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Kidney Month: Alcohol disrupts kidney function, can lead to kidney failure

More than 26 million Americans may unknowingly have kidney disorders and not realize how their next drink complicates the problem.
More than 26 million Americans may unknowingly have kidney disorders and not realize how their next drink complicates the problem.
Cooldesign, Free Digital Photos

A single drink affects the normal function of a person's kidneys in a chain of events that begins with alcohol displacing water in the body. March is National Kidney Month, and the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) reports that alcohol use – from a single binge to constant use with the disease of alcoholism – is one of the more complex ways kidneys are damaged from the body's delicate balance of water.

Alcohol alters the filtering ability of the kidneys. The organs filter about 200 quarts (189 liters) of blood daily. The body gets rid of cellular waste through them, ultimately in urine, and the organs also regulate the concentrations of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and phosphate.

Sodium and potassium are needed within the body to maintain water concentrations within the cells. Magnesium is used for enzyme activity. Chloride is needed for nerves. Phosphate ions help to maintain a stable pH and sugar in the blood. All are thrown into imbalance with a single drink. Ironically, low potassium increases thirst... and what beverage is nearby? More alcohol.

Even though alcohol displaces water, the drug at the same time signals the brain to stop releasing a certain hormone (vasopressin or ADH) which in turn makes a person urinate more, getting rid of the water.

Urination can be induced 20 minutes after a person consumes alcohol, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) publication on kidney damage and alcohol, More water leaving the body affects all the concentrations of the chemicals ions in the body. Research indicates that older people overcome this suppression of ADH more quickly than younger people do. So younger drinkers can lose more water in their urine than older people do.

The kind of alcohol consumed can either increase or decrease the concentrations of nutrients in the blood stream. When a person drinks beer, large amounts of water enter the body. That lowers the nutrient concentration. When a person drinks hard alcohol, it has less water and has a more severe drying effect and the nutrient concentrations can increase. This drying effect also can harm the normal function of cells and other organs.

Alcohol impacts muscle cells, too, causing them to release phosphate.

According to the NKF, there are more than 26 million Americans who already have kidney disease, and most don’t know it because there are often no symptoms until the disease has progressed. Kidney disease is the 9th leading cause of death in the country. (Alcohol is the third leading cause of death, see related article.) Today there are more than 95,000 people waiting for kidney transplants and more than 590,000 people have diagnosed kidney failure in the U.S.

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