys are some of our hardest working organs. Filtering approximately 200 quarts worth of blood every day (ie, our entire blood volume filtered 20+ times/day), they remove about 2 quarts worth of waste from the body, with the remainder of the fluid being reused. Our kidneys not only filter out waste, but they also help with electrolyte balance in the body, regulation of blood pressure, and maintenance of bone health. When they start to fail, complications include fluid retention, elevated levels of potassium in the blood (which is very dangerous), damage to the central nervous system, weakened bones, heart disease, pericarditis (inflammation around the heart), and more.

Renal failure can occur for a variety of reasons. The two that are the most common are diabetes and high blood pressure. Acute kidney injury can also cause renal failure. Warning signs include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, mental confusion, swelling especially near the hands and feet, muscle cramps and poor appetite. Being evaluated by a nephrologist (kidney specialist) is imperative. A blood test which looks at your GFR (glomerular filtration rate) will be one of the most critical pieces of information needed to provide a proper diagnosis.

Treatment of renal disease involves a multidisciplinary approach. From the nutrition end of things, kidney function can often be preserved by making changes to one’s diet, changes which make the kidneys’ work less strenuous. Dietary changes involve monitoring and/or altering protein intake, fluid (water) intake, as well as the amount of sodium, potassium and phosphorus consumed. The amount to which each of these nutrients needs to be regulated depends on the stage of kidney failure present.

With the right tools, renal disease can be managed and quality of life preserved. Along with care from your nephrologist and other medical doctors, dietary assistance from a Registered Dietitian can help the diagnosis feel less overwhelming. Caring medical professionals can make all the difference when living with challenging diseases or conditions.