Kidney Health

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Because kidneys are amazing, and because they are such unsung heroes, here are a few notes of appreciation before getting into practical matters

Filters - the kidneys make up less than 1% of our body mass but they receive nearly a quarter of the blood flow from the heart. Every minute, the kidneys receive 1200mls of blood, which is then filtered by remarkable cells called nephrons, nearly 1 million in each kidney. Blood cells, proteins and platelets are too big to be filtered and usually just pass on by but between 150 and 180 litres of plasma is meticulously screened every day, about 99% being returned for service and about 1-2 litres being eliminated as urine. Our kidneys filter our entire blood plasma at least 60 times a day, about half a cup a minute, from which waste products such as ammonia, urea, bilirubin, creatinine, uric acid, environmental toxins and drugs are all carefully removed. What we pass out as urine is then normally about 95% water and about 5% waste products.

Regulators - the kidneys regulate how much blood we have by either holding on to, or eliminating, water. By regulating our blood volume they also determine whether our blood pressure goes up or down. The kidneys, along with the lungs, also regulate how acidic our blood is by holding on to, or eliminating, hydrogen ions.

Secretors - the kidneys secrete two hormones; calcitrol, the active form of vitamin D, which is a hormone that controls calcium levels and erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, 90% of this vital hormone is made in the kidneys, 10% in the liver.

Eastern perspective

The kidneys are revered in oriental medicine, they say they are the 'vaults in which the inheritance of the ancestors are stored'. They distribute 'chi', energy, throughout the body and it is believed that they parcel out gifts of a person's ancestry in the form of talents and opportunities in life.

The kidneys are seen to nourish energy to the reproductive system and to the bones and, as the organs that purify the blood, they taken on an abstract meaning, separating the necessary things in life from the unnecessary.

Chronic stress or fear can cause damage to the kidneys, when the kidneys are weak, we experience more fear, have less determination, and experience loss of will. The kidneys are the seat of the will and help direct us through life, especially when we face adversity.


Kidney Herbs

For whatever reason, and for however long we might need to take extra care of the kidneys I want to mention a small handful of herbs that have been seen to be of great help to many people who need their sure support. With one exception, these herbs have been used since antiquity for all kinds of kidney troubles and anyone who might need their support will be wise to learn more about them, including how to take them both safely and effectively.

Ginkgo biloba
The one exception to traditional use comes from modern discoveries on one of the most ancient of all plants; Ginkgo biloba. The comprehensive article by Sharol Tilgner on 'the Contented Kidney', referenced at the bottom of this page, has much more detail about Ginkgo and the Kidneys, and page 8 in her article has a long list of the scientific research on how Ginkgo can protect against different kinds of damage to the kidney. My own article on Ginkgo, with information about safety and dosage etc, is found here

Juniper berry
Of the many herbs that we might think of to help the kidneys, surely Juniper is one of the best and certainly one of the strongest, but It has unfortunately been wrongly cautioned against for people with kidney disease. The careful use of Juniper for many people with impaired kidney function has been a turning point in their health. More detail on Juniper, including an explanation for why it has been misrepresented as dangerous to the kidneys, is found here and an example of a method to safely use it in slowly increasing dosages is found here

Golden Rod
For all that Golden Rod is a pleasant, mild and easy to take herb, it has a deceptive strength that consistently makes a person activate their kidneys and cleanse more in general, more about it here

Cursed by gardeners the world over, this scrappy little herb is just as tenacious at helping the body to better cleanse its blood and fluids, at least in part by increasing kidney function. More here

Corn Silk
Tremendously soothing to an irritated or inflammed kidney or urinary tract. Corn Silk can be relied on to quickly give comfort and healing, more here

The second great soother to a painful or inflammed kidney or urinary tract is Marshmallow, particulary in the root form, where it can quickly do much to ease pain, spasm and discomfort, more here

Dandelion leaf
Dandelion leaf is as well known in traditional medicine as a tonic and stimulant to the kidneys as the Dandelion root is famous for its benefits to the liver. Known as 'nature's diuretic' it activates increased elimination of fluids but, because it is one of the highest potassium containing herbs in all of nature, unlike pharmaceutical diuretics. there is no risk of the depletion of potassium whilst using it; more here

an example of how these herbs can be combined in practice - recipe here



Kidneys greatly reduce in size and function with aging. Every 10 years, after the age of 40, the number of healthy kidney cells reduces by a further 10% From age 40 to 70, they reduce in size from 300 grams down to about 200 grams and their blood flow and filtration reduce by up to 50%

Few people realise that signs or symptoms of kidney disease or distress don't happen until the kidneys are at less than 25% of their function. In other words, a person can lose over 70% of their kidney cells, the nephrons, before any clinical symptoms appear. We need ways to know if the kidneys are not doing well long before they get to such a critical state, where things can be too long-gone to turn around.

Urinalysis, via dipsticks, are economic, easy to use, and they can quickly help to determine many key factors about the health of the kidneys, for example whether things like protein, albumin or blood are leaking out when they shouldn't be, or whether there are white blood cells present in the urine, indicating an infection somewhere in the urinary tract.

Routine kidney function tests with blood, those that measure creatine clearance, are another highly useful way to screen out serious disease but really only show up an issue when the kidneys have become badly disordered, not when they are simply in decline.

As many people instinctively come to realise by themselves, and as all the old cultures of medicine have ascertained, looking at the skin under the eyes can give an immediate impression of kidney health. The skin under the eyes has the highest water content of any part of the face, but also the thinnest skin with the least oil glands, making it very responsive to changes in the body's water content. Less than optimal kidney function will give darker rings under the eyes and, even when there is a further underlying cause, such as simple tiredness, or allergies, these sensitive tissues remain a reflection of how the kidneys are holding up under the strain of stress, in whatever form it might be coming.

In nearly every tradition of herbal medicine around the world, the tongue is used as a helpful guide to assess the health of the digestive system, the liver and the kidneys. A thick coating, especially at the back of the tongue, is widely thought to correlate to a greater need for cleansing via the kidneys. Other signs, such as those that represent excess dryness or dampness, can be well reflected in the tongue and can help an experienced observer to better construct an effective treatment program to help. This subject is talked about in more depth in the article on tongue and pulse analysis found here

One of the most practical ways to get an assessment of kidney health is to ask a person how frequently they need to pass urine because many people adapt to being dehydrated, they stop feeling thirsty. Chronic dehydration is extremely common, and it is this lack of adequate water that is surely the single biggest long-term stressor to the kidneys.



A great many people are chronically dehydrated and simply don't realise it. Especially as we get older, we can lose the thirst mechanism and not notice that we badly need water. People who go too far down this path impair the health of their kidneys and, because they then get a reduced capacity to hold urine and feel like they can't hold their water, including at night time, they drink even less, and the condition gets worse.

Our body is about 60% water overall, but our brains are 75% water and our blood is 85% water. Even slight dehydration makes the blood stickier, impairs brain function and stresses the kidneys.

We lose a lot of fluid every day through urination, breathing and sweating. Few people realise that, by the time their mouth is dry, and they feel thirsty, they are already significantly dehydrated.

One of the best ways to establish a good hydration habit is the visual-cue of putting a glass-jug of water somewhere such as the kitchen bench or office desk and then aiming to empty it by the mid-afternoon. Some people find it helpful to add some lemon slices, mint or other green herb leaves for beauty and flavour.

How much people need to drink each day depends greatly on the weather, their activity levels, and their constitution i.e. how much they tend towards being dryer or damper by nature.

A good working guide is to keep some awareness of how often you need to go to the toilet to pass water. More than once an hour is too much, you are putting unnecessary strain on the kidneys, fewer than once in two hours is too little.

Many people can easily go 3 or 4 hours without needing to urinate and have been told this is perfectly normal. It's only 'normal' because there are so many other chronically dehydrated people around!

Not drinking enough to need to have a good pee every couple of hours is not good for you and causes a far steeper decline in health as people age than needs to happen. Urine should be light in colour and virtually free from odour if you have been drinking enough.


Excess Sugar

After dehydration, the 2nd most common stress to the kidneys is excess sugar in the diet. The greatest cause of the worst of all outcomes for the kidneys, end-stage renal failure (ESRL), is diabetes. There are more people on dialysis, or needing transplants from diabetes-caused ESRL, than any other cause, by far. However, there was a long slippery slope downhill before it ever got anywhere near to that point.

Excess sugar, and therefore excess insulin, causes a wide range of hormonal and metabolic problems. The sooner a person realises that they are giving their body the wrong kind of fuel and can move into a diet that much better suits them the better their chance to not cause any lasting damage to their health, including the health of their kidneys.

This important subject, including how to know if it is a problem, is discussed in depth in the article on the metabolic syndrome found here

common signs of the metabolic syndrome


High blood pressure

The third leading cause of kidney disease and distress is high blood pressure and, next to diabetes, it is the 2nd main reason for people approaching the potentially fatal state of ESRL.

High blood pressure itself is often caused by a diet that contains excess sugars but there are other causes that may be involved and, for the person for whom this is the subject that they need to focus on to treat the cause of the problem, a detailed article is found here



Most people, quite rightly, associate urinary tract infections with their bladder rather than their kidneys. However, infections can move upwards and inwards towards the kidneys and, when they do, this is obviously taken as a very serious issue that can lead to acute renal failure. Even without a bladder infection as the originating cause, damage can come to the kidney from 1-3 weeks after a serious infection or trauma elsewhere in the body whereby the kidney cells get blocked by inflammation (post-infectious glomerulo-nephritis) but, if treated quickly, there is a 90% chance of recovering normal kidney function.

Kidney infections are obviously scary and dangerous, and I would encourage in this situation to be in close contact with the conventional medical system in their area and to be following their recommendations. At the same time, there are also some well-proven strategies from herbal medicine that have consistently been seen to get good and fast results and this important subject is written up in detail here

the mainstay of our treatment of kidney and bladder infections - recipe here

Kidney stones

Kidney stones, as anyone who has had one knows only too well, are ghastly things. They may be too large or too stuck to break down naturally, in which case lithotripsy (ultrasound waves to break it down) or one of the other modern forms of surgery will be appropriate.

That said, there are also several herbs that have become famous for treating kidney stones that should be considered as options for smaller stones, and for people who are prone to making a lot of stones. They go by such evocative names as 'Stone root' and Gravel root' and are available to anyone who goes looking for them, but I think that this is an area where a herbalist needs to be involved in person and have not writen up on how to use these herbs on this site.

The number one advice to give anyone who is prone to kidney stones is to prevent them from happening by never getting dehydrated! Eating plenty of citrus fruit also seems to help with prevention, and not eating too much sugar as described earlier.

Michael Moore's story

Michael Moore was a truly great American herbalist and he has had a strong influence on my own professional development even though I never had the chance to meet him in person.

This is Michael Moore’s story, in answer to a query about how to deal with kidney stones

“Lobelia tincture to stop the expelling cramps and relax the ureters...anywhere from 15 drops to as much as 60 drops, repeated every hour or two until either sleep occurs or the stone is residing in the bladder and the flank pain or clonic aching has stopped.

Follow up with lots of medium hot marshmallow, mallow, hollyhock, globemallow...i.e. malvaceae tea, drunk while in a rather hot but not scalding least an hour, preferably two.  The stone(s) should pass in copious urine. If it doesn't, or there is substantial reddening of the urine from blood or a fever begins, get thee to an ER.

It helps to know whether you are making alkaline (calcium/phosphorus) stones or acid (uric/huppuric acid) stones for future prevention.

 I followed this regimen 9 times over 20 years (including 2 episodes with hematuria) and passed them all.  The tenth time, last summer, gave me urecemia, septicemia, and acute kidney failure and almost killed me. I got too complacent and didn't evaluate the long-term damage all those stones had done to one of my la vida"


Kidney failure

Severe kidney disease leading to kidney failure is, obviously, an extremely grim prospect for all concerned. Dialysis is something that anyone would avoid if they could, as is the need for a kidney transplant. Wherever possible, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to take steps to prevent this from ever happening. Stay hydrated, don't eat too much sugar, keep the blood pressure healthy, use cleansing herbs from time to time if and when needed.

However, if the horse is bolted, then its too late to shut the gate afterwards. If you or a person you care for is facing kidney failure with all that comes with it, then I encourage you to take the time to read an excellent, and extremely thorough article by naturopath and herbalist Sharol Tilgner. If you do not have any medical training or familiarity with scientific articles, then it is going to be heavy reading but I think that it will still be able to achieve its goal, which is to show that there are a number of strategies that can greatly assist a person who is in a severe state of kidney illness.

These are strategies that would be used alongside, rather than instead of, conventional medical care, but if they can reduce the risk of organ rejection, reduce the need for drugs, increase the benefit of dialysis or, better still, increase the time before it becomes required, it will be worth the time to study and form a strategy based on her extensive research of the literature and what has been seen to help. As mentioned at the beginning, it may be most wise to consult with an experienced herbalist to assist you in this area. In any case, I wish you courage and good luck. Sharol's article can be found here

Juniperus communis (Juniper)


Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd