Spotlight on Women's Health

Dr. Kajal Patel

Kidney Disease: What You Need to Know

March 22, 2018

Did you know that March is National Kidney Month? It’s a time to talk about kidney health and chronic kidney disease, a common disease among adults in the United States. That’s why we asked Dr. Kajal Patel, a doctor who specializes in kidney care and disease treatment, to share how women can keep their kidneys healthy and what they need to know about chronic kidney disease. Get her tips for kidney health and learn about women’s unique risk factors for kidney disease.

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What do our kidneys do?

Most of us have two functioning kidneys. They perform important jobs to keep our bodies working as they should, including filtering our blood to remove extra waste and fluid to make urine.

Our kidneys also help control our blood pressure, make red blood cells, and keep our bones healthy. If a person has kidney disease, their kidneys may not be able to perform these duties as well or at all.

What steps can women take to keep their kidneys healthy?

You can take steps to keep your kidneys healthy by leading an overall healthy life. That means eating well, exercising regularly, managing your stress, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking or quitting smoking, limiting your alcohol, and getting plenty of sleep. I also encourage you to:

  • Know the risks of kidney disease. Women who have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or a family history of kidney failure are more likely to develop kidney disease. It’s important to talk to your doctor about managing any of these risk factors.
  • See a doctor or nurse right away if you develop a urinary tract infection (UTI) so that they prescribe you an antibiotic to treat it. An untreated UTI can hurt your kidneys.
  • Have a conversation with your doctor or nurse about kidney health at your next checkup.

What is chronic kidney disease?

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) means your kidneys are damaged and they can’t filter your blood the way healthy kidneys can. There are different causes and stages of CKD, so if you are diagnosed with CKD, it’s important to work with your doctor to help you figure out the cause and come up with the right treatment plan.

Are some women more likely to get chronic kidney disease than others?

Some people are more likely to get CKD than others. For example, kidney disease is more common in African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, people over 60, and people with a family history of kidney failure. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the leading causes of kidney disease.

However, we know there are some interesting reasons why women may develop CKD. Pregnancy can cause acute kidney injury (AKI), or the sudden loss of kidney function. High blood pressure and obesity in women during the years when they can have children increases the risk of developing preeclampsia in pregnancy, which can lead to AKI. Women who have AKI and preeclampsia during pregnancy are at higher risk of high blood pressure and CKD later in life.

Additionally, autoimmune diseases like lupus are more likely to affect women and can damage organs, including the kidneys.

Are there steps women can take to manage chronic kidney disease?

Yes. For starters, finding a doctor who you trust and have a good relationship with is key to navigating life with CKD. You can work together to come up with a plan to treat your kidney disease before it leads to kidney failure (which is when your kidneys have lost most of their ability to function). Your plan may include taking medicines and managing any other conditions or diseases you’re living with, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

You will also want to take steps to lead an overall healthy life, such as making healthy food choices, managing stress, and getting plenty of exercise.

What role does nutrition play in kidney disease management?

For women with kidney disease, it’s really important to work with your doctor and/or a dietitian to make a healthy eating plan that’s right for you. Making changes to what you eat can help keep kidney disease from getting worse. You may need to keep a close eye on the amounts of protein, salt, and important minerals in your diet. If your kidneys don’t work well, for example, too much sodium can cause fluid buildup in your body and high blood pressure, which strains your heart. You also want to watch out for potassium: Kidney disease may raise levels of the mineral in your blood, which is known as hyperkalemia. This can cause serious problems, including heart issues. In addition to taking medicine that treats hyperkalemia, women may need to cut back on foods that are high in potassium, like bananas and sweet potatoes. I know this sounds like the opposite of what most people learn about certain nutrients. That’s why it’s so important to work with an expert who can help you learn what you should eat and drink to manage kidney disease.

What should women ask their doctors to learn about their risk of chronic kidney disease?

Ask your doctor if your risk of kidney disease is higher than normal. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart or blood vessel problems, ask whether you need to be tested for kidney disease. The only way to know whether you have kidney disease for sure is to get tested.

Most women will not have severe symptoms in the early stages of kidney disease. But do let your doctor know if you start noticing some of these symptoms:

  • Less energy
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Poor appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Swollen feet or ankles
  • Need to urinate more often, especially at night

Learn more about chronic kidney disease.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.