A reader I will call Maria recently called and asked me to write about kidney stones. I can’t speak from experience (thankfully) but I’m told passing a kidney stone is worse than giving birth. At least you have a sweet baby after giving birth but all you get after passing a kidney stone is a rock.
Maria has had stones before and previous big stones have been crushed (broken up into small pieces with shock waves). Now her doctor says she needs a stent, a small tube placed in the ureter which is the path between the kidney and the bladder through which urine moves. The purpose of a stent is to prevent a stone from blocking the path. She’s worried about that stent.
What we don’t know for sure is the kind (mineral makeup) of the stones she has. This could turn out to be kinda important. As an aside Maria also has osteoarthritis which I suspect might be associated with her kidney stones.
It seems that once you have a kidney stone you are likely to have more. That makes sense because whatever is causing the stones isn’t usually corrected. Prevention is the key.
Believe it or not, your digestive system is actually “outside” your body, preventing bad stuff from getting inside. On the other hand, the kidneys are the waste treatment station “inside” your body, deciding what is “bad” and what is “too much”.
The kidneys send the good stuff on its way in the blood and wash out the bad stuff in urine. Kidney stones develop when crystals separate from liquid in the urine and form a hard mass.
There are essentially four different types of kidney stones, each containing specific chemical and mineral combinations. Two possibilities include struvite stones, which are caused by urinary tract infection, and cystine stones, which are the result of a rare inherited genetic condition. Neither of these seems likely for Maria.
The other two possibilities are calcium based and uric acid based stones.
Uric acid is created by your body in breaking down (metabolizing) purines that are in almost all food, meat or plants. It’s a balance thing. The beneficial effects of uric acid are its antioxidant, neuroprotective (brain) and immune/inflammatory action. Too much is bad and apparently too little can also be bad.
The big sources of food purines are some meats and seafood, fructose in sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and alcohol. Need I mention that the bulk of sugar and fructose is in commercially processed foods?
Uric acid can build up in the bloodstream and be deposited as needle shaped crystals that build up in the joints. That build up is called Gout. Ouch! And the excess acid in kidneys then contributes to kidney stones.
Gout is not the usual arthritis. Instead gout tends to be flairs, severe inflammation and pain that can show up overnight. Maria ‘s doctor says she has chronic osteoarthritis. I conclude from this that her stones are likely calcium based.
Calcium/Oxalate Based Kidney Stones
The vast majorities of kidney stones are calcium crystallized with oxalate. They occur when the ph (acid level) of the urine is low. Your body has a system for keeping the ph (acid) level of your body correct. Minerals calcium and magnesium along with vitamins D and K2 are major players in that system. The blog on my website with the same title as this article contains details and links explaining how this all works.
For our purposes here I quote from the Natural Kidney Foundation:
“Oxalates are a natural substance in many foods. They bind to calcium during digestion in the stomach and intestines and leave the body in stool. Oxalate that is not bound to calcium travels as a waste product from the blood to the kidneys where it leaves the body in the urine. There are many different types of kidney stones, but 8 out of 10 stones are calcium oxalate stones. If there is too much oxalate and too little liquid in the urine, calcium oxalate fragments create (crystals). As the crystals begin to increase in number, they stick to one another to form a larger crystal known as a kidney stone.”
In other words, when there is enough calcium in the diet oxalates bind to the calcium in the digestive system and leave before they ever hit the blood stream. If that doesn’t happen, the oxalates make their way into the blood stream, become waste, travel to the kidneys, and are thus available for kidney stones. Note the importance of enough liquid in preventing kidney stone formation
Prevention and Treatment of Calcium/Oxalate Kidney Stones
Prevention and treatment come down on the side of normalizing conditions in your body. Here are key steps to accomplish that.
Liquids – Drink enough water to keep your urine pale yellow. Enough fluid allows tiny stones to be washed out without pain.
Calcium and Oxalate - There should be enough calcium in your diet to bind oxalates and prevent entry into the blood stream. The best sources of calcium are dairy. Napa cabbage and other members of the kale family have the high calcium content of vegetables (and the least oxalate).
A lot of press is attached to the wonders of spinach, almonds, and soy. Substituting almond and soy “milk” for dairy seems to be popular. Are you ready for this? All nuts, especially almonds, and all things soy are in the highest range of oxalate levels. Spinach is actually at the top of the list.
Potatoes are a also high in oxalates so if your idea of a vegetable is potatoes you may be contributing to your stones.
Magnesium/Vitamin D/Vitamin K2 – A commercially processed food diet (found in the center aisles of the grocery store) is nutrient deficient in every way. Of particular importance to kidney stones is deficiency in magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K2. All whole vegetables and even milk contain magnesium. The best sources of K2 are meats and fermented foods.
Vitamin D is crucial and best created in your body by some exposure to midday sunlight. In a pinch, supplement.
The Bottom Line
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (Who said that, anyway?) But the cure will be attached to the same steps. Get diet straightened out, substituting nutrient dense whole vegetables and meat/dairy for nutrient deficient processed foods. Drink plenty of water (not coke, juice, etc.).
You may well have your stones well established and will have to let the doctor save you. But start now preventing new, painful formations. I suspect you will be surprised how arthritis improves.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. All proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry.