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Understanding Your Blood Tests: Kidney Health

blood vial on kidney blood test results
September 13, 2018 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Imagine for a minute what life would be like without garbage collectors. Trash piled up on your curb. The smell of rotting food wafting down your street. Flies feasting and spreading germs on whatever else they land on. I’m getting sick thinking about it!

You’re so reliant on regular garbage pick up that it’s hard to imagine life without it. I bring this up because your kidneys essentially do the same thing to the waste and toxins in your body, except they do it 24/7/365 instead of once a week. And many people have been taking their kidneys for granted for so long without caring for them, we’re seeing a growing trend in kidney disease nationwide.

Not sure how your kidneys are faring? Blood tests can help us understand the causes and risks of kidney disease…but what do all of the numbers and abbreviations mean? What exactly are doctors looking for? I’m here to help you understand kidney blood tests so that you can understand what causes kidney problems, how to prevent them, and how to improve the overall functioning of your kidneys.

How Your Kidneys Work and Your Risk of Kidney Disease

Your kidneys work tirelessly removing cellular waste from your body, turning it into urine, and sending it to your bladder for elimination. But when they are damaged, toxins and waste can accumulate, leading to kidney damage and disease.

What causes kidney disease? For many people, kidney disease slowly develops over the course of decades as a result from excess toxins in their diet and lifestyle. Under constant duress, those overworked kidneys gradually lose their ability to do their job as effectively – leading to more toxic accumulation and an even bigger workload.

But it’s not always diet and lifestyle. High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, adverse drug interactions, smoking, heavy drinking, and your genetic makeup can all damage your kidneys, too.

Basically, we’re all at risk, especially as we get older. And the scariest part is that there are very few recognizable signs of kidney damage. The lack of symptoms specific to kidney disease is one reason why it can go undetected for many years. It’s what we call an asymptomatic disease, and once it begins, there is no cure.

You can only slow its progress or replace the failed kidney’s function with dialysis or a transplant. These are both painful and life-altering decisions. Dialysis is expensive, uncomfortable, and time consuming. And a transplant? The waiting list is often years long, and you’ll likely get sicker while you wait.

This is becoming a worrisome trend. According to the National Kidney Foundation, about 30 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and millions more are currently at risk for it.

This number does not have to be so high. You can protect yourself from kidney disease starting today.

How to Read Kidney Blood Tests

My intention is not to scare you. But I am truly passionate about preventative care—how you care for your body today will pay dividends 10 to 20 years from now. This is especially true for kidney disease.

Given the lack of symptoms or a cure, early detection is an urgent priority. The longer kidney disease goes untreated, the more damage can accumulate.

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But a routine blood test can tell you everything you need to know about the markers for kidney disease – how your kidneys are functioning and whether waste levels in your blood are below, within or above a healthy range.

Of course, if you’re a not doctor, test results appear written in another language that they only teach in med school. I’m here to breakdown three key things you should look for in your blood tests and how to read them.

  • BUN/Creatinine Ratio: This test shows if your kidneys are eliminating waste properly. High levels of creatinine, a byproduct of muscle contractions, are excreted through your kidneys and suggest reduced kidney function. A healthy BUN/creatinine ratio is 10:1 to 20:1, though men and older individuals may be a bit higher. A low ratio might be as simple as a lower protein diet, but it may also signal muscle or liver damage.
  • Calcium: Too much calcium in your bloodstream could indicate not just kidney problems but a host of others – overly active thyroid or parathyroid glands, certain types of cancer (including lymphoma), problems with your pancreas, vitamin D deficiency, and more. Calcium levels between 9.0 to 10.5 mg/dL are considered healthy, though older individuals typically score a little lower than that. Low calcium might indicate low protein, magnesium, or vitamin D levels; too much phosphorus; pancreatitis; underactive parathyroid gland
  • Estimated Glomerular Filtration Rate (eGFR): This test estimates the amount of blood passing through special filters (glomeruli) in your kidneys that filter waste from blood. A range above 100 mL/min is considered healthy. A low rate indicates potential kidney damage.

These tests will let you know if your kidney is functioning well, and they’ll serve as clues if you and your doctor suspect your kidneys of doing poorly. If you receive test scores outside of the healthy range described above, that’s a sign that you and your doctor need to keep digging, in order to figure out what the underlying cause of kidney damage is and how you can fix it.

I strongly urge that you to get a blood test annually to stay on top of your kidney health. They’re usually run along with a host of other critical tests—liver health, cholesterol levels, sodium and sugar levels, and so much more. And as always, speak with you doctor about your blood tests. These conversations don’t have to be long but they are critical to your health.

Protecting Yourself Before and After Blood Testing

If this article has made you worried about the results of your future blood tests, you can begin feeling better today by eliminating habits that make you more susceptible to kidney disease. For starters, stop smoking today and replace processed foods with more fruits and vegetables.

In addition, I want to simplify your kidney care by focusing on two major things: water and sugar.

Dark yellow urine can indicate that your kidneys are working hard to remove excess toxins. But it also indicates that you need to drink more water. Proper hydration dilutes the concentration of toxins in your body, thus easing your kidney’s workload. This is evidenced by streams of clear urine. Less color, fewer toxins.

I recommend that you drink one-half ounce of water for every pound you weigh. For example, a 200-pound person should drink at least 100 ounces of water daily.

Glucose (sugar) levels are a little more difficult to manage, especially for diabetics. But it’s important because, simply put, high levels of sugar in your blood wreak havoc on all your organs that rely on your blood for fuel. Think of it as putting the wrong kind of gasoline in your car.

For diabetics, it’s important that your management of glucose levels is airtight. For those who don’t have diabetes, it’s important that you stay that way. Your diet is a large part of that. Another is exercising regularly to burn those excess calories and regulate glucose levels.

Simple Recipe for Lifelong Kidney Health

Our kidneys work hard to remove toxins from our bodies and you are in control of their workload. Be a good boss to your kidneys by staying hydrated and watching your sugar intake and glucose levels. You’ll be doing a great favor to your kidneys and a great favor to the rest of your body as well. And you can get the satisfaction of reading your annual blood tests yourself as proof!

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