When many of us think of serious health problems we might think of heart disease or cancer. Others might think of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. One organ, and the diseases associated with that organ, is often overlooked. That organ is the kidney, and the health implications of kidney disease or weak kidneys are more far reaching and more profound than you might otherwise imagine.
About one-in-ten adults have chronic kidney disease, although most do not know it. For people currently aged between thirty and sixty-four approximately fifty percent will get the disease during the course of their life. But these figures, high as they might be, are for Caucasians. People of African descent have a four times higher risk. South Asians living in the United Kingdom have a five times higher risk, and a much higher risk of kidney failure, with Pakistanis having the very highest risk. It’s a real problem and it has consequences far beyond kidney health. Poor kidney health is extremely detrimental to cardiovascular health. There is also a complex interaction between diabetes, high blood pressure, and poorly functioning kidneys, which exacerbates all three conditions, then significantly reduces quality of life and longevity. It’s difficult to get around or to be independent when your kidneys are weakened, your blood pressure and blood sugar is high, and the blood isn’t flowing smoothly through your arteries due to poor vascular health. It’s not too surprising that poor kidney health eventually leads to a decline in cognitive function.
The problem is knowing when you have impaired kidney function. Kidney disease creeps up slowly on people. In the early stages a person is unlikely to feel unwell or show any symptoms. Eventually a person becomes weak, tired, and pale-skinned. Their muscles weaken and a deep fatigue sets in. Then nausea or vomiting begin and there is a loss of appetite. Nerves are affected, and sleep is hard to come by as toxins build up in blood. Then, there is blood in the urine. The kidneys start to fail. Regular dialysis is needed. Finally a transplant, and even then there is no guarantee of normal health.
Dialysis is a long way off for most people and for most will probably never happen. But weakened kidneys will affect many people. The question is: Why is this happening, and why now, especially among Muslims of Indo-Pak origin? The start of an answer to this question is found in supermarket aisles during the month of Ramadan.
A visitor to a British supermarket in a city with a large Muslim population during the month of Ramadan will soon find the “Ramadan Mubarak” aisle. This is a food and drink aisle dedicated to popular Ramadan foods. Senior managers at British supermarkets are not stupid people. They monitor trends and they know what goods turn a profit. They have access to detailed data showing what different genders, age groups, or ethnicities purchase. They know precisely what foods British Muslims buy during the month of Ramadan, and they stock these foods in the “Ramadan Mubarak” shopping aisle. A cursory glance at the foods in this aisle generally reveals the following. Firstly, there is an abundance of super-sized vegetable cooking oil. Secondly, there is an abundance of equally super-sized Coke bottles. Coke, or other carbonated drinks, are the beverage of choice for many during Ramadan. Moreover, this fondness for carbonated drinks is not limited to Ramadan, it’s not just limited to South Asians or Muslims as a whole, it’s a societal problem, and it’s damaging our kidneys.
The problem with carbonated drinks is not just the sugar, the sweeteners, the artificial colours and flavours, or the caffeine. All of these are bad enough. The problem is phosphorous, which is added to these drinks in the form of phosphoric acid. Phosphorus naturally occurs in meats, grains, and dairy, although only in fairly small amounts. Now, food companies are adding it to processed, industrialized foodstuffs to stop mould and to give a tangy flavor. In fact, around forty-four percent of branded, processed food has added phosphorus and the amount of the stuff is not declared in the ingredients. There is no way for the consumer to know how much phosphorous is in any product. Moreover, unlike the phosphorous that occurs naturally in meat and grains, this added phosphorous to industrialized food is much more highly concentrated, and is absorbed quickly and efficiently by the body. While it has been known for decades that people with chronic kidney disease retain phosphorous, it has only recently been discovered that drinking or eating added phosphorus has far-reaching effects upon our health.
When you drink Coke or any carbonated drink, or when you eat industrialized food, your blood levels of phosphorous are immediately raised, much like your blood sugar levels are when you have refined sugar. As levels of phosphorous in your blood rise, hormones are released. These hormones then start a complex biological cascade whereby your arteries start to calcify. As your arteries calcify they begin to stiffen and harden, blood cannot make its way through, an added burden is placed on your heart, eventually you’ll get either heart disease, have a stroke, or have a heart attack. This excess phosphorous doesn’t just affect the arteries leading to the heart and brain. The calcium it produces also microcalcifies the kidney tubules. These tubules are responsible for cleaning your blood by filtering urea, glucose, and any toxins. This microcalcification of the kidney tubules significantly impairs kidney function, leading to chronic kidney disease, and eventually to kidney failure.
This weakening of the kidneys is like a vicious circle. When phosphorous is consumed it stiffens our arteries increasing our risk for cardiovascular disease, but this then impairs kidney function, which, in turn, further increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. Yet the hormones induced by phosphorous do not limit their damage to calcification. Another important hormone is produced called fibroblast growth factor 23. This hormone is toxic to heart cells. It leads to left ventricular hypertrophy, which, in layman’s terms, means it weakens the very chamber of the heart that pumps blood around the body.
Among prominent researchers and clinicians in the field of kidney health there is now universal agreement that phosphorous added to food
is extremely harmful. One of the leading researchers in this field says, "We’re exposing people to risk for decades without doing anything." And this all for our love for a Coke or Rubicon Mango.
Despite this clear interaction between the kidneys and cardiovascular disease perhaps some people aren’t convinced of the importance of kidney health. Perhaps consideration of the relationship between the kidneys and the brain might further focus our attention. When your arteries begin to stiffen due to calcification it doesn’t just lead to heart disease. It eventually leads to dementia. Arteries are the highways and byways for blood to reach our brain, and, if our vascular health is not good, our cognitive function will decline, we will get dementia as we age. But poor kidney function leads to impaired cognitive function regardless of how good our arteries are. We now have compelling evidence that poor kidney function impairs working memory, and if our working memory is weak then we cannot shift short-term memories into long-term memories while we sleep. The lead authors of a recent major Dutch study succinctly stated: "A damaged kidney equals a damaged brain."
The relationship between the kidney and the brain is not just down to good vascular health. Brain cells consume around twenty-five percent of the body’s total energy, producing inordinate amounts of toxic protein wastes and biological debris. Every single day the brain needs to eliminate about seven grams of worn-out proteins. Over the course of a year this debris weighs three pounds, the weight of the brain itself, and this debris has to go somewhere. If it’s not flushed out, or if it’s insufficiently flushed out, then protein clumps start to develop on the brain, such as beta- amyloid plaques, and these lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. How the brain eliminates these wastes has puzzled neuroscientists for years. That was until last year when a whole new undiscovered system was found in the body. This system is called the glymphatic system. During sleep, fluids exit the brain in the tiny space that surrounds veins leading from the brain. These small spaces merge into larger veins in the neck, then into the lymph system, then in the blood. These fluids exiting the brain in these small spaces during sleep carry with them the excess proteins and debris, removing them safely from the brain. Once in the blood they are filtered by that important organ, the kidneys, then safely eliminated from the body. Two key findings emerge from this research. The first is that this process only happens during deep sleep. If you don’t sleep enough, the proteins will build up in the brain, and you will be at a much higher risk of cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. The second is that if your kidneys are weak you will not filter these proteins and debris out of your body.
In the prestigious journal Neurology, prominent neurologists admit they are still trying to work out this convoluted relationship between the kidneys and the brain. Meanwhile, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine figured out the relationship several thousand years ago. Go to any good traditional Chinese doctor with cognitive, memory, or brain problems, and, after checking your kidney pulse and taking your history, they will almost certainly tell you that you have weak kidney energy. They have known for many centuries that weak kidney energy necessarily means a weak brain. The teachings of traditional Chinese medicine on the kidneys provide further compelling reasons why kidney health is so important.
In traditional Chinese medicine the kidneys are the seat of health. They contain the primordial energy that a person inherits from their mother and father. Then, during the course of their life, a person either acquires, maintains, or loses this vital energy. This vital energy is called qi. It is plain for all to see that a child has a lot of vital energy, starts to lose it during their teenage years, then, by old age, much of our vital energy has depleted. This vital energy, stored in the kidneys, and circulated around the body, is lost by eating poor-quality food or overeating, breathing in bad air, living in polluted areas, through negative emotions, and excessive, illicit sexual interaction. Disordered societies and poorly functioning families, neighborhoods, or communities also exhaust our vital energy. There is another aspect to modern life that further saps our vital energy. Namely, external stimuli, which are a key part of an aspirational twenty- first-century lifestyle, and include the always on, always connected, stimulated, news-seeking, stressed, money-chasing, urban life that many are drawn to. It is an addictive, exciting lifestyle that emphasizes possessions and experiences. It is sought through work, social company, shopping, eating, phones, computers, or adrenaline-infused activities. Often this lifestyle is seen as a badge of success.
This lifestyle is just about bearable while a person is in their twenties. However, as life progresses, many will recognise the symptoms of a depletion of vital kidney energy or qi. These symptoms include stress, a lack of energy, poor willpower, depression, a deep fatigue, anger, poor concentration, and a weak memory. There is also a propensity to seek more monied, addictive activities, whether through eating, buying or desiring more possessions, or more meaningless, empty experiences. Some or all of these symptoms are recognisable to many people living in our time. As life progresses our vital energy then becomes disordered, dysfunctional, and stagnated. We have low energy, then get chronic or acute illnesses. Eventually, if we refuse to get off the treadmill of excessive work, stress, or if we don’t stop exposing our mind and heart to uncurbed stimuli, we will get worn out or burnt out, our body and mind will shut down, forcing us to get off this treadmill. The extreme passions and desires with which we interact with the world, and the extreme sensory, intellectual, or even sexual experiences that dominate contemporary society make us lose our primordial qi. As it declines we get sick from severe deficiency of qi as our kidney energy dissipates.
It is from traditional Chinese medicine that we get the first intimations about how to preserve our kidneys. This means junking all the usual suspects that we’ve mentioned many times before. It means not being always connected to a device. It means giving the constant news updates or constant messages we receive a miss. It means that socializing is necessary but it should not be stressful or emotionally draining. In short, the hyper-connected, hyper-work, always on, always moving society we live in, with its emphasis on the intellect, needs to play less of a role in our lives, or eventually the rug will be pulled out from under us and we will burn out. Then, only a very skilled healer can help.
Diet and exercise are also going to play a crucial role. The carbonated, fizzy drinks, the sodas have to cease in order to stop phosphorous entering our bloodstream. How many a person lost weight, rectified their diet, only to continue with drinking diet or zero-calorie carbonated drinks, such as diet Coke, which continued to pump phosphorous into their body, weakening their kidneys, messing with their hormones, damaging their arteries, and eventually putting them at risk of heart disease? Similarly, industrialized, processed food, as well as junk food and take out food, should play little role in our life. The other essential dietary modifications are to reduce salt and meat intake, replacing them with a wide range of vegetables, dairy produce, and some fruits, in order to lower blood pressure. People living in the West, whose ancestors hail from the Indian sub-continent, have a real problem with excessive meat and salt consumption, a paltry amount of vegetables, and high blood pressure. Add this lifestyle to an inherent ethnic risk for kidney disease and you have a perfect storm for chronic, acute, or even life-threatening illnesses due to the torrent of abuse directed towards the kidneys.
We also need to say a word about exercise. People might be under the mistaken impression that what we put in our mouths is more important than what we do with our body. To be sure, what we eat is of the highest importance. However, if food is the Queen of Health, then exercise is the King. You have to exercise, you must do several times a week, and you must do so in an intelligent manner. What type of exercise you do is entirely your choice, although we have a fondness for kettlebells. But exercise you must, and it should not be excessively intense, as exercising all out, full tilt, all of the time also strains the kidneys. Exercise should have a strength training component to build muscle for men and women, there must be a moderate cardio component, and there should be occasional, brief periods of higher intensity exercise, perhaps once a week. This is why exercising with kettlebells, especially the kettlebell swing and the Turkish get-up, are such an excellent form of training. These two kettlebell exercises each done twice a week over four days will give you most of the training you need. You need to get it going.
Finally, prayer and dhikr are absolutely crucial. These are the times of the day when you can abstain from all external stimuli and focus solely on your relationship with your Lord. This break from the hustle and bustle of daily life, wherein we focus upon our relationship with Allah Most High with full presence of heart, also protects our kidney energy.
Therefore, in the current age, while we rightly fuss about our heart, cancer, or our brain, we forget about that crucial organ, the kidneys, which, as the Chinese pointed out thousands of years ago, is the seat or very foundation of our health. Protecting them is of the utmost importance.