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Did you know summer heat can increase the risk of developing kidney stones? It’s true. Experts have found that as you sweat more and become dehydrated, the minerals that usually stay dissolved in your urine can’t get filtered out, creating a build-up of stones.
If you’ve had kidney stones in the past, you probably know it. Kidney stones can be super painful and can zap you of energy. I’ve struggled with kidney stones myself, so I know from personal experience how awful they can be.
Kidney stones are not something you want to experience while on vacation with family, or while working on summer projects. So, if you think you might be at higher risk, keep reading. I’ll share some ideas in this article on how to avoid them.
What Are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stones are sand or pebble-like pieces of material that form in the kidneys from minerals in the urine. They can be fine like grains of sand, coarse like gravel, or even larger, like rocks. (Yikes!) They mostly range in size from a grain of sand to a green pea.
Small stones pass easily through the urinary system, leaving the body through the urethra. The problem comes when a larger stone gets stuck, creating a blockage. Kidney stones may or may not cause pain, depending on their size and whether there’s also an infection going on.
While kidney stones aren’t as common in women as they are in men, they still affect about 10% of us, and that number is rising. Kidney stones might affect up to 14.8% of the population. A lot of the reason has to do with the old standbys: diet and exercise.
Types of Kidney Stones
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), there are four types of kidney stones. These are named for what they’re made out of, calcium oxalate, uric acid, struvite, and cystine.
- Calcium Stones — 80% of kidney stones are calcium oxalate stones mixed with calcium phosphate. Eating more calcium-rich food doesn’t make you more likely to have these stones.
- Uric acid Stones— 5% to 10% of kidney stones are uric acid stones. These stones form when you have too much acid in your urine. This can happen from overeating any kind of meat, but it’s more common from overdoing organ meats.
- Struvite Stones— If you have a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), it can cause struvite stones to form. These can come up quickly and cause a lot of pain due to their large size.
- Cystine Stones — This type of stone isn’t as common, as it’s associated with a genetic disorder called Cystinuria. This disorder causes the amino acid cystine to get into the urine, creating cystine stones.
Depending on where your stone is located, it will get an additional name. If it’s in the ureters of your urinary tract, it’s called a “ureteral stone.” If it’s in the bladder, (you guessed it) it’s called a bladder stone. If a stone gets stuck in the ureter, it can block the flow of urine, causing pain.
No matter the cause, there are some things you can do to improve your kidney health and lessen your chances of developing stones.
What Are Common Signs of Kidney Stones?
So how do we know if it’s a kidney stone? Some common symptoms of kidney stones include:
- A constant need to pee
- Pain while urinating
- Difficulty peeing — either you can’t at all, or can only pee a small amount at a time
- Cloudy urine
- Bad smelling urine
- Severe pain — in the mid to lower back, side, lower abdomen, or groin area.
- Blood in the urine — may show up as pink, red, or brown
- Fever and/or chills
The symptoms may come and go, and the pain could be just a temporary tinge or severe kidney stone pain that lasts.
Testing for Kidney Stones
If you think you might be dealing with kidney stones, it’s best to find out for sure with testing. Talk to your doctor about the following lab tests:
- Imaging Tests — Examples are ultrasounds, X-rays, and CT scans. These help your doctor see anything unusual in the kidneys, such as a stone.
- Blood Test — A blood test can check for high levels of minerals in the blood that may lead to kidney stones.
- Urine Test — A urine test is similar, in that it can check for minerals in the urine that could lead to kidney stones. It can also determine whether you’re dealing with a Urinary Tract Infection.
- Stone Analysis — Sometimes you can actually see the stones. In that case, you may want to strain out the stones and bring them to your doctor for testing.
So how exactly do we get kidney stones? Men are more likely than women to get stones, but women can still get them.
What Causes Kidney Stones?
If any of these habits or issues sound like you, you might be dealing with kidney stones:
Not Drinking Enough Fluids
Not drinking enough water is one of the main causes of kidney stones, according to the NIDDK. It’s important to stay hydrated for many reasons, including preventing kidney stones. I talk with Dr. Tom DiGiuseppe about how to improve water quality here.
Eating (or Drinking) Too Much Sugar
Eating too much sugar is associated with a greater risk of kidney stones, especially when it comes to fructose.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one of the main ingredients in soft drinks today. Researchers found that drinking soft drinks, particularly, “cola beverages” increased the likelihood a person would end up with kidney stones.
Keep in mind that fructose makes up half of the molecules in white sugar (the other half is glucose). So, if you’re opting for sugar-sweetened soft drinks over the HFCS version, you’re still consuming some fructose.
Here are 10 reasons to avoid soda (and how to kick the habit.)
Eating Too Much in General
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to overeat. Summertime, with all its reunions, parties, beach time, pontoon snacks, and more can add up the calories quickly.
A study of women who were participating in the Women’s Health Initiative found that eating over 2200 calories per day increased their chances of getting kidney stones by up to 42%.
However, the type and source of calories matter.
Not Getting Enough Exercise
If you’re not getting enough exercise, you may not be pumping fluids through your system as well — including urine and its minerals. Plus, if you’re overweight from eating too much while also not getting in enough exercise, you’ll also increase your risk of kidney stones.
Obesity is associated with kidney stones.
Oxalates are anti-nutrients in foods that could form oxalate stones by combining with minerals in the body. Soy is one of those high oxalate foods that’s associated with kidney stones.
Toxicity From Phthalates
Diethylhexyl Phthalate (DEHP/DOP) is a type of phthalate that accumulates in the kidneys and may increase the risk of kidney stones. It’s in all kinds of building materials and consumer products that you’re likely to find in your home. Examples include roofing materials, flooring, and PVC pipes. It’s also in shower curtains, the plastics in car interiors, and plastic toys.
Read more about phthalates and how to avoid them here.
Too Much Fluoride
Taking in too much fluoride can increase the risk of kidney stones. According to a study in Urology Research, people who live in areas with fluoridated drinking water have higher rates of kidney stones. Kidney stones were almost 5 times more common in higher fluoride areas, compared to places with lower water fluoride levels.
Are You at an Increased Risk for Kidney Stones?
You’re at higher risk for kidney stones if any of the following apply to you:
- Family history of kidney stones
- Born with kidney abnormalities
- Diagnosed with kidney disease
- Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
- Digestive problems, including Inflammatory Bowel Disease or anything causing malabsorption
- Have oxalate issues
- High levels of uric acid, often causing gout
- On certain medications, including diuretics (“water pills”) and calcium-based antacids (like Tums®, which are calcium carbonate). These are more likely to cause kidney stones if taken for a long time.
Natural Remedies for Healthy Kidneys
Even if you’re prone to kidney stones because of certain medical conditions or family history, there are still things you can do for happier kidneys.
Drink More Water
The most important thing to do if you have kidney stones is to drink more water. One study showed that if you drink enough water to make 2 to 2 ½ liters of urine, it could help prevent kidney stones. (Tip from medical reviewer Dr. Tim Jackson: Drink water with electrolytes, especially one that contains potassium! For people prone to kidney stones, too much water without potassium may cause excess excretion of important minerals.)
Say No to Sugar
Diabetics are more likely to develop kidney stones than non-diabetics. Researchers found that a diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugar and sugar products) is more likely to cause calcium oxalate stones.
Avoid high oxalate foods
Oxalates come from foods like soy, almonds, rhubarb, and spinach. When eaten, they can combine with other minerals in the body forming crystals and creating oxalate kidney stones. The Cleveland Clinic recommends an “oxalate-controlled” diet for kidney stones. I cover oxalates and how to limit them here.
Citrus Juice and ACV
Citrus juices like lemon juice can help break down the crystals that form stones. However, watch out for orange juice, as it may be too high in fructose and sugar in general.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) seems to be a remedy for just about everything and it comes through again for kidney stones. It likely works as an “alkalizing agent” which has been found to help kidney stones. ACV may also be able to help balance blood pressure.
Magnesium helps prevent stone formation, particularly calcium oxalate stones. The citrate version may be even more effective, since citrates may help break down stones. Learn more about the health benefits of magnesium.
Get Enough (But Not Too Much) Calcium
I know it’s counterintuitive with calcium oxalate stones, but it’s important to get enough calcium in the diet. Research has found that getting enough calcium through food helps lower the risk of kidney stones.
However, taking calcium as a supplement might be another story. Research from the Nurses Health Study found that while dietary calcium lowered the risk of kidney stones, taking calcium supplements increased it.
Enjoy calcium-rich foods, and you may not need to supplement. Combine this with vitamin K2 to escort calcium to the proper body tissues.
Incorporate Aloe Vera Gel
The citrate and tartrate in 100 grams of the fresh gel (taken twice a day) show potential in breaking down kidney stones.
Try Chanca piedra (Phyllanthus niruri)
This Brazilian herb, used in folk medicine for kidney stones, may help prevent the crystallization of calcium, which would otherwise lead to calcium oxalate stones. You can easily find it as a supplement online.
In a Brazilian study, researchers gave patients 4.5 grams of chanca piedra a day for 3 months. The herb helped decrease the size and number of kidney stones in about two-thirds of those who participated in the study. Worth a try!
Increase Physical Activity
Getting some exercise is important if you’re trying to avoid kidney stones. According to a study in Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (which is all about kidney health), even light exercise could help. What’s considered “light exercise”?
The study found that women’s chances of getting kidney stones were reduced by 31% by doing things like basic walking (2-3 mph) for 3 hours a week, gardening for 4 hours a week, or moderate jogging (6 mph) just an hour a week.
The Bottom Line on Kidney Stones
While having kidney stones is no walk in the park, there are plenty of ways to help prevent them. Even if you’re at high risk, maintaining a healthy lifestyle goes a long way to help with kidney stones.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you have a natural remedy for kidney stones? If so, please share it with us below!
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