Kidney disease is a devastating illness that ranks in the top 10 non-communicable diseases contributing to death and disability. It affects 9.1 percent of the population worldwide. In 2017, 1.2 million people died from chronic kidney disease alone and 2.5 million people were on dialysis. If that wasn’t enough, the number of people on dialysis is expected to more than double to 5.4 million by 2030. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make right now that can significantly lower your risk of developing kidney disease.
To prevent kidney disease, we have to understand what causes it. The most significant contributor continues to be diabetes, diabetes, and diabetes! Now obesity is tied to type two diabetes and high blood pressure is linked to obesity. But diabetes by and far is the largest contributor to developing kidney disease.
Let’s look at lifestyle factors to prevent kidney disease. There is a fascinating meta-analysis published in 2020. The authors looked at 104 studies and over 2.7 million participants to see what is the link between diet, lifestyle, and chronic kidney disease.
The authors first looked at the link between food and kidney disease. They found that higher intakes of vegetables lowered your risk of developing kidney disease by 21 percent. A high potassium intake lowered your risk by 22 percent. And if you’re wondering what diet is rich in potassium, it’s simply a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Plant-based diets are rich in fruits and vegetables, which are great sources of potassium.
Now keep in mind that we limit high potassium foods in people with advanced chronic kidney disease. We have to closely monitor their potassium because as their kidney function goes down, they can’t eliminate potassium. High potassium can be very dangerous, leading to arrhythmias and even cardiac arrest.
The authors also looked at a number of different items. It was difficult to get statistical significance due to the heterogeneity in the studies. However, they found that all of the following items had a trend towards lowering kidney disease:
- Plant proteins
- Omega 3
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
On the other hand, when the authors look at red and processed meats, both of them were associated with a higher risk of kidney disease.
The authors then looked at the link between exercise and chronic kidney disease. They found that people who exercised versus those who hardly exercised had an 18 percent lower risk of developing chronic kidney disease. They defined exercise as least 30 minutes per day. If you think about it, we have 24 hours in a day, taking 30 minutes to exercise is very doable. And even if you can’t do it at once, you can split it up.
One thing that really surprised me about the study was the protective effect of alcohol intake. The researchers found that those consuming moderate alcohol intake, which is essentially one drink or less per day, had a 14 percent lower risk of developing kidney disease. Those who had excessive alcohol consumption, meaning more than one to four drinks a day, actually had evidence for direct kidney damage. This was independent of damage to the liver.
Smoking, on the other hand, did not have any protective benefit. In fact, both current smokers and people who had smoked in the past had an 18 percent higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease. The thought process here is smoking is linked to insulin resistance and it directly damages the endothelial cells lining your blood vessels. One of the many functions of endothelial cells is to relax blood vessels.
Smoking also creates advanced glycation end products or AGEs, which lead to damage by producing reactive oxygen species inside the body.
Looking at this data, what are the things you can walk away from and apply to your health right now? Here are the six main components.
- Eat potassium-rich foods to lower your risk for chronic kidney disease by 22 percent.
- Eat a diet that’s rich in vegetables like a whole-food, plant-based diet to reduce chronic kidney disease risk by twenty-one percent.
- Follow the SELF Principle and make sure that you’re getting at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. Exercise lowers your risk of developing chronic kidney disease by 18 percent.
- Reduce your alcohol consumption to one drink or less per day to lower your chronic kidney disease risk by 15 percent.
- If you’re a smoker, quit now! It’s the best single thing you can do for your health right now is to quit smoking. Both smokers and former smokers had an 18 percent higher risk of chronic kidney disease.
- Lastly, lower your salt intake: if you’re somebody who consumes a lot of salt, cut it down. Whole-food plant-based diets are naturally low in salt. The authors found that high salt diets had a 21 percent higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease.