If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you know how severe the pain can be—it’s said to be one of the most unforgettably excruciating pains a person can experience. Made up of salts and minerals, these hard deposits affect an estimated one in ten people in the U.S., sending over half a million people to the emergency room each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Kidney stones can range in size from a fraction of an inch to a few inches large and are formed in the kidney but may move to the ureter via the urinary tract. They can sometimes be eliminated through the urine stream, but if they’re too large or become lodged, they may require surgery or laser lithotripsy, which breaks the stone down into smaller, passable pieces.
A kidney stone can be a sign of other health problems, and lodged stones can cause complications including kidney damage. Other long-term problems can also arise once you develop kidney stones; for example, your chances of forming more stones within the next five to seven years are fifty percent higher, and there is an increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
So what causes kidney stones? There are several factors that can put you at a higher risk of developing kidney stones, including:
- not drinking enough water
- a diet with too much sodium
- too much fructose in the diet (this includes processed sugars and high fructose corn syrup)
- lack of or low amount of calcium in the diet
- lack of or too few vegetables and fruits in the diet
- acidic urine
- too much or too little exercise
- certain health conditions such as diabetes, urinary tract infections (UTIs), hyperparathyroidism, Crohn’s disease, and high
- blood pressure
While some kidney stones are so small they pass without incident, the majority have warning symptoms that should be heeded immediately. Depending on the severity, you may be able to avoid a trip to the emergency room, but you should see your doctor without delay. These symptoms include:
- blood in the urine
- pain in the lower back, possibly severe
- fever and chills
- low urine output or a flow that stops suddenly
- cloudy or smelly urine
- nausea or vomiting
- unrelenting stomach ache or pain
- pain during urination
- frequent urination
Prevention is the best cure, and the good news is that there are a number of dietary changes you can make to help prevent kidney stones. Keeping your body well-hydrated is most important, but it’s also important to choose the right type of hydration—water is the best choice. You can take it a step further and squeeze some lemon into the water, which will help neutralize and lower uric acid levels, one of the underlying causes of kidney stones. Stay away from liquids like energy drinks, soft drinks, bodybuilding drinks, “enhanced” waters and such, which do more harm than good.
Our bodies can become acidic from environmental toxins, medications, stress, high sugar intake, processed foods, and more. Alkalizing your body naturally will not only help to prevent urine from becoming acidic, it will also benefit your health in a number of other ways. Neutralizing your body’s pH level by improving your acid-alkaline balance will help boost your immune system, improve brain and heart function, lower inflammation, and much more. Some steps you can take include starting your day with a glass of lemon-water, minimizing or managing stress, minimizing sugars and eliminating processed foods, and adding alkalizing foods to your diet such as almonds, cucumbers, pink grapefruit, cantaloupe, cabbage and others. Organic is always the best choice; check with your functional medicine doctor first to make sure you’re not allergic or sensitive to any of these foods and that you don’t have any known or underlying health issues that may contraindicate adding certain foods to your diet.
A good magnesium supplement—especially for anyone taking calcium for osteoporosis—can help prevent kidney stones by dissolving calcium and binding oxalates, which helps to prevent calcium oxalate crystals from forming. Vitamin B6 and certain probiotics can also help to reduce oxalate acid. Your functional medicine doctor can work with you to determine the best way to lower your risk of kidney stones and help to eliminate or minimize underlying causes that can lead to stones and other kidney problems.