Diabetes is a common condition that affects an estimated 34.2 million Americans,¹ or about 10.5% of the population. It is characterized by the body’s inability to properly convert sugars into energy, resulting in higher than normal blood sugars.
Extra sugar in the blood can lead to unpleasant symptoms in the short term and many types of damage to the body in the long term. One organ that is commonly affected by diabetes is the kidneys.
Even if you have already suffered from kidney damage due to diabetes, making some lifestyle changes early in the process can result in slowed kidney damage and better overall health.
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Your kidneys have the essential function of acting as a filter for your blood and allowing you to excrete toxins through your urine. Kidneys contain networks of filters called nephrons, enabling your kidneys to sift out the bad stuff and keep the good stuff in your blood.
When your diabetes is poorly controlled, excessive amounts of sugar stay in your blood. This can cause damage to the nephrons and other blood vessels in your kidneys. It makes it harder for your kidneys to do their job, leading to substantial damage to your kidneys over time.
Additionally, people with diabetes commonly suffer from high blood pressure, which can also cause damage to their kidneys.
You can develop chronic kidney disease (CKD) if your kidneys sustain enough damage. CKD impacts an estimated 37 million Americans,² although most people who have it don’t realize it until it reaches the later stages and produces difficult symptoms.
The symptoms depend primarily upon the severity of the kidney damage. However, those who are in the beginning stages of kidney damage or are in stage one of CKD may show the following symptoms:
Newly diagnosed high blood pressure
Frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Swelling in feet and hands
Protein or blood in the urine
Showing kidney damage on MRI, ultrasound, or other tests
Most people with stage one CKD won’t have noticeable symptoms, so you should always have your annual physical exam. Your doctor may recommend various blood panels that can show kidney damage. They may also see physical signs of kidney damage when they perform an exam.
Catching kidney disease early is the best way to prevent further damage.
If you are in more severe stages of CKD, you may experience some of these symptoms:
Nausea, headaches, and vomiting
Dry, itchy skin
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
Muscle cramps or weakness
Difficulties concentrating and feeling excessively tired
Decrease in urine output
Chronic kidney disease can also cause other health problems, like heart disease and anemia in its later stages.
People with acute or sudden kidney damage may be able to get the damage reversed, but those with chronic or long-term kidney damage or disease cannot reverse it.
Still, making some lifestyle changes early on can slow the damage to your kidneys and keep them optimally functional. Some crucial steps to take to slow kidney damage from diabetes include the following:
Most people have heard the advice to drink eight glasses of water daily, but that rule of thumb may not apply to everyone. It depends mainly on body type, climate, age, exercise, etc. Some people may need more water, while others may require less to stay hydrated.
Staying hydrated is vital for many aspects of health, but when it comes to kidney health, hydration helps your kidneys better filter out toxins from your blood. If you don’t have enough water in your system, your kidneys may have a more challenging time doing their job. Severe dehydration can also lead to kidney damage.
Drinking adequate amounts of water can prevent kidney stones and urinary tract infections from developing, which can also help you better maintain your kidney health. It’s best to get your fluids from plain water, as sugar-sweetened beverages can spike your blood sugar, further damaging your kidneys.
Your doctor may recommend fluid restriction³ if you are in the later stages of chronic kidney disease. Too much fluid can negatively impact dialysis, and severely damaged kidneys don’t process water like healthy or mildly damaged kidneys.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to manage your diabetes. It can keep your blood sugar levels more consistent during and immediately after exercise and hours after the physical activity.
Regular exercise can also keep your blood pressure under control, lower your bad cholesterol, help you get better sleep, and achieve a healthy weight, all of which can improve the health of your kidneys.
Physical activity doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym to pump iron for hours. It can mean playing with your kids or dog, gardening, strolling around the neighborhood, and doing yoga. A little physical activity is also better than none, so you can start small if necessary.
Numerous diets promise to do much, but eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. Consuming lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy while limiting saturated fats and sugars is the key to keeping your diabetes in check and your kidneys as healthy as possible.
People with later stages of CKD may need to limit sodium, potassium, and phosphorus, but those in earlier stages may just need to focus on reducing salt and sugar intake.
If you are having trouble creating meal plans or sticking to a balanced diet, your doctor may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian.
Checking your blood sugar at regular intervals can help you better understand which foods lead to spikes in blood sugar and which foods or activities help keep it in check. Your doctor may recommend checking your blood sugar once or twice a day or before and after meals.
Many people feel their blood sugars are out of whack, but others don’t show any symptoms. Regularly monitoring your blood sugar can empower you to keep your blood sugar levels more balanced, which can help your overall health.
One treatment option for diabetes is medication; some prescriptions can help your blood sugar management, even more, when paired with lifestyle changes.
If your doctor prescribes you medication for diabetes, be sure to take it as directed. Missing doses or taking them at irregular times may decrease its effectiveness. If you experience concerning side effects from the medication, speak to your doctor about trying something different or lowering your dose.
The above lifestyle changes may not fully reverse the damage done to your kidneys by diabetes, but they can certainly slow or stop the kidney damage and diabetes from progressing.
If you believe you have diabetes or kidney disease, making an appointment to speak with your doctor about your symptoms might be helpful. Your doctor may perform a physical exam and run some blood tests to check for signs of diabetes and kidney damage.
If you receive an official diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for education about how to manage your symptoms and keep your blood sugar under control.
If you already have a diabetes or kidney disease diagnosis, get regular exams⁴ and stay in touch with your doctor when you notice new and concerning symptoms. You can also make an appointment with your doctor if you have difficulty keeping your blood sugar levels within your target.
Diabetes is a complex condition that can be difficult to manage, and many people with diabetes find it stressful to make lifestyle changes to keep their blood sugars more balanced. Making such lifestyle changes can get easier over time, enhancing your overall health while keeping your kidneys functional and in good working order.
If you feel that your diabetes is poorly controlled, or you are worried about your kidney health, it never hurts to make an appointment to talk with your doctor about your concerns.
National diabetes statistics report 2020 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What is chronic kidney disease? | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Your diabetes care schedule | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Hypertension in diabetes | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Center of disease control and prevention: Most people with CKD still don’t know they have it | National Kidney Foundation
Stage 1 of chronic kidney disease CKD: Causes, symptoms and treatment | National Kidney Fund
CKD related health problems | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sudden loss of kidney function: Do you know what to do in this emergency? | National Kidney Foundation
Hydration and kidney health (2014)
Staying fit with kidney disease | National Kidney Foundation
Eating right for chronic kidney disease | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases