Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys
Kidneys are body organs that most of us take for granted. They’re hidden, do their job, and generally require no intervention or attention until they fail. By then, it might be too late, hastening death or, at the very least, making life intolerable. In fact, however, we could be doing major damage right now to these vital organs without knowing it. Every time we consume alcohol, we’re putting our kidneys – as well as other parts of the body – in jeopardy. Here’s what’s so bad about chronic drinking and the long-term damage alcohol can do to the kidneys.
HOW KIDNEYS FUNCTION
First, though, it’s important to understand the role and function of the kidneys. How important are they to the body? What exactly do they do?
According to the National Kidney Foundation, the kidneys have six vital functions in the human body:
- Kidneys filter the blood to remove toxins and wastes.
- Vitamin D, important for healthy bone maintenance, is activated by the kidneys.
- Regulating the volume and concentration of the body’s fluids is a function handled by the kidneys.
- Keeping blood pressure in balance and under control is accomplished by the kidneys’ release of a hormone.
- Kidneys also release a hormone that directs the body’s production of red blood cells.
- Blood minerals (potassium, sodium and phosphorus) are maintained in balance by the kidneys.
Clearly, healthy kidneys are essential to overall well-being.
HOW ALCOHOL AFFECTS THE KIDNEYS
One of the toxins that kidneys filter from the blood is alcohol. While a drink or two now and then is probably safe for most people, heavy drinking, binge drinking and chronic drinking is bound to wreak havoc on the kidneys. Alcohol counteracts the kidneys’ toxin-filtering capacity, thus setting the stage for further damage and increased risk of medical complications.
Besides the kidneys’ filtering of toxins function, they also help maintain the right amount of water in the body. Alcohol has a drying effect, which can seriously impair the kidneys’ ability to keep bodily fluids in balance. Dehydration from alcohol affects not only the kidneys, but hampers the functioning of other organs and cells.
Another negative effect of alcohol consumption on the kidneys is what it does to blood pressure. Drinking alcohol to excess can lead to an increase in blood pressure. Alcoholics and heavy drinkers are more likely to have high blood pressure than moderate drinkers or those who abstain from drinking alcohol. Over time, this can lead to chronic high blood pressure. One of the common causes of kidney disease is high blood pressure.
There’s also the risk of liver disease from chronic drinking. To filter blood appropriately, the kidneys need blood flow to them maintained at a certain level. Among alcoholics and others with liver disease, the fine balance of blood flow and blood filtering by the kidneys is thrown off-kilter. A key point to remember is that those who have both liver disease (alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis) and impaired or associated kidney disease in the United States are alcohol dependent.
CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE
While there are other causes of chronic kidney disease (diabetes, infections, inflammation, other diseases) independent of heavy drinking, there’s no denying the fact that the damage to kidneys from excessive and chronic alcohol consumption can contribute to a gradual or rapid decline in both overall health and quality of life.
Of note, a five-year prospective study of Australian adults self-categorized as moderate or heavy drinkers, concluded that heavy drinking, in particular, was “a significant modifiable risk factor for the development of albuminuria.” However, the study also found that “neither the biological mechanism by which alcohol induces kidney damage” nor the process history and relationship with kidney function markers is not clearly understood and warrants further research.
Besides the known causes of chronic kidney disease, risk factors for developing it include smoking, a family history of kidney disease, abnormal kidney structure, obesity, high blood pressure, heart and/or cardiovascular disease, older age, and being African-American, Asian-American or Native-American.
Once chronic kidney disease develops, it affects nearly every part of the body.
Potential complications from chronic kidney disease include:
- Bone weakness and fracture
- Central nervous system damage, which can lead to difficulties breathing, changes in personality, and seizures
- Heart and cardiovascular disease
- End-stage kidney disease, requiring either kidney dialysis or transplant
- Immune response decrease, increasing vulnerability to infection
- Retention of fluid, which can lead to swelling in feet, legs and arms, high blood pressure, or fluid buildup in the lungs (called pulmonary edema)
- Hyperkalemia, a sudden rise in blood potassium levels, which can damage the heart’s ability to function and can be life-threatening
- Pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart
- Pregnancy complications
- Sexual problems, including decreased sex drive, reduced fertility or erectile dysfunction
HOW TO PROTECT THE KIDNEYS FROM ALCOHOL’S EFFECTS
The simple solution for protecting kidneys from the damaging effect of long-term alcoholic consumption is to stop drinking. This may not be practical for some moderate drinkers, although heavy drinkers and those who have been diagnosed as alcoholic or alcohol-dependent may be more motivated to change their lifestyle, get professional treatment and learn to live alcohol-free.
Anyone who wants to be as healthy as possible can help prevent the damage alcohol may do over the long-term by cutting back on the amount and frequency of alcohol they consume.
Simply eating a meal before heavy drinking will not exert a protective effect. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption will exact a toll on the body. Avoiding the combination of drugs and alcohol, including prescription medications, is another way to provide some protection for the kidneys due to the one-two punch of these powerful substances.
Those with existing kidney problems, diabetics and other risk factors should be wary of drinking alcohol. Always check with the doctor before deciding that drinking is an acceptable risk. It may not be, particularly for your kidneys.
Alcohol, Health & Research World, “Alcohol’s Impact on Kidney Function.” Retrieved February 15, 2017
Liver Foundation, “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.” Retrieved February 15, 2017
Mayo Clinic, “Chronic kidney disease: Symptoms and causes.” Retrieved February 15, 2017
National Kidney Foundation, A to Z Health Guide: “Alcohol and Your Kidneys.” Retrieved February 15, 2017
National Kidney Foundation, A to Z Health Guide: “Six-Step Guide to Protecting Kidney Health.” Retrieved February 15, 2017
NDT, Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, “Alcohol consumption and 5-year onset of chronic kidney disease: the AusDiab study.” Retrieved February 16, 2017
WebMD, “12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking.” Retrieved February 15, 2017