Kidney Research Since 1999

Vivian Okirie, MD

2018 Doctor of Medicine (M.D. cum laude) procured at Morhouse School of Medicine - Currently a resident doctor at UTHealth in Houston

Feb 11, 2019 6 min read

Is Your Lifestyle Putting you at Risk for Kidney Stones?

kidney stones

Do you regularly exercise? Eat lots of leafy greens? Enjoy delicious grapefruit juice?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you will be shocked to learn that these habits can increase your risk of developing kidney stones. Take into consideration that moderation is always key. So there is no need to live a sedentary life or start consuming a high-fat diet. Let us explain how these healthy and preferred habits impact kidney stone formation.

What are Kidney Stones?

Kidney stones are the result of minerals (oxalate, calcium, urate, cystine, etc.) crystallizing in the urinary tract simply because of accumulation over time. Normally, these minerals are diluted by the kidneys and flushed out in the urine with no harm done to the body. When the kidney cannot dilute these minerals enough, the risk of stone formation increases. Individuals usually are unaware of stones until they experience severe flank pain and/or blood in the urine; these are the most common tell-tale symptoms of a kidney stone.  In terms of demographics, male are 3x more likely to suffer from renal stones than women; sufferers are usually aged 20-50. Lastly, Caucasians are more commonly affected by stones than any other racial group.

Unfortunately, kidney stones occurrences have been on the rise in the United States and Europe with the most likely cause being due to poor dieting and lack of exercise. It can be seen that kidney stone cases increase as obesity increases. But wouldn’t a diet rich in green leafy vegetables and consistent exercise be the solution? Oh wait, we told you that these habits might increase your risk of renal stone formation. Confused yet? Let us explain.

Common Types of Kidney Stones

All kidney stones are not made equal. Some are big. Some are small. And there are all made up of different minerals.

Calcium Stones: These are the most likely culprit with 4 out of 5 kidney stones falling into this category. So what are they made of exactly? Calcium and oxalate are the two components. Oxalate is found in spinaches, potato chips, french fries, butter, beets, and nuts for example.

Uric Acid Stones: A normal byproduct of metabolism, uric acid is always present in the body. However, these stones tend to coincide with specific medical conditions including gout and genetic disorders.  An easy source of uric acid is fructose, which has dominated the world’s diet. It just seems like everything has fructose these days.

Struvite Stones: Struvite stones are almost always associated with recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) and are more commonly seen in women. Unfortunately, these stones tend to increase in size within the kidney itself, often leading to surgical intervention. If the stone is too large, it can result in the kidney needing to be surgically removed.

Cystine Stones: As the least common stone of the kidney stones, cystine stones result from a rare genetic disorder known as cystinuria, which causes your kidneys to excrete an overabundance of amino acids.

How is Your Lifestyle Putting you at Risk?

The most common causes of renal stones are preventable with lifestyle changes. Other factors that play a role such as family history and medical conditions are out of our control.

Dehydration: The most commonly cited causes of kidney stones is dehydration because of a lack of adequate fluid intake. Most individuals can prevent kidney stone formation by simply drinking 8-10 glasses of water a daily (including with meals). This will ensure that your body is hydrated enough to fully dilute minerals in the kidney. Excess consumption of grapefruit juice can increase the risk of forming stones. This is why we suggest drinking mostly water. Also, try to avoid drinking alcohol, which only dehydrates the body.

Water remains extremely important to flush the kidney. When dehydrated, calcium and oxalate crystallize to create calcium oxalate stones. If monitoring your water intake is difficult, start monitoring the color of your urine. When being hydrated properly, the color of your urine should be pale yellow. As it starts to get darker, this should alert you to increase your water intake.

Sugar: Sugar appears to be in everything we consume these days. We already stated that a high sugar diet, especially with fructose, can increase the likelihood of forming kidney stones, but how do we avoid it without having a caveman diet? The biggest word here is moderation! Everything is healthy in moderation. Having limited amounts of sugar is perfectly normal, but it should not contribute more to your diet than fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sugar creates an imbalance in mineral deposits within your body – directly interfering with the absorption of magnesium and calcium in your body. When these get out of whack, you are at a higher risk of developing kidney stones. Alarmingly, children as young as five and six are starting to more regularly develop kidney stones. The culprit? High consumption of sodas! High sugar diets not only increase the risk of renal stones but can also negatively impact the health of your kidney as a whole.

Exercise: The link between excessive exercise and kidney stone development has a catch. It’s not that exercise is harmful to you (it is the complete opposite), but it does cause you to sweat a lot. While sweating, you are losing body water that needs to be replaced with water intake. This especially needs to occur while you are still exercising. If not, the loss of body water (in excess) is what increases your risk of stones. So it is not the exercise that the issue; instead, it is the lack of water replacement that can create kidney stones. As to be expected, people in the south are more prone to forming stones because of higher temperatures- leading to more sweating.

On the other spectrum, people with more sedentary lifestyles tend to release more calcium from their bones into their bloodstream. The excess calcium will upset the already steady balance of calcium in the digestive tract and kidneys, causing more calcium to be filtered by the kidneys. With more available calcium, calcium oxalate stones are likely to develop. So the bottom line is to stay active, exercise regularly, and drink your water.

Magnesium Deficiency: Most people are unaware of the role that magnesium plays in the body. It is responsible for 300+ biochemical reactions and influences stone formation directly and indirectly. It plays a great role in the way minerals get absorbed into our bodies and impacts calcium absorption. Magnesium binds to calcium, making it less available for oxalate. With magnesium deficiency, more calcium is available to bind with oxalate, creating stones as a result.

How can you ensure you are obtaining enough magnesium to avoid these deleterious effects? The answer is in your diet. Consumption of green leafy vegetables like spinach and swiss chard are very high in magnesium. Other foods such as avocados, some beans, and sunflower seeds are great sources of magnesium. But always remember to keep things in moderation. Just as magnesium works wonders to balance out the minerals in our body – excess amounts of it can throw everything out of whack. Calcium and magnesium work together; so if you are supplementing your magnesium, consider combining it with calcium so they can both work for each other.

Calcium Rich Foods:

With calcium oxalate stones being the most common type of kidney stone, it was once thought to avoid calcium; however, we have all learned that this method is only detrimental to individuals. Instead of limiting calcium intake, we recommend ensuring that adequate calcium is being consumed- calcium deficiency causes more harm than good.

You might be asking how calcium in the diet prevents calcium kidney stones. Let us explain it to you. When calcium is present in your diet, it combines with oxalate in the gut in order to get processed by the body. The issue lies when calcium and oxalate combine in your kidney, where it cannot be processed to the same degree as in your gut. This means the calcium oxalate formation is more likely to stay unprocessed and lead to stone formation. Whenever an individual is deficient in calcium, their kidneys will try to compensate by reabsorbing as much calcium as possible. At this point, there is an excess of calcium within the kidney that has the opportunity to bind with oxalate, increasing the likelihood of stone development.

Important to note, do not use calcium supplements to increase your intake of daily calcium. Calcium supplements have actually been found to increase your risk of kidney stones by 20% or more. Eat a diet rich in calcium instead.

Kidney Stone Medical Help – When to Seek It

If you found this article too late – you are already suffering from a kidney stone- it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Medical assistance will not only help in alleviating your pain but also help in passing the stone or determining if other procedures or surgical extraction is necessary.

Keep in mind that those who have already experienced kidney stones have a 50/50 chance of re-occurrence. So follow the tips presented above, stay mindful of a healthy lifestyle, and you may decrease your chances significantly from experiencing this event again.