Your kidneys are incredible filters that work constantly to remove waste compounds from your blood and eliminate them via urine. Part of your body’s detoxification system, your entire blood supply passes through your kidneys[i] in just five minutes. And, over the course of a day, between one and two litres of waste leaves your body as urine.
Staying well hydrated is vital for your general good health and kidney health. Your kidneys need enough water to efficiently remove wastes through the urinary tract and prevent the build up of toxins. Think fast flowing waterfall rather than small, stagnant pond!
If you drive for a living and/or have limited access to rest breaks or you spend a long time seated, how can you protect your kidney health?
Some symptoms associated with potential kidney problems
Symptoms can vary depending on your individual circumstances and some people don’t get any symptoms at all. Some of the more common symptoms of kidney problems can be quite non-specific. They include:
- Lack of energy
- Poor appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- High blood pressure
- Swelling in the hands and feet due to fluid retention
Other symptoms of potential kidney problems are more easily identifiable as related to the body’s urinary system, such as:
- Blood in the urine
- Passing stones in the urine
- Painful urination
- Dark and/or cloudy urine
- Severe lower back pain.
An example of a common kidney-related condition – kidney stones
Not having easy access to fluids throughout the day raises your risk of kidney stones, which occur when naturally occurring salts or minerals in the urine clump together to form hard masses. The more concentrated the urine, the higher the likelihood that these salts or minerals will clump together.
Kidney stones affect four to eight per cent of the general population[ii] and, usually, the crystals are small and the minerals are dissolved in urine so they pass through without you noticing. But if salts clump together and become too large to pass easily, they can get stuck in the ureter (the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder). This blocks urine flow, causing severe pain (also called ‘renal colic’) and can also lead to infection and kidney damage.
More men are affected by kidney stones than women – one in 10 men compared to one in 35 in women. And, a family history of kidney stones, a history of urine infections and some medications also raises your risk.
Normally, there are no symptoms until a severe and sharp pain sends you running to the doctor. Painkillers may be all that’s needed, but if the pain is severe, hospital admission may be necessary. Surgery may then be required to remove the kidney stone or stones.
What can you do to reduce the risk of development of kidney problems?
There are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk for kidney problems:
- Drink more water
‘The main risks for people who drive for a living is that of relative dehydration,’ says Dr Tim Mathew, National Medical Director, at Kidney Health Australia. ‘Drivers should ensure that they drink at least two litres of water per day – and even more in the hotter times of the year.’
Life coach and accredited practising dietitian, Shivaun Conn agrees stressing that organisation is key. ‘Try to prepare for your journey by taking along large bottles of frozen water – they’ll provide refreshing hydration along the way.’ And, while it may not be convenient, try to stop for breaks as often as possible.
- Drink less alcohol
Limit alcohol to up to two standard drinks per day for men, one per day for women. According to the National Kidney Foundation, alcohol affects how your kidneys function, reducing their ability to filter harmful toxins in the blood.
- Have a health check
‘For drivers at risk, it is vital that they see their GP and organise an annual kidney check up,’ says Dr Mathew. This is especially important if close family relatives have had kidney disease or another chronic disease.
Even if you don’t have kidney problems or symptoms, a health examination (such as a blood test, urine analysis and/or x-ray) is important to discovering potential health problems – so don’t dodge your doctor!
- Don’t smoke
Smoking can harm your kidneys even if you have no other diseases and smokers are three times more likely to have reduced kidney function[iii]. And, stopping smoking can bring real benefits – this study showed that former smokers had fewer kidney problems than current smokers suggesting that smoking-induced changes are temporary and may be reversed if you stub out the habit.
- Eat smarter
‘A healthy Mediterranean type of diet is increasingly being shown to be beneficial in preventing Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) and in minimising the risk of progression of the disease,’ says Dr Mathew. ‘It’s also important to get regular exercise and avoid getting too heavy as this can increase your risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure both of which are major risk factors for kidney disease.’
Diabetes and high blood pressure can damage your delicate kidneys. The damage happens gradually over many years without symptoms. That’s why it’s vital to try and keep your blood glucose levels and your blood pressure levels within normal limits.
Opt for low GI (glycaemic index) foods which help to keep your mind and body fuelled for longer and help your body to control blood glucose levels – very high and/or very low levels can damage tiny blood vessels including those that nourish your kidneys. Making sure you don’t get overly hungry can also help you make healthier choices when you’re faced with truck stop favourites.
Eating plenty of veggies and two fruits daily not only hydrate you but also provide potassium, which can help your body moderate sodium (salt) levels. Too much sodium means that your body uses water to try and get rid of the excess, which can mean you lose water. So enjoy more potassium-rich foods (bananas are especially rich in potassium). Try slicing banana and adding to sugar free, low-fat yoghurt and freezing both together for a healthy snack on-the-go.
And watch your dressings. The creamy, cheesy kinds can be rich in salt as well as fat. Stick with balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil if you can.
- Get organised
‘Try to plan around your shift and your journey,’ says Shivaun. ‘For example, take some freeze-able snacks with you – frozen grapes and yoghurt are particularly good and provide fluid, too.’
As well as increasing fluids in foods and drinks, Shivaun suggests that you decrease sodium (salt), which can be dehydrating – not good for your kidneys or your blood pressure.
‘Quick snacks like natural popcorn or unsalted nuts are better choices than a handful of chips, so keep a supply with you. And, while a ready-prepared salad may not satisfy your hunger, adding extra protein in the form of tinned salmon or tuna salad can help you feel more satisfied.’
‘Keeping snacks and foods that you can add to fresh bought foods helps to prevent you getting too hungry. This way, you’re mentally prepared to make better health choices,’ says Shivaun. ‘Healthy snacks are also important because it helps to prevent you getting too hungry and grabbing unhealthy fast food choices.’
- Watch your coffee breaks
Caffeine is a diuretic that causes the body to lose fluids excessively. Too many coffees and caffeine-containers like energy drinks and colas means that your kidneys are forced to work harder to pump out fluid and toxins because caffeine acts as a diuretic. Losing water from your body leaves you more vulnerable to dehydration, leading to kidney problems.
- Move more!
Aim to exercise so that you are a little out of breath – around 30 minutes each day is recommended by health experts. If your work/life schedule means you can’t fit in half an hour all at once, aim for three bouts of ten minutes dotted throughout the day. If you haven’t exercised for a while and/or if you have a medical condition, check with your GP first.
Sitting for long periods can contribute to kidney problems according to a study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, men can see a benefit in kidney health by reducing their sitting time from eight to three hours, by 15 per cent[iv]. And, exercise boosted health even more when the men trained. Brisk walking, jogging or running on the treadmill may be more important for men, whilst cutting prolonged periods of sitting time may be more important for women according to the researchers. Plus, try to take frequent breaks, get out of your vehicle or stand up at your desk and stretch. This is great for your circulation and may help boost your concentration, too.
- Adopt a positive ‘stay well’ attitude.
Although you can’t avoid stress completely, try mechanisms that help you keep anxiety under control. Yoga is a great de-stressor and you don’t need to go to a class to get the benefits. You can download free apps that guide you through basic stretching and relaxing exercises (although you may want to get a professional to help you get the moves just right as you begin).
- Careful with those bumpy rides!
It’s thought that long-distance truck drivers may have a higher incidence of kidney bruising or damage compared with people doing other jobs. Driving over road bumps, potholes and rough terrain mean your body absorbs the vibrations via your vehicle and this may result in kidney disorders[v] (taxi drivers, truck drivers and mechanised equipment operators may also be at risk).
When you’re driving, try to make your seat as comfortable as possible. A good quality seat cushion may help to reduce vibrations. And when you’re on the road, park your vehicle, get out and stretch your legs as often as you can – good for your circulation and your concentration.
- When nature calls, answer!
When you need to go, go! By postponing it, your body reabsorbs some of the toxins it’s trying to get rid of.
Jui Tham is Chief Medical Officer at rt health fund
[i] Kidney Health Australia. All about our kidneys. http://www.kidney.org.au/kidneydisease/howourkidneyswork/tabid/590/default.aspx
[ii] Renal Resource Centre. Fact Sheet – Kidney Stones. http://www.renalresource.com/factsheets/kidneystones.php
[iii] Pinto-Sietsma SJ, Mulder J, Janssen WM, Hillege HL, de Zeeuw D, de Jong PE. Smoking is related to albuminuria and abnormal renal function in nondiabetic persons. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2000;133:585–591. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671650/
[iv] Nilesh Bharakhada, Thomas Yates, Melanie J. Davies, Emma G. Wilmot, Charlotte Edwardson, PhD, Joe Henson, David Webb, Kamlesh Khunti
Association of Sitting Time and Physical Activity With CKD: A Cross-sectional Study in Family Practices. American Journal of Kidney Diseases 2012; doi:10.1053/j.ajkd.2012.04.024. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/251012.php
[v] Stephen J.Benstowe long driving hours and the health of truck drivers. New Jersey’s Science and Technology University. http://archives.njit.edu/vol01/etd/2000s/2008/njit-etd2008-006/njit-etd2008-006.pdf